Two months ago, the Taliban were 60 miles from the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Four weeks later, the Pakistani military, using helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and special forces, destroyed Taliban strongholds, pushing them north -- and nearly three million refugees south -- out of the Swat Valley. Behind the operation's success lies a new hybrid counterinsurgency strategy that is emerging in Pakistan -- the strengths and weaknesses of which will be crucial for both Islamabad and Washington over the long term.
The new approach emerged from dissatisfaction with the Pakistani army's previous half-hearted struggles against the Taliban. Up through the summer of 2008, officers had been relying on the military's typical strategy of "out-terrorizing the terrorist," but the model was flawed. The army would do an excellent job of clearing Taliban-held areas but was reluctant to maintain a presence in them afterward. Generally, it preferred to pull back to its bases and outsource post-conflict security to inept local police and politicians. But resident forces were typically unable to provide security, and the government would often negotiate with the local Taliban, granting them asylum and allowing them to return.
This usually ignited a vicious cycle of blow up, patch up, and blow up. The worst part of the cyclical violence, according to a senior army official, was "the corrosion of troop morale," especially when officers were referred to as "America's mercenaries." Junior officers were suffering from battle fatigue, unwilling to continue fighting an unpopular war against their own people with no conclusive victory.
In the fall, Major General Tariq Khan, at the time commanding a squadron of the Pakistani army's paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps, realized that his troops needed to radically change tactics. With that in mind, he launched Operation Shirdil (Lion Heart) in Bajaur, a tribal area that abuts Afghanistan and was a hub of the Taliban. With the aid of junior officers, he shifted from clearing operations to population security. He ordered troops to patrol the streets and worked with tribal lashkars (militias) and jirgas (councils) to identify and capture irreconcilable Taliban. Most importantly, he worked to build troop morale and encourage camaraderie between Punjabi officers and Pashtun soldiers. What might be called the Bajaur Experiment was a success; at the same time the Pakistani government and military were signing a peace deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley, top Taliban commanders surrendered unconditionally to the Frontier Corps in Bajaur.
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