Courtesy Reuters

Lions and Jackals

Pakistan’s Emerging Counterinsurgency Strategy

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.

But while the Bajaur Experiment was clearly effective against the Taliban and bolstered troop morale, questions remained about its sustainability and replicability. On one hand, Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, had already initiated in 2008 a decisive shift toward this kind of counterinsurgency against domestic extremists in arms procurement and military curriculum. But on the other, the top-down approach was slow and was halted by bickering among a dysfunctional Defense Ministry, a turf-conscious Interior Ministry, and ineffective parliamentary committees for defense and national security. And in practice, Central Command still faced a lack of adequate training and equipment for troops. Further, it remained unwilling to conduct a domestically unpopular counterinsurgency program against Pakistanis and sever ties with anti-India Taliban in Afghanistan.

This would change in April, when the Taliban started to surge outward from Swat Valley toward the capital. The government -- confronted with the Taliban onslaught and international pressure -- managed to build a broad political consensus for counterinsurgency. Bolstered by popular support for the war -- a recent poll by World Public Opinion put it at 81 percent -- the military was finally willing to identify the Taliban as the biggest existential threat to Pakistan. Soon, the army kicked off a 150,000-troop campaign in the tribal badlands, of which 30,000 troops were dedicated to the Swat and Malakand areas. The high-spirited Bajaur veterans were ready to share their experiences with junior officers and asked to become part of the decision-making process. With that, a counterinsurgency strategy based on the Bajaur Experiment began to spread from the bottom up.

As in Bajaur, officers decided to execute a presence-oriented approach: troops cleared areas; established small bases inside populated areas, instead of drawing back to large bases; enforced curfews; and aided fledgling local governments. Unlike past operations, where the military failed to block escape routes during actions on the Taliban's mountain hideouts, this time they applied a "corner, choke, and contain" strategy. Junior officers also built better local intelligence networks and were careful to evacuate refugees before using heavy artillery against Taliban strongholds. Due to increasing anti-Taliban sentiment and a more positive and lasting military presence on the ground, tribal lashkars were willing to help.

Encouragingly, the culture of the military was also changing. Frontier Corps officers had often been considered incompetent and compromised because of their ethnic links to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. But now Punjabi junior officers followed Khan's lead and began reaching out to Pashtun soldiers to foster a sense of trust and goodwill. With public support for their campaign, a new presence-oriented strategy, and a more inclusive military culture that valued innovation and dissent, troop morale was on the rise and victory followed.   

Although this emerging strategy is a welcome change from the past, it is anything but complete. Without continued support from Central Command and the Pakistani people, who will be watching the fate of the three million refugees who fled Swat, this offshoot of the Bajaur Experiment will fail. Successful tactics championed by individual officers lack consistency and can go only so far. A sweeping doctrinal shift in intelligence collection and civil-military coordination is needed to institutionalize the Bajaur Experiment's innovations. What's more, the military lacks many of the material resources necessary to sustain this type of counterinsurgency and will need international support.

The United States is in a key position to help. Pakistani military officers often note the need for helicopters, gunships, and armored vehicles. One major general explained: "We have 12 operational helicopters [four more were recently added]. One hour of flying requires three hours of maintenance." He continued, observing that the "U.S. Army is flying more than 100 in Afghanistan." But Pentagon officials have been reluctant to provide the army with machinery, pointing to past financial foul play and Pakistan's long history of tolerating -- and, worse, abetting -- Taliban attacks on U.S. troops.

However, the military's emerging counterinsurgency model, which places the Taliban at the top of Pakistan's threat assessment, should shift U.S. perceptions. Additionally, it will be in the United States' interest to capitalize on Pakistan's new model as it braces for Afghan elections and a major U.S. troop surge there this winter. It is likely that turmoil after the election and increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan will push the Taliban east into Pakistan. Only with long-term U.S. support will Pakistan's counterinsurgency strategy be able to stabilize the region.

The United States can start by helping to fill gaps in training, research, and equipment. The U.S. military should continue to lead training programs and should help Pakistan build a Fort Leavenworth-type military research and lessons-learned institution to expand the Bajaur Experiment. A joint U.S.-Pakistani process should be developed to share best practices across the Afghan-Pakistani border. U.S. aid should be balanced between training and equipment; to fight this kind of counterinsurgency, the Pakistani military most needs helicopter gunships and armored vehicles.

Finally, the United States should aid Islamabad in providing relief to the three million Swat refugees and developing a robust strategic communications campaign. These efforts will ensure continued public support, which will sustain the Bajaur Experiment's improvements to the military's strategy and culture. A retired Pakistani general who commanded troops in an earlier operation summarized the new Pakistani military this way: "They were soldiers fighting their people. Now they are lions fighting jackals." The lions remain Pakistan's one hope for victory.

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