State Versus Society: the problem of fighting among the people




(Originally published in Hilal Magazine March 2014 issue.

Even as the internal security threat to Pakistan increases, the country continues to debate whether the threat is to be countered through dialoguing with the adversary or fighting him. Leaving aside the fact that a complex conflict situation cannot be reduced to binaries, there are two broad reasons for this. One, despite hundreds of military operations, big and small, in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, the state has not been able to blunt the asymmetric advantage of the groups fighting it. Two, there is still no consensus on who the enemy is, what are his objectives and why is he perpetrating and perpetuating violence.

The state’s inability to degrade the enemy’s capacity means that while military operations have dominated physical space in FATA, with the exception of North Waziristan, they have mostly failed to stop urban terrorism. People have seen bodies piling up over the years and that has had a psychological impact. Despite successes and a heavy price paid by the state, the enemy remains entrenched and continues to strengthen himself by using a combination of ideology and coercion.

This instills fear and uncertainty among the people. The terrorist/insurgent reverses, for his success, Sun Tzu’s dictum that a war should not be protracted. His success depends on prolonging the conflict. For the state, success lies in the exact opposite, in winning as quickly as possible. And winning in an irregular war means making the insurgent/terrorist irrelevant to the population in which he operates. That’s the strategy of dislocation: dislocate the enemy from the context that strengthens him.

The second aspect is the lack of consensus on who are the groups the state is fighting. This is begotten of multiple factors. Beginning with the eighties, the state started using jihad as a policy tool. In Afghanistan it was helped by the ‘free world’ led by the United States. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought in jihadis from around the world. They waged the war against Soviet troops in collaboration with the local jihadis. This policy might have allowed the state plausible deniability and helped the army avoid a direct confrontation with potential external enemies, but it also resulted in creating power centres within the state that have begun to challenge the state’s writ. Over the years they have also come to lay claim to the state itself, citing their Islamic credentials and declaring the state itself un-Islamic.

But this employment was the second stage. Even as jihadis were arriving from abroad, at home, General Zia-ul Haq was embarked on making this country more Islamic. The groups the state is fighting now are birthed by a mindset the state itself has created and nourished over a long period of time. These groups always had a supra-state ideology but have now turned on the state post-9/11. They accuse the state of making an about-face and becoming involved in a US-led war in Afghanistan. The problem of Zia’s Islamisation process, however, goes beyond the groups fighting the state. Thousands more in the society not only sympathise with them but are also prepared to join them. The societal confusion is, therefore, not just a consequence of fear and uncertainty. Ideology also plays an important role in this drama.

Put another way, while the state has turned around, the society has not. The state is now fighting sections of its own society which have, over decades, developed an extremist, supra-state mindset. This is what makes employing the strategy of dislocation so difficult. It also helps cadres from these groups to merge in the population and mount attacks on the security forces and soft targets in the urban centres with relative ease.

This is not all, though. Even those who do not subscribe to these groups’ violent methods argue that the war is reactive rather than ideological. One can cite the view of certain political elements as an example of this argument. These political parties and their voters think that the current violence is a result of the state’s decision to embroil itself in a war waged by the United States.

All these arguments employ selective facts of course and none gives the full picture. Yet, that is a problem any state will face when locked in a conflict that seems unending. This is not peculiar to Pakistan. What is, however, specific to Pakistan are two things: the anti-Americanism and the acceptance by most people, even those against violence, that these groups are waging a reactive war.

The implied argument is that if Pakistan gets out of the US war, these groups will lay down arms and everything will be back to normal. This is extremely naïve and fails to understand the genesis and purport of this insurgency/terrorism. Nonetheless, this public perception makes fighting the war that much more difficult.

Given all these factors, how should the state go about it?

Pakistan’s counterinsurgency effort, or what can more appropriately be called counterterrorism military operations (CT Mil Ops), can be put in three phases: 2004-08, 2008-13 and 2014 onwards. In the first phase, while deployment continued to increase, operations were conducted without much emphasis on capturing and holding ground. This strategy, which can be called the Musharraf strategy, notched some tactical successes but the operations didn’t add up to any strategic mosaic. Troops were inducted into FATA, mostly in South Waziristan initially, without any pre-induction training and they fought a war they were ill-trained and ill-equipped to fight. The army suffered losses and also in the initial phases. The main objective of these ops – extraction ops, commando raids, mop ups — was nothing more to these ops than capturing Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban commanders and ensuring that no one crossed over into Afghanistan from the eastern side.

While many AQ and Taliban commanders were captured or killed, the cost of the ops continued to increase in men and material and the insurgency spread to other agencies. There was no counter narrative and by the end of 2008, large physical spaces in FATA had come under the control of Taliban groups. By early 2007, Musharraf had also become politically weak and controversial and the entire policy was questioned on the basis of legitimacy. Musharraf’s question of legitimacy now also hung over the legitimacy of the war effort itself.  After the Lal Masjid operation, which came too late and was poorly conducted, the reprisal attacks against hard and soft targets increased manifold. That is another episode which, those arguing in favour of talks, use to counter the argument for using force or the threat of its use.

With Musharraf out of the picture as army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani took over. Kayani wanted to get the army out of the civilian sphere and to refocus energies on tackling the problem in FATA. He introduced the concept of Counter-Terrorism Centres which also imparted pre-induction training. All units deployed to FATA were to go through the 4- to 6-week PIT to ensure better performance and to bring down the number of casualties. The doctrine shifted from targeted operations to capturing and holding ground. The army also developed better coordination with the air force for this purpose. [NB: How effective the air operations have been is a matter of debate and to my knowledge no external study has been done in this regard. A study done by Benjamin Lambeth for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Indian use of air force in the Kargil War argues that given the terrain, altitude and other factors, aerial platforms were not very effective even when the IAF gradually developed better strategies.]

Kayani understood that successful conduct of this war required a counter narrative. Public buy-in became the buzzword in all army briefings. Further, Kayani introduced the concept of ‘Clear, Hold, Build, Transfer’, meaning recapturing territory held by insurgent groups, holding it, building institutions and infrastructure and transferring authority to the civilian administration.

A good concept, its ‘transfer’ stage has been problematic even in Malakand. In FATA, the success of hold, build and transfer stages varies from one to another agency. Similarly, internal displacement of populations remains a problem. Despite a full-scale military operation in the Mehsud triangle in 2009, the population remains displaced even after six years. The same is true for other agencies.

But the most effective strategy adopted by the insurgent/terrorist groups has been attacks in the urban centres. Neutralising and pre-empting urban terrorism is the job of police forces, what is known as counterterrorism police operations (CT Police Ops). That area has been the weakest. No serious effort has been made to make the police effective and the efforts that have been made were and are grounded in a flawed concept of CT. Take one example: every time there is talk of training the police for CT, the civilian governments turn towards the army. The pattern is familiar: get Special Service Group (SSG) personnel to train the police; get more SMGs for the police units, more Glock pistols et cetera. No one has realised so far that the army cannot train the police, that militarising the police will not make it an effective CT force, that effective CT ops and effective policing are two sides of the same coin. Finally, that while actual fighting will be done by specialised police sub-units that must be highly trained in urban combat, the work of tracking down the terrorist cells is the job of experts that do not need commando training or any weapons.

In a way, CT can be reduced to two main ingredients: tracking money and tracking communication. Both these activities require financial experts, lawyers, communications specialists, forensic experts, investigators etc. A commando sub-unit going out in the field is the tail-end of a long process that requires expertise of different kinds, not the militarised, useless police units we currently have.

This has to be supplemented with improving the police’s capacity for its day-to-day functions. No CT effort can succeed unless the police can perform its routine functions effectively. One can say much more on the issue, detailing its technicalities, but the point is simple: one, so far no government has shown to have a clear understanding of what CT Police Ops really mean; two, CT Mil Ops can never be fully effective until the state improves its capacity to neutralise the threat in the urban centres. To put it another way, CT Mil Ops must be supplemented by CT Police Ops and vice versa.

This is akin to double envelopment or, more aptly, can be described in terms of a strategy that relies on multiple thrusts and a plan that, using surprise and high mobility, achieves initiative and throws the enemy off balance. Do the unpredictable. So far, we have done the predictable and the enemy has been ahead of us all along.

That also brings us to the third phase – 2014 onwards. There has been an interesting development under the new army chief, General Raheel Sharif. Operating within the constraints placed on him by a society politically and socially divisive on the issue of whether to fight or not, he seems to have gone for what looks like the American strategy of using force in a particular area, combining actionable intelligence with air strikes.

The idea appears to eschew the strategy of a surge as a precursor to a sweeping operation and instead relies on degrading the leadership at various levels of command. In some cases, airstrikes could also be supplemented with selective hits through small-unit ground ops, including taking out Taliban commanders. On the plus side, this approach takes care of the problem of population displacements which creates its own political, social, psychological and logistical complications. On the minus side it increases the risk of collateral damage if the strikes are not precise, despite being accurate.

The success of an airstrike depends as much on the integrity of intelligence as on the ability of the pilot to engage the target. And while accuracy depends on the pilot’s ability to destroy a target on the ground, the integrity of intelligence which combines the elements of C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) decides if the strike was precise. The difference between accuracy and precision is therefore important. A sniper can accurately take out a target but if the target identification is wrong, the shot is not precise and the sniper has ended up accurately taking out a wrong target.

For now it is unclear whether the current strategy is being used to make space for talking to the groups from a position of strength or whether this will become the new doctrine. Some minuses must, however, be put on the table if this were to become the preferred option. Taking out targets from the air, or even through small-unit ground operations, is at best tactical unless it can begin to degrade the capacity of the groups to mount reprisal attacks in the urban centres or force them to talk more meaningfully and on the terms dictated by the state. This should be clear from tactically effective night raids conducted by the Americans in Afghanistan and also drone strikes. Neither has helped the Americans in defeating the Taliban groups strategically.

Yet another problem has to do with the point raised earlier apropos of the use of air force. While high-speed fighter jets can take out infrastructure and compounds on the ground, they cannot be very useful against a dispersed enemy or even defences and hideouts in the mountains. Jet fighters are not only very expensive in terms of the cost per flight hour, as opposed to combat drones, but do not have the luxury of loiter time like the drones. This is one reason helicopter gunships have been relatively more useful when employed properly, though that has not always been the case. Given these and other reasons, which are outside the scope of this article, it is important to analyse how effective the aerial platforms have been. Recent employment of more advanced drones for ISR purposes is, however, likely to improve the precision of aerial strikes. Emerging evidence from communication intercepts in the wake of strikes in North and South Waziristan, as also in Tirah in the Khyber Agency, indicates that the military’s capacity for precision aerial strikes has improved. 

The Centre of Gravity (CoG) in any such conflict is the people. The use of force, therefore, must be supported by a narrative if people are to be convinced by the state of its narrative. As Capt. Emile Simpson of the 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Regiment writes in one of the best books to come out recently on war theory, 21st century combat is about politics. Simpson argues that any “use of the armed force that directly seeks political, as opposed to specifically military, outcomes … lies beyond the scope of war in its traditional paradigm”.

Simpson realises that irregular war or what General Rupert Smith called fighting among the people, is not a polarised contest between two sides. This is how he puts it: “Strategic confusion can result when conflicts characterised by competition between many actors in a fragmented political environment are shoehorned into a traditional concept of war, with its two polarised sides. This fragmented competition may involve organised violence on a large scale, but is fundamentally different from war in the traditional sense: in many contemporary conflicts, armed force seeks to have a direct political effect on audiences rather than setting condition for a political solution through military effect against the enemy.”

The effect of any new doctrine has, therefore, to be seen not just on the enemy but on multiple audiences. That is what makes this kind of conflict so complex. Additionally, we have to see how the enemy will react to a particular strategy. As Clausewitz assessed so incisively, the application of force on an animate object is very different because there are only finite ways in which we can judge how the enemy will react to the application of force. Military history has proven time and time again that the enemy generally has a bad habit of reacting in ways that cannot be entirely predicted. Napoleon learnt this twice, once in Spain and then on his march back from Moscow.

Simpson has a vignette in his book which is instructive: “In April 1975 in Hanoi, a week before the fall of Saigon, Colonel Harry Summers of the US Army told his North Vietnamese counterpart Colonel Tu, ‘You never beat us on the battlefield’, to which Tu replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant’.”

This is not to say that force must never be applied or that a state must feel hamstrung and go into inertia. But these thoughts must inform the formulation of a national security strategy and its sub-sets of a national military and operational strategy. The other lesson in this is that CT Mil Ops are just one end of this effort. The war requires, at the other end, equally effective CT Police Ops.

The third most important aspect is the narrative: how does the state engage the audience. This is crucial because the insurgent/terrorist groups are not just using violence; they are also engaging the same audience. It is psy war and it determines and calculates success differently from what happens on the field. The fourth element relates to understanding the fact that the state has to use a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the threat. For instance, while force can be used directly in several ways, it can be supplemented by attacking the funds and other supplies of the enemy. Money, weapons, acquisition of explosives and ammo, vehicles and other materials require resources and supply chains. This is the oxygen that keeps the enemy going. To de-oxygenate the enemy, it is crucial to deny him these resources. Just like own forces have to replenish, the enemy also faces wear and tear of equipment. Its fighters have to rest and retrofit; it has to take care of its wounded. He must be hit at these weak spots. Putting pressure on his logistics is, therefore, vital. Doing so requires outstanding intelligence work supplemented with pro-active ops.

Finally, the people themselves have to understand the nature of the threat. The security forces can only do this much and no more. To cite one example of what this means, I quote here from what I wrote for Al-Jazeera English in July 2013 after the draft of the Abbottabad Commission Report (ACR) was leaked to that channel:

“The ACR, in trying to connect the dots, comes up with a very important observation: an effective security policy, while improving the capacity of the police, must go beyond a narrow definition of security and, by implication, a CT strategy.

“Let’s take the bin Laden case to see the various stages where his presence could have been detected. The land for his compound in Abbottabad was purchased through a bogus identity card. This means that Ibrahim, one of the Kuwaiti brothers who bought the land, managed to stay outside Pakistan’s digital database and by doing that remained untraceable. The building plan for the house was approved illegally and Ibrahim avoided paying the property tax for the entire duration that bin Laden lived in that house. The essential point in this story is that Ibrahim managed to take care of basic logistics, undetected, through illegal dealings with functionaries of the State.

“Now turn this around. Imagine that Ibrahim could not secure the land the way he did. Imagine also that his attempt to purchase the land illegally had him caught at that stage. Suppose that he had managed to cross the first hurdle. The next snag would have been to get the building plan approved. Let’s assume that he had to submit a plan according to the requirements. If he were to then construct the house in violation of the original plan, he could be caught doing so by the inspectors who are supposed to inspect the site during the various phases of construction. One can go on.

“None of this happened, of course. From the first person who got his palms greased to subsequent stages involving other functionaries, everyone got his share and helped Ibrahim and his master stay below the radar. None of these functionaries was performing the hard-security job and yet, as should be evident, every one of them was essential to detecting the presence of a wanted man.”

There are ways in which this can be corrected, not entirely but to a large extent. What is important to note is that in formulating strategies, we must appreciate the situation rather than situating the appreciation. And appreciating the situation will tell us that we need to evolve multiple strategies that address the problem in the short- to medium- and the long-term.

The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1997) and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. (2002-03). He is currently Editor, National Security Affairs, at Capital TV and contributes to several publications. This article was published in Hilal Magazine’s March 2014 issue in the section titled ‘Serious Notes’.


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