Red, White and Black

Dealing with the Taliban Insurgency
27 August, 2008, 8:41 am
Filed under: Pakistan, Politics | Tags: , , , , , ,

In the midst of the political circus of Pakistan, the war in our backyard continues to be ignored.  Violence has been raging in the tribal areas and Swat valley. Violence that is not just related to the war on terror and the Taliban, but adding to the delectable mix is renewed sectarian strife in Kurram Agency. And when the state and the militants battle it out, the ultimate sufferers are ordinary people – whether they are victims of fateful suicide bombs or refugees in their own country. The recent military offensive in Bajur created over 400,000 IDPs. The state moved in to provide relief and support to the dispossessed only as an afterthought. It is from amongst theses IDPs that the Taliban find their potential recruits.

Basic Truths

And how is the Pakistani government dealing with the situation? It is not. The Pakistani state doesn’t have a cohesive policy on the issue and that is taking its toll. Let’s reassess some basic truths of the situation before we move on.

T#1: The ultimate demands of the Taliban and their ilk cannot be met by the state of Pakistan. The Taliban rally around two major causes: one, their objectives are intrinsically linked to the removal of  NATO and ISAF troops from Afghanistan and end of any active support by the Pakistan state to the what is viewed as an occupying force; and two: they demand the enforcement of a regressive socio-political system under the guise of Shriah that ultimately looks to replace the modern state. The state of Pakistan cannot address the first demand simply because it is outside their control – as long as war is waged by America and its allies in Afghanistan, resistance by these elements will continue. The state of Pakistan state here is just a resource being used by the Americans in this war which has no foreseeable end. Furthermore, Pakistan does not have the option of withdrawing its support from this war either. So negotiating with the militants on this count is futile. Moving on to the second objective, the Pakistani state can but would not want to yield on it as it would amount to a defacto surrender of state sovereignty. And as the failed peace deal in Swat valley has shown, it does not eliminate the original problem.

T#2: Military action of the nature adopted so far is not decisive. It leads to too much collateral damage – in the form of innocent deaths, internal displacements and destruction of infrastructure – and it creates massive amount of ill will against the military and the state not just in the affected area, but across the country. Furthermore, this war is taking place in an area where tribal culture implies that honour and revenge are essential codes of life. So when the state reneges on its promise not to cause harm to the people of an area, they create mortal enemies. Enemies who feed into militant propaganda and the destructive portal created by the war on terror and are driven by a primal desire to avenge the loss of honour and life. If anything conventional military action has succeeded in creating greater space for the militants to maneuver in.

T#3: The Pakistani state has adopted a very one-track policy towards the Taliban insurgency so far. Their options have been very limited: military action or negotiations. Neither would succeed in the treacherous environment of our tribal areas. The Pakistan state has failed to create a cohesive policy that will seek to eliminate the influence of the militants in the area. The key here is this: the Pakistani state is not in a position to “win” this war against the militants for the reasons elaborated above. This war cannot be won by crushing the militants, but only by snuffing them out. Therefore, the best option is to ensure that the impact of this war on the socio-politic fabric of the country is minimized. This calls for a comprehensive strategy approach that not only neutralizes the enemy but also finds the state allies.

T#4: The last truth of the situation is this: Pakistan cannot address the structural problems that drive men into the arms of the militants as long as foreign troops are present across the border. The reason is simple: while unemployment, illiteracy, militant propaganda and religious extremism are contributing factors they are not the real catalysts. If they were so, the state in Pakistan would have been challenged long ago. The real catalyst is the presence of foreign troops and the global of war on terror. As long as these facts are unchanged, addressing the structural problems in the area will not have the desired outcome. The atmosphere created by the global war on terror is too charged and too coloured by absolute claims that it masks the actual causes and objectives.

The Implications
So what does all of this imply? The above premises lead to the following conclusions:

  • We cannot succeed in direct negotiations with the militant because of the first truth. But that should not stop us from engaging other actors. Over the past week there were reports that some local elders have sought to ban militants from their areas – the government needs to capitalize on that. At the same time, they need to reach out to all actors that can be co-opted against the militants and work to reduce the operating space for the militants. Surgical and targeted military strikes should be employed. Negotiations with the militants will succeed only if they are conducted from a position of advantage.
  • The resource base of the militants – both materially and in terms of manpower must be sucked dry. Materially, the flow of money and arsenal has to be curbed. Last month there were reports in the media that the Taliban were using funds from sale of marble to finance the insurgency. In any protracted conflict, it is a given that a war economy sustaining the conflict will emerge. So dry up that well. Similarly clamp down on the source of arsenal supply and disrupt their means of communication. Have the international community support these efforts.
  • It will be tougher to dry up the supply of recruits – but it can be done. First off, the state can begin by shouldering those affected by military offensive – give them refuge and means of sustenance and make a 100% certain that the militants don’t get to them first. Second, and this is just as tough, strongly impress upon the NATO and ISAF troops the damage done by an errant missile strike. Thirdly, make a conscious effort to negate the propaganda of the militants. And lastly, begin to address the structural causes of the conflict.

To conclude, the Taliban insurgency cannot be wished away. Neither can we bomb them out. To win this battle with them, we need to use our brains and develop a comprehensive strategy that isolates the militants and not the state. For this to succeed, it is imperative that the political leadership wakes up and realizes that a conscious and planned effort is needed to deal with this threat and to protect the fragile socio-political fabric of Pakistan.

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

What you are basically arguing for is a better caliberated military operation. Dare I say you are advocating the ‘Sri Lanka line’ of sorts. It appears from what you are arguing here that the political option is, for the present, closed and can open only after the military operation has succeeded. Are things really that bad?

Comment by Aniket Alam


I am arguing that currently the political option is not bearing fruits and at the same time that the military option is doing more harm than good. Over the past week, the military offensive against the militants has been intensified and there are increased causalities on both sides. Not to mention the rising internal displacements.

I am undecided on whether it is a good idea to suspend the military operation and re-strategize – that will give the militants time to regroup as well. So in that respect, perhaps a decisive push needs to be made with the military offensive to enable the state to execute a more comprehensive policy that will ensure denial of operational space to the militants. It’s a slippery slope…

Comment by ayesha

Yes Aniket, things are really very bad. After the suicide attack on Asfandyar Wali, which he luckily escaped.

Aysha: Everyone is grapling with the same question. It’s a good post that you have written. It’s very hard of ask for the halt of military operations. Recent history tells that the negotiations provide a good time for the militants to re-group and re-organize. More serious than the bluntness of the neo-colonial army is the “double dealing” where the military is trying to preserve the Afghan Taliban (who, many are saying, are stationed around Quetta) and an apparent fight against the Pakistan Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It’s a very complicated situation that we have here in Pakistan.

Therefore, it will be foolish to issue a blank check in the name of Pakistan Army to conduct operations. In this respect, the rising of anti-Taliban Laskars in tribal areas that have pledged support for the government is a very important development. We might be able to see a different type of war with these Lashkars.

Lastly, we must bear our duty as well. We need to fill the gaps where the neo-colonial military and the young bourgeois-democratic state structure falls short. There is no good reason to trust them. We all need to act now in whatever capacity possible.

Comment by Vidrohi

Vidrohi: Indeed. I agree that given the situation that has emerged over the past few weeks, it would be counterproductive to halt the military operation. And yes, we need greater clarity over the Taliban policy of the military.

Comment by ayesha

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