Counterinsurgency Gone Bad

Counterinsurgency Gone Bad

A Pakistani offensive in Waziristan won’t defeat the Taliban.   


After the Times Square incident, the U.S. Government is apparently urging the Pakistani military to go after the Taliban in North Waziristan, their key stronghold in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. This response seems like a no brainer given America's new terrorist concern, but it exposes a real tension between tactical gains and strategic failure.

As we approach the first anniversary of the Pakistan military operations that interrupted Taliban advances in the Swat Valley, American policy makers—if they have not yet done so—could profitably review the present situation in Swat to determine whether a different approach is needed in North Waziristan. They would find that Swat operations—hailed by Washington and rhapsodized by our editorialists—have bought only tenuous gains. Another full-fledged operation by what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has referred to as an overtaxed Pakistani military stands to be similarly ineffective in dealing a knock-out blow to the Taliban, and may instead bring wider instability.


Unfortunately information from Swat is limited and controlled by Islamabad. Pakistan’s press is a cheerleader, contributing little beyond the government narrative, whereas the foreign media is forbidden from traveling north of the capital city of Mingora and views Swat as yesterday's story. What is known is largely gleaned from intrepid NGOs and foreign humanitarian agencies, which hear firsthand from Pakistanis across the district.

What can be said with certainty is that Swat has not been pacified. A degree of security has been established only in Mingora and areas south of the city (accounting for perhaps a fifth of the district), and suicide bombs and murders of pro-government political leaders persist. The north of the valley is still characterized by serious violence and instability, and many refugees who fled last year have failed many times to return to their homes. The Taliban organization has been disrupted but hardly eliminated. While many Taliban fighters have been killed, many others—including most of their leadership—simply fled the army onslaught to nearby hills, distant cities, or to Afghanistan, where they network with other extremists. Now, they are coming back.

The mainstays of Swat's economy—agriculture and tourism—remain largely in the dumps, and much land has been destroyed or abandoned. Swat will need life support for a long time to come, and since the civilian authorities lack the capacity to deliver services or police the reclaimed territory, the army and Taliban compete to fill that void. Meanwhile, although the bulk of the public opposes the Taliban, popular disaffection for the government and army—the former seen as corrupt and unresponsive, the latter as high-handed in dealing with civilians—is growing.

To use the preferred U.S. counterinsurgency frame: Swat isn’t clear, is proving difficult to hold, and has seen little real building. In fact, the Swat operation goes against nearly everything in the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency playbook: insurgents are still able to move about with impunity, the district is in a dangerous limbo, and civilians are caught between the Taliban and vengeful army forces. Those suspected of even tenuous Taliban links can end up victims of extrajudicial killings, and a similar fate awaits those the Taliban view as government or army “collaborators.”

General Petraeus and others have highlighted that successful counterinsurgency is less about chasing and killing the enemy than reducing their reason to exist—which requires the government to clean up its act. But that is, of course, where Pakistani efforts are weakest. There is a credible view that Pakistan’s biggest problem is the dysfunction of civilian governance—particularly troubling when masses of citizens are displaced by conflict. When the fight against the Taliban uproots 80 percent of an area’s population so the army can flatten their villages in air-and-artillery campaigns, it does not make for easy return and reintegration of that population—nor is it sufficient to convince them that the government is on their side. When they suffer, flee, and then return only to find the same low-quality public services, greedy politicians and acute insecurity, that argument becomes even harder to make. The United States has put all its eggs into the Pakistani army’s basket with little indication that the Taliban equation is being changed. American partnership with the Pakistani military perpetuates its dominance over the civilian authorities, further narrowing the possibilities for genuine changes in the way Islamabad interacts with its citizens.

It is unclear whether the United States will call for a reconsideration of Pakistan’s increasing military efforts against the Taliban, but what needs to be reassessed is how better to manage the unintended fallout of Pakistan's military operations. That requires more care on the part of the military in its campaigns and a quick shift of their personnel out of humanitarian and reconstruction roles—scaling up the country's police and civilian emergency response capabilities as much and as quickly as possible.

Pressuring Islamabad to go after the Taliban in North Waziristan with an imperfect brand of counterinsurgency may achieve short term gains against the Taliban and satisfy immediate American domestic political needs. But it will likely be a myopic trade-off with foes who have proven themselves capable of relocating or even returning to once-held territory in the absence of effective reconstruction and serious policing. Denying extremists “ungoverned territory” is indeed part of our solution, but is not by itself lasting. Unfortunately, the critical problem of governance will take years,but improvements must begin now.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Sasha Pippenger was based in Pakistan as a humanitarian worker and is now entering Harvard Law School.