Crunch Time in Pakistan

Red agencies/ districts controlled by the Taliban; purple is defacto control; yellow is under threat.

This article was originally published at Pajamas Media.

The assassination attempt on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan after eight years in exile to reenter politics, serves to highlight the continually deteriorating security situation inside the Pakistan. Al Qaeda, with the help of their Taliban allies, has carved out a mini state in the Northwest Frontier Province, and threaten the very existence of the Pakistani state. The current approach adopted by the Pakistani government – negotiations, limited raids, and abbreviated attacks – has failed, and Pakistan must consider fighting a counterinsurgency campaign to uproot the Taliban and al Qaeda from their havens in the Northwest Frontier Province.

The attack on Bhutto’s procession, which occurred less than 24 hours after she returned to Pakistan, was a coordinated, sophisticated strike consisting of a car bomb, a suicide bomber, a grenade attack, and a sniper team. The attack was carried out by al Qaeda, Taliban, and their Pakistani allies, very likely with help inside the Inter Service Agency, Pakistan’s infamous intelligence service; the military is a possible participant. It resulted in the largest terror toll in the country’s history, with over 136 killed and upwards of 500 wounded.

The Bhutto assassination attempt was but the latest in escalating violence since the North Waziristan Accord, which essentially ceded the tribal agency to the Taliban, was inked September 2006. Within months the North Waziristan Accord was followed by agreements in Bajaur, Swat, and Mohmand agencies. News from the tribal agencies of Kurram, Orakzai, and Khyber has gone dark. These tribal agencies are very likely under Taliban control. Open source reporting indicates all or portions of the settled districts – think of these as counties in the US – of Dera Ismail Khan, Laki Marwat, Tank, Khyber, Bannu, Hangu, Kohat, Charsadda, Dir, Mardan, and even the provincial seat of Peshawar are under Taliban influence to some degree or another.

The Taliban conducted a series of suicide bombings and conventional attacks against civilian and military targets during the winter, spring, and summer of 2007. Hundreds of police and soldiers were killed along with hundreds more civilians. During this time, the Taliban and al Qaeda attempted to assassinate President Musharraf in Rawalpindi, Prime Minister Aziz in Islamabad, and Interior Minister Sherpao in the Northwest Frontier Province, while soldiers were butchered in their barracks and savaged on the streets.

In Islamabad, the government allowed the Taliban-led leaders of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, to kidnap police and civilians while enforcing their radical version of Islamic law in the heart of the city. This occurred for almost a year until the military and police assaulted the mosque in July. The assault resulted in over a dozen soldiers and over 100 civilians killed. Every student of the Lal Masjid was released from custody within weeks after the assault was carried out.

Last week, the Taliban and al Qaeda fought the Pakistani army to a standstill in North Waziristan. In early September 2007, the Taliban captured a company of Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan without firing a shot. The soldiers are still in Taliban captivity.

Band-aids won’t work

Prior to 2007 the Pakistani military fought a failed and flawed military campaign in North and South Waziristan from 2005 through the spring of 2006. The Pakistani military was neither trained nor prepared for the fight. In the Northwest Frontier Province, they met a determined enemy in the Taliban and al Qaeda. The military was demoralized by the heavy losses in fighting in the province, while some resented fighting their own countrymen. Official estimates place military casualties at about 1,000 killed, but unofficial estimates put them at 3,000 killed or higher.

Since the Pakistani military defeat, the Pakistani government has resorted to negotiations with the Taliban, under the guise of negotiations with tribal leaders, as well as attempts at bribery. The US has contented itself with backing Pakistani policy, despite its ineffectiveness.

“Thus far, American policy toward Pakistan has amounted to unconditional support for Musharraf, coupled with occasional air strikes against high-level al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas,” writes Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who looks at the policy options for Pakistan. In interviews with national security experts, Gartenstein-Ross notes the suggested way forward in dealing with Pakistan includes incentives tied to the killing or capture of senior al Qaeda leaders, pinprick strikes using special forces, an air campaign, “a campaign of assassins,” or an Anbar Salvation Front model to recruit tribal leaders on the side of the government were proposed. Alone, these solutions will not work.

The problem is that most of these options, other than an Anbar-like tribal engagement, have been tried. And the US has had such success in Anbar because it maintained a permanent, beefed-up military presence in the region to ensure the locals willing to back the US against al Qaeda in Iraq could rely on reinforcements, logistical, financial, and other support.

The Pakistani government, backed by US special operations forces, attempted to halt the rising power of al-Qaeda by conducting precision strikes against camps and high value targets. Between 2006 through 2007, airstrikes hit several handfuls of al Qaeda camps and meeting places including Chingai, Danda Saidgai (twice), Damadola, and Zamazola. The strikes yielded few high-value targets, and the Taliban and al Qaeda’s power and support in the Northwest Frontier Province only grew.

These strikes also came at a political cost to Musharraf. He was attacked politically for bombing his own citizens, while portrayed as an American puppet for allowing US forces to operate inside Pakistan.

The Pakistani government has also tried political solutions to no effect. The “peace accords” were abject failures. The government promised billions of dollars in aid and paid off Taliban leaders to quell the violence and stop cross border raids into Afghanistan. The result was that as the Taliban coffers filled, the attacks in Afghanistan tripled, and the Taliban consolidated its power in the Northwest Frontier Province and struck outward at government and military targets throughout Pakistan.

Despite the Pakistani military and political failures in the Northwest Frontier Province, the problem is inherently a Pakistani problem that needs a Pakistani solution. The government must somehow muster the elements of national power and build real support within the population for a hard and difficult fight. Whether the Pakistani government wants to recognize it or not, it is fighting an insurgency within its borders. A full-scale counterinsurgency campaign must be launched.

The US cannot lead a counterinsurgency campaign inside Pakistan for both military and political limitations. On the military side, US forces are extended to the limit with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military was forced to extend tours in Iraq to facilitate the “surge” in forces, and will be forced to draw down in April, despite the fact that al Qaeda could be dealt a death-blow in Iraq if the US maintained or increased forces in theater.

US forces are also stretched in Afghanistan. NATO has failed to live up to its commitments in providing combat troops or has handcuffed troops on the ground with “caveats” that prevent forces from deploying in combat regions. Commitments in the Horn of Africa, South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere tie up the remaining US forces, while the troops returning from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan require time to rest, refit, and train for the next deployment.

Politically, a full-scale deployment of US forces into the harsh terrain of the Northwest Frontier Province to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda is unfeasible at this time. America has shown little will to fight protracted counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The over 3,000 combat deaths in Iraq in four years of fighting would likely be child’s play compared to the casualties taken fighting a battle-hardened Taliban and al Qaeda on their home territory where they have real local support.

Pakistan is still a sovereign state, and any US involvement inside Pakistan must have the government’s, and by extension the people’s, approval. Anything short of this constitutes a US invasion of a nuclear-armed state and will only increase al Qaeda’s propaganda and recruiting capacities. The US can and should play a supporting role inside Pakistan, but the Pakistani government and its military must bear the brunt of the fight and the political consequences.

The situation in Pakistan has reached the stage where only drastic solutions hold out any hope of working. While there is a major difference between what is possible and what is practical, there is no other effective means to dislodge the core of al Qaeda’s leadership and their Taliban allies from the Northwest Frontier Province short of a real counterinsurgency campaign.

But how can al Qaeda be dislodged when US forces cannot enter Pakistan? The Pakistani government must come on board. This is easier said than done. The US has thrown about $11 billion at Pakistan so far, has begun transferring F-16s, and has given other diplomatic, political, economic, and military incentives. Despite these incentives, the Pakistani government has failed to meaningfully address the terrorist threat.

One thing that can be done unilaterally is to strengthen US and NATO forces on the Afghan side of the border and increase intelligence assets among the Pashtun tribes. This would require significant US military resources – perhaps doubling or tripling the number of US troops in Afghanistan. Significant air, intelligence, special operations forces, logistical support, and other assets would be needed.

But whether the Pakistani government comes on board or some other clandestine means are found to produce the same effect Pakistan and the US must:

• Attempt to reestablish the human intelligence network that has been wiped out by al Qaeda and its allied movements in northwestern Pakistan. Do this by spending significant amounts of money on disaffected tribal members and appealing to those whose family members have been killed or brutalized by the Taliban.

• Purge the military and Inter Services Intelligence of officers and enlisted members sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

• Ramp up the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency skills.

• Identify the locations of the major camps al Qaeda and Taliban camps and track the activity closely.

• Reinforce the Pakistani security forces in the settled districts where al Qaeda and the Taliban is weaker

• Cordon the districts from the tribal areas and settled districts owned by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

• Attempt to seal the Pakistani-Afghan border from the Afghan side using mines, fences, electronic surveillance, patrols, blocking forces, and air power.

• Neutralize local Taliban leaders. Some of them operate in the open and their locations are well known. Recently a journalist knocked on the door of Swat’s Maulana Fazlullah and conducted an interview.

• At the same time, strike at al Qaeda’s camps via air, and if needed special operations forces, in as near a simultaneous fashion as possible. Put the terrorist leadership on edge and give them a reason to move from their safe havens and into the open.

• Launch the counterinsurgency campaign, which must be led by Pakistani military The US must act in a supporting role by providing air, intelligence and logistical support.

To be clear, nothing less than a war of subterfuge followed by a full-on counterinsurgency campaign in the Northwest Frontier Province can make a real difference. This campaign will be long, it will be bloody, and it will be unpopular in the US, in Pakistan, and in the international community. Depending on the level of support for the Taliban and al Qaeda among the Pashtun tribes, enemy casualties may approach near-genocidal proportions. Friendly casualties will be enormous.

The past six years have shown that half measures only embolden al Qaeda. The US can conduct pinpoint raids and airstrikes as much it likes, but the problem will not go away until the enemy is uprooted. Anything short of a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to retain their safe havens and terror camps, their breeding grounds for attacks against democracy. The major terror attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai, as well as foiled plots in Denmark and the London Airline strike have all been traced back to Waziristan. Future attacks are being plotted there while Pakistan and the West sleeps.

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Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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13 Comments

  • Raj Kumar says:

    Excellent article Bill.
    However you shy away from the logical conclusion, which is that if we in the west are to have any peace then Pakistan must be broken up into 4 or more states or we must back full islamization of Pakistan.
    Only the above actions will give us peace. Nothing else.

  • Neo says:

    “We must back full islamization of Pakistan. Only the above actions will give us peace. Nothing else.”
    Oh my, I’m glad civilization didn’t fight the Third Reich that way. Careful what you wish for. The Taliban did wonders for Afghanistan no telling what it can do in a heavily populated country like Pakistan. Who’s going to take all the Diaspora when the political and economic system collapse. I doubt the west can take few million and defiantly not tens of millions of refugees. India can’t take them either. Who’s going to feed all the refugees. The UN doesn’t have capabilities on that scale.
    I don’t know where you get the idea that militant feudalism can run a modern state. The Taliban doesn’t have a clue how to run a country and seem to be too busy killing people to much care. The best I could see them do is take a page from the Iranian playbook and replace the party hierarchy with religious figures and run a Stalinist political and economic state. The Taliban isn’t even up to that though.
    I could go into various scenarios here but they all add up to political collapse followed by economic collapse followed by continuous warfare, agricultural collapse and massive de-population. Al Qaeda and the Taliban aren’t a move back to the Golden Age of Islamic establishment any more than the Kimer Rouge were to the Golden Age of Ankor Wat. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are just the latest examples of just how far perverse ultra nationalism and religious extremism can go. We have already seen this movie before.

  • Why such a sophisticated cordinated attack involoving 4 backups and how the local government was involved in switching off the lights.
    The most interesting thing in this whole episode is the disinformation blaming Mrs.Bhutto for the attack!!actoRs in this 1)Imran Khan 2)Germina khan 3)Hamid Mir bosss of geo TV4)Subramaniaswamy of India5) Chief Minister of Punjab sujahat hussain blaming Zardari for the attack6) mumtaz bhutto. Bhutto’s father was killed because he blamed 1971 on pakistan army and now she also will face the killing if she blames pakistan army!!
    This is akin to the campaign that 9/11 was carried out by Jews! Why? Who is threatened? Essentially the people who came to welcome are the urban poor,workers,farmers and landless labourers,even 40 among the injured are from siachen!! This has completely unnerved the ruling elite/dispora because they thought the corruption campaign and her open support for USA and INDIA will diminish her appeal. They just could not blackmail anymore. Now a clever camapig is being waged that Maulana Fazlur rehman of MMA(JUI(F)) is better than benazir!!!
    Benazir has shown that anti americanism exists only among the educated but not among the poor who are against talibanisation as well as insecurity.They want DEMOCRACY even if it is by a corrupt leader

  • Winger says:

    I don’t know much about Bhuttos corruption in the past but I do like what she is saying about Democracy and defeating the Taliban. Of course, she also said no military action and that they need to economically build up the NWFP.
    My opinion is that there are hundreds of mllions of dollars going into the NWFP to arm , train, and supply the Islamic militants. This money comes from Muslims and Muslims “Charities” around the world. Not to mention the herion addicts that buy Afghan opium from the poppy fields. How else could Al Qaeda and the Taliban fund their terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia etc.
    We have spent billions here in the US and these guys seem to be matching up with us, They are still not defeated and seem to have gained some strength. That would require some major funding and I don’t think the poor people in NWFP are providing it. In fact, those people are probably enjoying the payments they get for housing these militants.
    Osama pays them to be fighters, house fighters, feed fighters, etc. Economically, they are probably very happy and content. There is a lot of money and they feel protected. I think Pakistan needs to make their lives miserable and very unsafe before they think about economic development.
    This whole issue with the Army, ISI, political groups, India, etc is very interesting. It looks like it is all coming to a head. Pakistan must sort this out in order for the world to be safer. Maybe Musaraff was a false hope. He was just acting like he was fighting the war on terror but was really just covering his own power trip. He took over in a military coup and probably is deep in the crap there. After all, he is Army, ISI, politics etc. He is appeasing everyone for his own preservation and therefore is not accomplishing anything.
    He does get a lot of aid from the US and thats good for him but the problems are getting worse for the rest of the world. Bhutto’s arrival may be what is needed to shake things up and get some positive movement on all these fronts.
    And AQ Khan is probably living a very nice life there also.

  • Raj Kumar says:

    Neo.
    The problem with Pakistan since its creation has been the elite who have run it as a personal feudal preserve.
    This included BB whoes family by the way is the biggest landlords in the province of Sindh and I hear no statements from her to implement land reform but this is side issue.
    The elites have been unable to run Pakistan from the day after its creation. So perhaphs its time to give the ‘Green Beards’ a chance. They will probably make a mess of it but at least everyone will be busy fighting each other to bother with the rest of the world.
    I am not advocating a policy of benign negelect as we did with Afganistan under the Taliban. What I am advocating is full scale backing of the Green Beards coupled with a host of other measures/control to prevent the overspill.
    As things stand all we are doing is postponing the day the Green Beards take over. What I want is a full spectrum solution being debated / discussed because at the moment all our eggs is in 1 basket namely the backing of the exisitng elite and hoping they can control the situation.

  • TS Alfabet says:

    I think it’s pretty safe to say that the common people in NWFP are not living in luxury or enjoying the presence of AQ terrorists any more than the Sunnis in Anbar and Diyala enjoyed them. AQ doesn’t change its spots. It brutalizes the very populations that support them, and in the most non-sensical ways; that’s who they are. You can bet that any money coming into NWFP is going to AQ/Taliban and *not* to the common people, who will remain as destitute as ever. Eventually, one or more tribes in NWFP will get tired of AQ and Taliban’s brutality and be willing to turn on them, just as the tribes in Anbar did. We have to be ready when that moment comes and in the meantime do what it takes to keep the Pakistani nukes from falling into the hands of AQ.

  • Thanos says:

    What appalls me about this are the people blaming Bhutto — when we know a manual trigger bomb was used due to the papers running an article that outted the preventative measures the motorcade would take. Freedom of assembly is fundamental, and to attack someone for holding a political rally either through terror or word is just plain wrong. The blame must fall where it does — on the radical forces bent on subjecting Pakistan to their will.

  • Neo says:

    Raj Kumar
    I’m not exactly sure where you are going but it sounds as if you are supporting some sort of policy of disengagement from the region while hoping at the same time to retain some sort of influence in the aftermath. I don’t know, considering that Pakistan is a large regional power with nuclear weapons and would be ruled by religious extremists that consider themselves in a permanent state of warfare with much of the rest of the world. I’m not sure that that leaves too many good options. I don’t think you will be able to reach any sort of compromise or much we could do to placate them short of surrender to Allah. They are absolutists, real compromise of any sort is unforgivable sin against god. In fact laws and justifications for fake negotiations with enemies is specifically provided for. There’s no such thing as a binding agreement with a heretic or infidel.
    You say what is left is buying time. It does look like that may be what little we can get right now. I’d take a year or two to get ourselves out of the bind we are in. There may also be hope in the long run that the Taliban wears out it’s welcome. Part of that has to do with how easy they find it to subjugate the rest of Pakistan’s population. It doesn’t look as if Pakistani society is going to put up much true resistance at this point at least.

  • Raj Kumar says:

    Neo,
    I know the nature of the green beards inside out, known enough of them over the years. I totally agree about reaching binding agreement with the green flag brigade and their respect for the likes of you & I. Not being judgemental but you probably would fare slight better than me under their rule since you presumably are a follower of the book!!!
    I also agree with you that we are in a bind. However I am not optimistic about Taliban wearing out their welcome, after all just over the border in Iran a slightly different shade of green has been entrenched for the past 25/30 years and their civil society doesn’t seem to be able to either want to shift them or can’t.
    I also agree that the elite in Pakistan & Pakistani society have given up hope and will roll over for the Taliban. What I want right now is a public declaration from all western capitals that Pakistan has no functioning nuclear weapons and also has no means of producing any further WMD’s followed by a hermitic sealing of Pakistan such that no WMD material can ever leak out no matter how small.
    Then I want all of us to back the green beards to the full extent possible and for them to implement all sorts of reforms which would help sort out their internal problems. In essence I am asking for nation building on a scale not seen since the Marshall plan of the 1940’s.

  • Neo says:

    “hermitic sealing of Pakistan”
    ??????????

  • Winger says:

    I am not sure that the common people in Pakistan can be equated to the Sunnis in Anbar. Sunnis in Anbar were fighting against an occupation and aligned themselves for convenience. When they saw the death and destruction and Al Qaeda trying to take over, they had to fight them as well. They are not of the same ilk.
    The common people in Pakistan seem to more readily acept the Taliban & Al Qaeda at face value because they are one and the same. They have always believed the same because the Islam taught there has been taught for years and is ingrained in them. I think the common people are solidly behind the Taliban because they have that mutual understanding. That was not the case in Anbar.
    I have not seen anything to make me believe the common people in NWFP have ever disliked the Taliban. Maybe thats because if they say something, they are brutally killed. Has anyone got some information on the true feelings of those people? Thats why I say they are happy, and we need to make their lives less comfortable.
    I like Bills ideas that he posted in the article on Pajama media.

  • Neo says:

    Getting back to Bill’s original piece, about what Pakistan will need to do, and how the US might help them. Without going into too much detail, what is the status of our training programs with the Pakistani army. What sort of assistance is being rendered. Are there significant political obstacles to directly assistance? Is there a lot of resistance to American help even if that is in the form of training rather than fighting.
    The Pakistanis seem to have some special forces but don’t seem to have much in the way of sizable counterinsurgency forces. They don’t seem to be very good a force protection when moving around. You can’t haul everyone and their supplies around in helicopters. They don’t seem to do much in the way of close air support. We take the effectiveness of close air support for granted, but most developing nations don’t do it. That is one thing we learned to do very well in Vietnam but the level of coordination requires a great deal of professionalism and training.

  • New Variants On Turmoil In The Middle East [to be updated throughout the day]

    The Iraqis are very sensibly paying a visit to Turkey, which is wise, considering Ankara’s importance and position and all.
    Turkish warplanes and helicopter gun-ships attack Kurdish rebels along Iraqi border Wednesday, order troops to cross over…

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis