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The Missing Dimension Of Pakistan’s Counterinsurgency Policy

Children displaced by fighting await humanitarian aid in one of Pakistan's tribal districts. The government has failed to back its counterinsurgency with development efforts to win public support.
The continued military operations against the Taliban, their supporters, and Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan's tribal and settled regions have regularly shifted from one area to another over the past few years. But a decisive victory against the militants still seems to be no more than wishful thinking, as the latter continuously change positions and open new bases as soon as they are dislodged from their previous ones.

Clearly, the so-called war on terror in Pakistan has only multiplied the despair of the already frustrated, impoverished, neglected, and dispossessed people of the tribal areas who straddle the ill-defined border region with Afghanistan. And even more insulting to these people is the fact that this war seems to have turned into little more than a public-relations numbers game with no chance of bringing any positive results.

Each day, people are inundated with headlines in the Pakistani media featuring the latest body counts. If you added up all the militants the security forces claim to have killed, the total would be several thousand for 2009 alone. But the Taliban are still alive and kicking, and even spreading out from the mountainous tribal areas into cities in Khyber-Pakhtukhwa Province and now into Punjab, the most populous and economically developed province of Pakistan.

The fact that the insurgency continues despite the numbers of slain Taliban claimed by Pakistani security forces (and by U.S.-led NATO forces on both sides of the Durand Line) would seem pretty strong evidence of flaws in the political and military counterinsurgency strategies adopted on both sides of the border. From the point of view of an average local, either the numbers of slain insurgents are inflated -- that is, the government is lying about its successes -- or the insurgency is far larger than believed and the policy of “decapitating” it will be the work of many months or even years.

Rising Public Anger

History is also full of cautionary examples. French Army officer David Galula has written that the killing of leaders and fighters of the Algerian National Liberation Front (1956-58) had little effect on the insurgency because it was too loosely organized to succumb to such tactics. Israeli armed forces have targeted Palestinian resistance leaders for three decades now, but still the conflict continues.

While the security forces boast of their latest kills, their shelling and air strikes often cause civilian casualties that are exploited by insurgents to gain popular sympathy and new recruits. Incidents such as the one in the Khyber Agency about a month ago and in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar last week only inflame hatred for the respective governments and their security forces.

This seems to have been the main motivation in the cases of Najibullah Zazai, a native Afghan and permanent U.S. resident who was arrested last year on suspicion of planning to bomb the New York subway, and Faisal Shehzad, the Pakistan-born U.S. citizen who has confessed to planting explosives on New York’s Times Square in May. Neither was apparently a regular Taliban or Al-Qaeda volunteer, but both have expressed the desire to take revenge for civilian casualties of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Of course, those self-styled defenders of Islam who are ruining the lives and causing the deaths of innocent people must be dealt with harshly. But if the government is intent on ending the insurgency and restoring real peace to the land, it must ask why the numbers of insurgents are increasing daily despite the use of immense ground and air power against them and despite the deaths of their key leaders.

No Lasting Results

In June 2004, Nek Muhammad, the first known Taliban commander from Waziristan, was killed. In August 2009, Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, was killed. In between, numerous key Taliban leaders were eliminated, but there has been no noticeable let-up in attacks targeting cities and civilians.

The military’s scattershot security operations over the last eight years have not produced results because they have not been backed by a serious political strategy of development projects in the cleared districts. Bajaur, Waziristan, and Swat have all seen security operations and have all been declared free of Taliban, yet no development activity has been initiated to meet the needs of locals and win their support.

As a result, the regions are ripe for the Taliban to return, and they remain fertile recruiting grounds for the insurgents.

After the most militant Taliban have been cleared, carrots will be more effective than sticks in pacifying those who merely sympathize with the insurgents out of frustration, and in preventing new recruits from replenishing the Taliban ranks. Without schools, jobs, and health care for locals in the border regions, the policy of merely clearing the Taliban is bound to be an endless treadmill.

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.