Friday, April 24, 2009

The Taliban Problem

You may forgive the world and Hillary Clinton -- I know: same thing, right? -- if they betray more than mere concern at the status quo in Pakistan. The threat from the Taliban and their various local surrogates is growing, not abating, and there seems to be little that state institutions can do anything about it. What follows is my best attempt to think through the problem, how we got here, and the key concerns as we try to get out of this predicament.

There have been three basic components of the growing Taliban problem: the political, the military, and the geopolitical.

The political problem has centered on a lack of willingness of Pakistan's political elite, as well as wide swathes of the public, to clearly and unequivocally identify the Taliban as a force to be opposed. This is for a number of reasons. First, the rampant anti-Americanism that runs through the country has made it easy for the Taliban to be conceived of as the lesser of two evils -- the enemy of my enemy, if you will. Second, given the failure of Pakistan's traditional governing structures -- the military on the one hand, and feudal and business-oriented politicians on the other -- to actually deal with the problems of the average Pakistani, there has been a growing sympathy to the idea of "Islamic democracy", whereby the state is run on religious principles. Since everything else has failed, the logic goes, why not give this a try? By this logic, only the methods, and not the goals, of the Taliban are truly problematic. Third, the Taliban are often looked upon as the "second-movers" in this war, whereby they merely responded to the aggression showed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and former President Musharraf in Waziristan. Notwithstanding the empirical questionability of each of these claims, they make for a firm foundation of countenancing the Taliban, if not outrightly supporting them.

The military problem centers on the fact that Pakistan's armed forces are not terribly well-equipped to fighting wars, especially counter-insurgency wars against a primarily Pashtun enemy. Pakistan's military has lost every war it has launched or, at the very least, it has not won any of them. More to the point, the military is not trained to fight counterinsurgency wars on its own soil. It is trained to fight the Indian military across the plains of Punjab. Finally, given the Pashtuns are the second-largest contingent in terms of ethnicity in the Pakistan military -- they are seriously overrepresented in this regard -- the questions of morale and willingness amongst the troops are serious ones, keeping in mind that the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun movement. More generally, militaries which have been excessively involved in a country's politics are sometimes unable to perform their primary role due to their adopted power positions; the erosion of Argentina's military in the 1970s and 1980s is a good example.

Finally, the geopolitical problem centers on two key actors: the United States and India. Contrary to what some analysts believe, the Pakistan military establishment does not calibrate its actions to the expectation that the Americans will never leave the region. They function on the assumption that the Americans will leave, inevitably so, and soon. This assumption is born out of the partnership in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan, when at the conclusion of the conflict, the U.S. left Pakistan to deal with the fallout of (a) an effectively open border with Afghanistan, and (b) many angry, unemployed, well-trained, and well-armed people who believed they were fighting Allah's war against godlessness. What this expectation of an American exit does is ensure that the military establishment in Pakistan may not wholeheartedly be behind the conflict against all elements of the Taliban. Why fight them today when they could come in handy tomorrow, once the Americans have left? This line of thinking is exacerbated by the perception of encirclement driven by India's close relationship to the Karzai government, and the growing strategic partnership between the two. Finally, America's actions themselves -- whether they be the drone attacks brought upon by the Bush/Mush partnership, and expanded considerably by the Obama/HaqqaniZardari partnership, or the promise of an even greater ground force by Obama in neighboring Afghanistan -- are effectively pushing the Taliban east, closer and closer to the heart of Pakistan.

These factors in conjunction have meant that the Taliban, far from being on the run, are spreading their tentacles further and further into the settled areas of Pakistan. Having moved in to Swat at the end of last year, they have now spread into Buner and are threatening the neighboring district of Shangla (reports suggest that they are evacuating Buner, though this may merely be a tactical ploy and not part of a longer-term strategic retreat). The Taliban now effectively control important districts within one hundred miles of Islamabad, the federal capital. They have made inroads in Punjab, the country's most populous and politically important province. And they are treading water in Karachi, the country's business, commercial, and financial hub, its port city, and its most (read: only) multi-ethnic city, where a substanstial Pashtun population resides (which would allow them ease in remaining undetected).

What do such developments mean for average Pakistanis and their prospects? First, they mean that local customs and leadership will be done away with -- and when I say the leadership is done away with, I really do mean it literally. Second, business and "usual" economic activity grinds to a halt; the only template we have, that of Afghanistan in the 1990s, does not hold a great deal of promise on this front. Third, women can expect to be subjected to even greater violations of basic human rights than they currently are deprived of in Pakistan. Fourth, all social and cultural freedoms -- such as those of speech, art, religion -- will be a thing of the past. It is important to note that these are not idle threats; they are based upon the basic facts upon the Taliban's stated worldview, and their past behavior. Everyone and their grandmother saw the infamous video of a teenaged girl being beaten in public by the Taliban, but that is the mere tip of the iceberg. By way of example, have you seen this photograph of a butcher being publicly beaten for (allegedly) not following correct Islamic law in cutting meat?

In short, if Pakistan wants to do anything about the Taliban, now might be a good time.

There are small but substantive encouraging signs that Pakistan and its public may finally be waking up to the threat. Coverage in the local media has lately been almost exclusively focused on the Taliban's bold ventures into Pakistan's territory, and their challenge to the writ of the state. Important figures, such as Fazlur Rehman (the leader of JUI, a religious party with a historical foothold in the areas currently overrun by the Taliban) and Nawaz Sharif (the country's most popular politician, a center-right figure who has hitherto shown little inclination to speak against the Taliban) have begun to publicly speak of the dangers that Pakistan faces. Both the head of the military and the Prime Minister have warned that the Taliban will not be allowed to indefinitely challenge the state.

More importantly -- and this is just a hunch, which will remain unconfirmed thanks to the absence of a Pakistani Nate Silver -- the tide of public opinion may finally be turning, from equivocation to outrage. I had a suspicion immediately after the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers last month that a turning point might have been reached but, truth be told, I was too afraid of saying so out of a fear of being wrong (again). Cricket was and is the one thing that unites this deeply divided country, and the Sri Lankans were the only international team that braved to tour the country amidst the spectre of security threats. Their targetting was an affront to all Pakistanis. The infamous girl-being-flogged video followed soon after, which were in turn followed by greater Taliban incisions in Pakistani territory. And I haven't even mentioned the as-yet unyielding campaign of violence against civilians and security forces. Given these events in the last eight weeks, it would not be surprising to find people more cognizant of the Taliban threat.

Despite these purported changes, however, the military -- as always in Pakistan -- holds the key. There can be no more coddling of Taliban elements for geostrategic reasons. India ceased to be a threat to Pakistan on May 28, 1998. Even if India is friendly with Afghanistan, and even if Pakistan's military establishment perceives encirclement, care must be taken to carefully evaluate the real threat, or lack thereof, that India poses to Pakistan's existential security. This is not 1914, and we are not Germany. Simply put, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal guarantees that India cannot overrun Pakistan, with or without an alliance with Afghanistan. The nuclear guarantee, unfortunately, does not extend to the prospect of the Taliban overrunning Pakistan. The military establishment must decide which is more likely.

Of course, this still ignores the very real possibility that even if Pakistan's military is willing to tackle the Taliban, it is not able to. And this is the scariest possibility of all. Consider, for instance, this editorial from the Daily Times the other day:
Finally, it is the army that has to step forward and face the Taliban. It has baulked so far because of adverse public opinion and an equally lethal media tilt. But now that the politicians are waking up to the danger and the media is increasingly disabused, the army must end its India-driven strategy and try to save Pakistan from becoming the caliphate of Al Qaeda.

Such a position assumes that public opinion and the vascillating political leadership is holding the military back (which is true). But it elides the possibility that the military simply cannot do the job. Recall that from 2004 to 2006, the military under Musharraf went into Waziristan and came out with its tail between its legs. What makes us so sure that Swat, Malakand, and (gulp) Punjab will be so different?

Pakistanis of all stripes -- from the media to the public, from the political leadership to the military -- must unite in the face of this threat. It is time for action, not words. It is clear that concessions and negotiations do not work the Taliban. They are not reliable partners, and they have made a living on reneging on every single agreement they have made with the government (whether it be Musharraf's or Zardari's). Fortunately, they may just have overplayed their hand in recent weeks, and done the hard job of uniting Pakistanis for us. It is now up to the institutions of the state -- the civilians in parliament, and the men entrusted to protect our territorial integrity -- to do their job, and save Pakistanis from this madness.

We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.


Gene Gerzhoy said...

That answered a lot of questions. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Good Analysis but i want to clarify few things. I have read in wall street journal that terrified residents of 'Buner' fled their homes due to the fear of Taliban. Since your post says that both elite class and public is supporting Taliban, then why ordinary people fled Buner.Who is supporting Taliban in areas such as Swat, Buner and even Karachi- ordinary Pakistani or elite class or Army? Is it wrong to assume that an ordinary Pakistani wants to end this nightmare of violence and terror through a strong democracy because your post says that they are in favor of Islamic democracy. I also want to know what is going on in the minds of youth of Pakistan.Are they looking up to their leaders or to U.S to solve this crisis or they themselves want to take the initiative to get out of this difficult phase? Lastly,I think Pakistan already has a Nate Silver. Keep up the great writing and analysis.

AKS said...

Great post Ahsan.

I had an interesting conversation with a policeman yesterday on the Taliban's eastward move. He explained that it's really hard to ascertain which areas are entirely under Taliban control and which aren't. This is primarily due to the fact that the Taliban's modus operandi has evolved since they took control of Swat. In Swat they went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, seizing control on the way. They're no longer doing this and are instead concentrating solely on the access routes. They are in affect laying siege. This makes sense, as in most northern areas they only have to control a single road and they can claim that they control the area. Add to this the fact that the state has failed abysmally in equipping local police in any meaningful way.

According the policeman, it is entirely possible that the Taliban have supporters in Mansehra than Buner but because it is a more settled area they have can't duplicate the exact same strategy. But what if they evolve and become better at urban warfare?

If the army is unable fight them now, how will it fare in the immediate future? The Taliban are changing and adapting - like a friggin virus. Our army isn't even trying to change, so I don't how they're going to be able to fight them.

Serial Kicker said...

Kudos on this post. I can't agree more on the fact that Taliban are seen as the lesser of the two evils (the other one being the American influence)
As for the military problem, might I add that its not just the Pakistani military that is ill-equipped to deal with the Taliban threat. Americans too are now looking for moderate elements within Taliban to negotiate with. I brings me to wonder if there is a military who could successfully counter this threat because pashtuns have been known for their fighting skills.

foolsparadise said...

Ashan, Okay Analysis, nothing new, but you simply missed the entire story.

This was a CIA + ISI + PAK POLITICS scam, which revealed pre-maturely and alerted Taiban and they backed-off.

The whole Buner episode and Taliban marching fwd towards Islamabad was the biggest hoax designed by Government, watch these series of videos in sequence :-

1> Topic : Special Analysis about Buner.

(bottom line people of Buner fought Taliban, thinking Army will support them which never happened and hence they (people of Buner) surrendered.)

2> Topic : Special episode in Swat.

(Talian Tactics and ways of propaganda)

& at Last -- Great Politicians of ANP and PPP :-)
(Really Stupid, if even that was planned , they revealed it much much much earlier and Taliban, simply said, okay let us back off till another(read GOOD) day)

(And they(Islamabad) Failed again, to add more confusion in coming days)

Anonymous said...

@Aks If the situation is so grim and as Fareed Zakaria says, 'Pakistan is in the danger of collapse',I would like to know why ordinary people of Pakistan ( middle class) are still passive and silent, merely watching Pakistan's descent into chaos? Are they too scared to protest or as this post says that they silently support Taliban or they are helpless to do anything? I read this in NYT that"Pakistan need aggressive leadership that takes action and the reason that Zardari is looked with distrust because he till has not articulated his security policy in public.Do you think if Zardari or as this post says, Nawaz Sharif, the new poster boy of Pakistan democracy, starts condemning Taliban in public, will this strategy of forming strong public opinion against Taliban be effective in defeating them?

AKS said...

@ anon1048

The author of the post is Ahsan and I think your comment is directed towards him but I'll still try and answer it.

First and foremost, I don't think Ahsan's saying that a majority of Pakistani's support the Taliban, but that they have historically not viewed the Taliban as a major threat to Pakistan - though this may now be changing.

Secondly, I don't think people belonging to the middle class constitute as 'ordinary people.' As most ordinary Pakistanis are in fact poor.

The reason why Pakistanis don't protest, and this is something we've touched on several occasions, is because political space afforded to them has all but eroded. In essence, ordinary people have very little say in the governance of the country. Therefore it is difficult to see an anti-Taliban movement originating at grass root level. If Talibanism is to be countered, then mobilization will have to occur from the top down.

Anonymous said...

@ Aks Thanks for replying.I wanted to know your perspective also.

shahzad khan said...

look i have relatives and friends back in pakistan some in lahore but mostly in islamabad and the pindi area and when we talk over the phone, the situation is going from bad to worse. i spoke over the phone with one of my cousins who is a physician in a military hospital in pindi and in a depressive voice, she told me that in the last 72 hrs. there has been a surge of pak army jawans admitted in the hospital who came back bloody and bruised after encountering the taliban elements near bonair and shangla---She also saw at least half a dozen of badly wounded SSG commadoes crying like babies---these ppl are the cream of our armed forces and they lost some men in the fight.Morale is very low in our jawans but the govt. has put an entire media blackout so as not to cause panic among the pindi and islamabad residents but ppl can feel a sense of extreme anxiety and fear in the air. she told me that some middle class families who can afford r trying to leave and go further east to lahore or gujranwala and many rich and well to do business families in a state of panic are booking flights to dubai, sharjah and london with their assets and capital, fearful of taliban takeover---when i talked with a friend who owns a travel agency in pindi, he confirmed that since the last four five days, flights to gulf and london were solid booked and would remain so for at least the next month. He told me there seems to be a state of silent but noticeable panic in the twin cities but the govt. is putting a false face to the whole world and acting as if there is no threat to the country. The same friend has a relative in the top brass of the military and the unofficial word is that the situation is extremely bad and that the media is being fed a false story by the intelligence services--if any media person tries to investigate or probe further, they are threatened by the intelligence ppl, and warned that they would be kidnapped and killed. That relative said that many army jawans didnt want to fight the taliban partially because they are scared but mostly because they consider the taliban to be brothers---He further said that many jawans would rather ally with the taliban and fight india and nato forces in afghanistan---The few who fought or were forced to fight the taliban were badly beaten as my cousin confirmed. Folks, like it or not, and as a pakistan origin person, it really hurts to say this, but we are indeed in deep s--t. Dont believe the pakistani media at all---the govt. media is lying and the private media such as GEO are given the same version and if they try to challenge it or probe it, they are threatened by govt. spooks. That person also said that its very possible based on informants and spies, that india and nato may attack pakistan once the taliban reach the outskirts of islamabad since they dont want the nuclear arsenal and assets to fall into taliban and other militant hands. The next few days are very crucial for the pakistani state but the real problem is that the average pakistani citizen has become indifferent to the situation since most time is spent in effort to sustain and feed oneself and family in such a high environment of financial instability, unemployment, and inflation. The average person feels impotent to change or challenge the corrupt and corroded system and accepts it as his or her fate. Many pakistanis dont like the taliban but since the govt., military and its agencies have been arming and feeding these militants for years, they know silently that the pakistan state is to blame for their miserable,despondent and depressive condition---fear, povery,hate, irrationality, corruption, rigidity, and fundamentalism are eating up the psyche of the average citizen so badly that today the entire nation has become more or less mentally sick. With such a massive brain drain, flight capital, multiple suicides, suicide bombings, insurgencies, massive corruption and unemployment, how can these f--king politicians especially that fat fazlurahman sit fart and eat and drink and give complacent statements about the situation of the country---when the prime minister in an interview with hamid mir a few days ago sits calmly and says that there is no danger to the country and the taliban are no where near islamabad (as if only islamabad's remaining taliban-free is all that matters, although that army relative of my friend said that the taliban are only 25-30 miles away from islamabad)BTW, that reminds of that stupid idiot iraqi information minister who over half a decade ago, said on top of the ministry building in baghdad that the infidel army is no where near, yet 24 hrs later, the american army entered and that stupid minister disappeared.All such statements make me and my friends sick and digusted because they smack of hypocrisy and double-talk. I would had appreciated if the prime minister spoke the bitter truth to hamid mir and admitted that the taliban threat is a menace and they are slowly but steadily advancing towards islamabad and our heejra army is unable and unwilling to stop them and that we already tried to stop them but suffered severe casualities. No matter how much foreign aid comes, the average pakistani doesnt benefit from it be it in the form of schools, colleges, hospitals, bridges, roads etc---Most of it is embezzled by the military and civlian govts. and whatever was left was used to aid and feed taliban and other militant groups such that today they have become so powerful that our f--king military cannot contain or control them anymore.No doubt, allah hee pakistan ka hafiz hai!

Anonymous said...


Your point about the military not being trained to fight in counter-insurgency mode is an important key to the situation. Certainly it isn't the only, or even the most important factor; it remains, however, important.

The Army has, over the years, developed and implemented a dual-forces doctrine. This doctrine permits the Army to concentrate on armoured corps based warfare in the plains of the Punjab and Rajasthan. All military activity in broken ground is left to irregulars, with a strong regular presence holding a static line of defence, behind which the irregulars can vanish at will. Anywhere, any time that the military has had to go away from this doctrine (irregulars backed up by regulars for mountain and jungle fighting, also urban operations, the regulars only for armoured warfare), they have done rather badly; tails between legs and such metaphors do float across rather vividly.

The Army co-opted irregulars to fight a joint irregular-regular kind of campaign as early as 1948, when their first military engagements began. Military officers led ex-servicemen and mountain men into battle in the confident belief that they would beat their opponents to the punch. In 1965, which you have cited in your post, this irregular-regular warfare was in fact the starting gambit: Operation Gibraltar is what you need to look up. In 1971, the doctrine completely failed because the case was so different. In 1984 and after, the doctrine was practised piece-meal; only the irregulars, Sikh militants, were used, regular formations weren't. However, this was not terrain which encouraged irregular warfare. As to be expected, results were poor. In 1988, in similar circumstances, an aroused civilian population, an enemy vulnerable to irregular warfare, strong cross-border support, etc. etc., the doctrine was triumphant. The major discriminants between this and 1984 were terrain and irregular-regular integration.

At the end of the day, the military achieved huge clarity of role, by specialising in one type of warfare, and effectively out-sourcing warfare in other theatres. In contrast, the opposing armed forces were forced to spread themselves across armoured warfare in the plains, mountain warfare, and counter insurgency warfare at a number of locations. What you might expect is the result. a complete absence of any tactical unit level doctrine for these situations.

The soldiers concerned are not cowards, nor incompetent. It is just that they weren't trained for the job; the job never could have existed.

Incidentally, this doctrine was evolved by the British to deal with a situation in their Eastern Theatre, facing Turkey. The primary architect was T. E. Shaw, aka Lawrence of Arabia, and the irregulars were Arab freedom fighters under the banner of the Sharif of Mecca, while the regulars were of course British and Egyptian regulars troops. It is on record that the British and Egyptian regulars hated the mode.f

Anonymous said...

Guys, we want pashtuns on our side, right? We need to them to hold back their anger, right? We need a bold, magnetic, popular pathan, right?

Five words:

Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi
aka Boom Boom
aka Lala
aka just back into batting form
aka Heartthrob
aka can bash the entire Taliban movement back to the 14th century with one swing of his 10 pound bat.

He's our second nuclear options, and we shouldn't be afraid to use him.

Ahsan said...

Thanks to everyone who liked the post.

Serial Killer:

The Americans have the luxury of negotiating with the "moderate" Taliban because they don't have to live with them; they just have to ensure they don't get attacked by them or people they give shelter to (e.g. Al-Qaeda). By contrast, Pakistanis don't have the luxury of granting local concessions upon concessions to the Taliban because we actually have to live here.

Fool's paradise:

What, are you trying to claim this entire thing was theater? Surely you're not serious?


That's a really useful comment, but come on man! Paragraphs aren't your enemy!


Thanks for that, best and most useful comment of the thread. I really wish I knew more about the inner workings of military strategy in Pakistan. Do you have any reading material to recommend on this?


Hahaha yes, perhaps. By any chance, are you a frequent PakPassion visitor?

Anonymous said...

@Ahsan If you are referring to me (the Pak passion frequent visitor), though i wrote the first comment,then I will take it as a compliment.Unfortunately or fortunately my Pak passion has translated into passion for writing.I got two articles on Pakistan published in Dawn and in Mint-W.S.J and one story submitted for publication.Now, one of my friends want me to write on Tamils in Sri Lanka . So, I won't be that frequent anymore. Anyway, I had a great time here. Good luck and Good bye.

Anonymous said...

Noddy bhai (secret poster) is Nadeem Abbasi

karachi khatmal said...

one thing that surely rankles regarding the military is their long term ambition.

i mean, its the sixth largest in the world, it has nuclear weapons, and for six decades it has been fed on a diet of jihad. the way i look at it, and taking into account the ramblings of people like Hamid Mir, it is entirely likely that the Pak Army harbors visions of total world domination under the banner of islam.

i mean, they all know the americans are going to leave. and they may even trust the taliban to run the entire country, cuz they must be getting pretty sick of that by now. once the americans are gone, the taliban are in charge, the army can start expanding its base until it has a global ummah-based superpower which it sits at the head of.

now i don't necessarily think that this is possible, but i wouldn't put it past the pak army to harbor such grand illusions. as such, the taliban may never be stopped until they come to power and leave the populace disillusioned. till that happens, it seems that they would have all the support they would need.

takhalus said...

nicely written article..

Minor corrections JUI-F does not have much of a foothold in the malakand agency. The Taliban policy is to largely eliminate the local elites who are generally supporters of the status quo. Swat was (and uniquely amongst pashtun areas) a feudal area ..the other districts are not so feudal .

The Military can do the job but it can't replace the state function that has been destroyed during the delay in action. Consider this\23\story_23-4-2009_pg7_27
Afridi, who is also ANP leader, said that the ANP-led provincial government seemed helpless to counter the Taliban, as there were only 1600 policemen in the whole Malakand division out of which 131 had been killed, 800 left their duties and only less than 700 were in the field.

Anonymous said...


About the analysis of military doctrine that I put up: you have a point. I really need to document it properly. It was pieced together from whatever I could gather of personal narratives by Pakistani sources (in doing this, I was staggered by their ruthless honesty; whatever 'interpersonal' nuances crept in were so transparent that they were quite endearing). If you give me a little time, I will put everything together into a PDF file and inform you. Sorry for being slipshod.

Incidentally everything was derived from a piece of information; there was very, very little extrapolation on my part. I am quite satisfied that this analysis is authentic.

I regret having to conceal my identity; an outlander writing on matters military may not be welcome.