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Countering insurgency and terrorism: op-ed

by Ikram Sehgal | Feb 11 - Warrior Global Security writer

Insurgency and terrorism having become endemic in Pakistan. The mixed success in developing an inherent capacity to counter both is surprising. We have to deal with two insurgencies, one feeding the Taliban in Afghanistan, the other directed towards terrorism within Pakistan and the world in general. Cocooned comfortably since 2002 in South Waziristan Agency by an inner core of Chechens, Arabs, Uzbeks, etc., settled here from the early 1990s, the Al-Qaeda hierarchy was holed up here since 2002, protected by an outer core of Mahsud tribal mercenaries, short on ideology but long on media hype, with cash fuelling their enthusiasm.

The militants of the Haqqani network, or the Gulbadin Hekmatyar-led group, do not target Pakistan but harbour terrorists who do. Given that the army must overcome an inherent reluctance to tackle them, diminished by two successive operations within six months the military capacity must be refurbished. Other than the insurgency in FATA, the immediate challenge in 2009 was the terrorism in Swat spawning a brutal insurgency by a different breed of barbarians, a “clear and present danger” to Pakistan’s continued existence as a civilised entity.

Locally recruited Frontier Corps troops are lightly armed, good only in their policing role, dealing with tribal rivalry and border smuggling, rather than engaging in military operations combating well-armed and experienced guerrillas. Based in Peshawar 11 Corps has only two infantry Divisions. Available troops are facing India, skilled in conventional warfare but with no expertise in counter-guerrilla warfare. Given the 2002 experience when militants targeted the Indian parliament in December 2001 and India massed four-fifths of its armed forces, as well as the 26/11 Mumbai incident in 2008, when a repeat of attacking Pakistan almost happened, thinning out troops along Pakistan’s eastern borders when already a 4:1 disadvantage existed was essentially a non-starter. India’s Cold Start Doctrine forced further contingency planning, shifting troops from proximity to their battle locations and retraining troops for counter-insurgency (COIN) operations became a fine balancing act.

An unmitigated disaster militarily, the 2004 operations in FATA and the subsequent 2007 one in Swat were psychologically devastating, debilitating for the morale and self-confidence of the army. Going into battle without adequate training or being properly equipped is bad enough, going without sufficient force, without proper motivation and/or battle-tested commanders down the line is asking for trouble. No surprise that military tactics on the ground were badly flawed. Some divisional commanders and most of the corps commanders promoted by Musharraf were meant for his personal survival, not deserving promotion past the lieutenant colonel’s rank. With consequent setbacks in operations a peace treaty had to be signed.

Given breathing space the militants started openly flouting the military presence in FATA in early 2007. Musharraf dispatched 14 divisions from Okara, putting Maj Gen Tariq Khan, commander of the first armoured division, in charge. Encountering stiff resistance, Tariq Khan improvised on-the-job training (OJT) in counterinsurgency operations. A peace treaty had again to be agreed. This OJT experience got Tariq Khan posting as inspector general of the Frontier Corps in 2008. The FC has since been undergoing training by units of the US Special Operations Command (SOC).

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According to Col Brian Cloughley, “in March and April (2009) units of the FC moved into Southern Malakand Division, mainly in Lower Dir and Buner Districts, and set up roadblocks. In mid April brigades of 11 Corps took position in Lower Dir, Buner and along the Barakot-Mingora axis, securing ground for further northern movement by two brigades of 19 Division (from 10 corps), commanded by Maj Gen Sajjad Ghani, two brigades of 37 Division (from 1 Corps) commanded by Maj Gen Ijaz Awan with two brigades of 23 Division (from 10 Corps) placed under 19th Division. The 19 Division moved north and struck sizeable resistance fighting through until taking the cities of Peochar and Bahrain. 37 Division units cleared the region around Mingora and Bahrain to fight through the city on 22 May, establishing control on 31 May.” Unfortunately, the big fish, Maulana Fazlullah, reportedly injured, escaped across the border into Afghanistan. While sporadic incidents will likely keep happening, over two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) were back in Swat by the end of August. Recently a bye-election for a Provincial Assembly seat was held there.

Under the commander of the 11 Corps Lt Gen Masood Aslam (appropriately given extension due to exigencies of service beyond his retirement date of Oct 8), troops moved into South Waziristan in Oct 17, battling mostly foreign militants in intense fighting in rugged mountainous terrain, racing to secure vital ground before the onset of winter. Before the first flurries of snow control was established over almost all the territory. The vaunted Mahsud hostiles mostly fled, seeking sanctuary in Orakzai Agency and/or in North Waziristan with the hated Waziris, or discreetly abandoning “the cause.” 14 Division has been reinforced by 7 Division and 9 Division, operating with four-five brigades each. Thus the best part of four-five infantry divisions drawn from across the country, including integrated armour and artillery units of three infantry divisions, are in the FATA combat zone. My own outstanding unit, 4 Sindh, dismounted from their mechanized infantry role, was among them.

For a change GHQ performance has been commendable, not only juggling training in counterinsurgency, but rotating formations and units (and thus getting tremendous live battle inoculation), while looking over the shoulders at unpredictable India, changing wholesale the peacetime mindset in which the Army was bogged down from 2003 to 2007. If the militants seeking sanctuary with the Haqqani network either in North Waziristan or Orakzai Agency are not handed over, the die is cast. There is no option but to destroy their capacity to remain a “clear and present danger” to the country.

The next 16-20 weeks are crucial for rotating fresh troops, replenishing depleted ammunition reserves and inducting of increased aviation capability into the diminished military ORBAT. To protect against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and roadside bombs, we badly need mine-resistant amour protected (MRAP) vehicles (perhaps on loan) from those now surplus in Iraq.

Terrorism must be the domain of civilian law enforcement agencies. But at present it is beyond the capacity of law enforcement agencies to combat terrorism. The army will face another debilitating exercise “in aid of civil power.” A Counter-Terrorism Force (CTF) in Pakistan, officered by the army must be developed on the pattern of the tremendously successful Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) that almost eliminated poppy cultivation and drug smuggling, this is vital not only for Pakistan but for the world. Using the ANF existing structure as a nucleus, it should be converted into the CTF. Allocating $18 billion this year for the Afghan army, having less than 1 percent of the coalition’s 10 per cent casualties of the total in the combat region compared to the 90 percent suffered by Pakistan is a disgrace. What about reallocating $5-6 billion to form the CTF and replenish/refurbish Pakistan Army’s capacity?

Our friends who are stuck in the groove of a “do more” mantra need to put their money where their mouth is. (Extracts taken from talk given at the “Harvard Kennedy School of Government” in Boston)

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