Fighting Insurgency in FATA

analysis: In the national interest —Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Daily Times, October 14, 2008

Fighting insurgencies has always been one of the biggest challenges for modern armies trained for conventional war. Even significant experience in fighting insurgencies, retraining of the armed forces and use of modern technology has helped only marginally. The situation we are facing along our north-western border is similar to other insurgencies that continue without any end or resolution in sight.

Comparatively, Pakistan is in a more difficult situation than other countries facing insurgency for two reasons. First, insurgents and their region of operation have been close to a centre of conflict in next-door Afghanistan for over three decades. Taliban leaders and many planners and fighters in the insurgency are veterans of the Afghan wars. Second, the regional character of the insurgency and the involvement of foreigners from Arab countries, Afghanistan and Central Asia makes the conflict even more difficult.

While the transnational linkages of the militants are generally recognised, how the Taliban insurgency has sunk roots in the rest of the country is ignored. It is now becoming increasingly clear that Taliban insurgents and suicide bomber squads also include large numbers of non-Pashtuns, mainly from Punjab. There is a need to reassess the Taliban threat both in terms of the kind of forces and elements involved, as well as the kind of threat they pose to national security.

The insurgency, with its spate of suicide bombings across Pakistan, has succeeded in disrupting the economic life of the country, which was already under stress due to the bankrupt policies of the Musharraf regime. The economic downturn has many causes, but insurgency and daily bomb blasts don’t make Pakistan a favourite destination for investment and tourism. Unfortunately, the marginalised sectors of our society that are sprouting religious extremists and insurgents may face the worst of the economic crisis, and produce even more such elements in the coming months and years.

We need to understand the nature of this threat in our own interest, before others tell us how insurgency in our territory affects them and provokes action against our national sovereignty and interests. This is our country, and we have a great responsibility to it than anyone else.

Do we realise how dangerous this situation is? Why do we find our security seriously challenged?

It was to deal with these very questions that the government and the armed forces arranged in-camera briefings for members of parliament and political leaders. This is a great step forward in evolving national consensus on the war on terror, our cooperation with the United States and the operations in FATA and Swat.

The move has yet another important objective: to get the nation to back the armed forces fighting the insurgents. No country or army can win such wars without the society’s support.

Large sections of our society are not with the militants, do not share their extremist ideology and do not support taking up arms against the state. But how many of us have been vocal against the insurgency? How many of us have demonstrated against them in the streets or raised our voice in the media? Have there been peace marches denouncing the atrocities that the insurgents have committed against civilians and security forces?

After the Marriott bombing, we saw the public across the country stir against the militants, but this did not translate into a wider, sustained social movement. The only practical and sustained response against the militants has come from the tribal people, who have raised their own laskhars, evicting many insurgents from their areas.

In contrast to these tribes, our political class remains divided on how to handle the conflict. Religious political parties, and now increasingly the PMLN, link the Taliban insurgency and suicide bombings to our policy on the war on terror. They question our cooperation with the US, rules of engagement and the secret understanding between the Musharraf regime and the international coalition.

While it is true that the insurgency is a response to our policy on the war on terror, and the presence and behaviour of US-NATO forces in Afghanistan has provoked response, we cannot ignore the threat it poses to our national security. We need a dispassionate debate on how to end the insurgency, without trying to score political points or playing to the gallery.

The Taliban insurgency is a part of the troubled history of conflict in this region, which is not entirely of our making. We were, and still are, just one of the players, but are affected more than anyone else because of our proximity and overlapping ethnic and religious bonds.

External powers have played their games, great and small, in Afghanistan, mostly to our disadvantage. The point is to figure out how we can rationally reduce the negative fallout of their presence next door in the war to create a new Afghanistan. We have our interests in creating a stable regional order, reducing conflict on our borders and end the insurgency in our territory. But this cannot be done effectively if we remain a divided political house, as is the case right now.

The briefing by military leaders to a joint session of parliament is only the beginning of the debate on how to end or defeat the insurgents. The parties and groups opposed to military operations should come up with practical and prudent proposals instead of using the usual political rhetoric. They have an equal responsibility to help meet this national challenge.

Ambiguity in positions on the insurgency and political divisions will only serve the cause of the militants, not of the nation.

Nobody would like to fight wars on our soil against our own people if there are options available to avoid such conflicts. No country can allow private armies and insurgents under any excuse to operate freely and threaten citizens and the state. However, the political dialogue option must be kept open, with use of force as the last resort.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at rasul@lums.edu.pk

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