The Alsatia of FATA: Lessons of the Soviet Af-Pak Policy
By Dr. Mohammad Taqi
The last British governor of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), Sir Olaf Caroe wrote in an epilogue, on Russia, to his magnum opus, “The Pathans”:
“The Tribal area between the administered border and the Durand line is in many areas an Alsatia, strongly armed and of independent mind, from which dissidence may be encouraged, whether to east or west, to Kabul or to the Indus. This phenomenon enables those who wish to weaken Pakistan to claim that Islamabad uses that Alsatia as a point d’appui to interfere with Afghan – and Russian - ambitions. This is a factor that must be taken into account in any endeavor to assess outside claims that Pakistan territory is a base wherefrom resistance to Afghan – and Russian – encroachment may be organized “.
This thesis was perfected by the Western and Pakistani military architects of the so called anti-Soviet Jihad and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan were used successfully as the safe haven to conduct the Mujahedeen insurgency against the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the Soviets.
For eight years since the start of combat in Afghanistan, the US has relied on Pakistan to take care of the FATA – the lawless double-frontier referred to as Yaghistan or an Alsatia by the nineteenth century Afghan ruler, Amir Abdur Rahman. Other than the occasional - and very successful- Predator drone attacks, the US has outsourced the action there to the Pakistan army. The latter, unfortunately, has very little to show in terms of results for the billions of dollars received in military aid from the US.
Indeed, quite the opposite is true and the Pakistan Army has been using the FATA to its fullest advantage ever since the US troops landed in Afghanistan. They are well aware that a guerrilla war is a test of national will and the ability to endure negates many of the advantages of technology. The Pakistani brass has deployed a modified version of their “death by thousand cuts” aka “the Bear Trap” strategy, against the US and its allies. The idea is not as much to bleed “the occupiers” white, as was the goal against the Soviets, but to wear them out by denying them a complete military victory.
The Pakistan army’s logic, passed down from Gen. Zia ul Haq, is simple: Afghanistan is their backyard and only they have the right to dictate who runs Kabul. They never reconciled to the US presence in Afghanistan, for it undermines their hegemony in the region and have been betting on the US making a premature departure.
The Pakistan army had retracted its Taliban and Al Qaeda allies into FATA right after the Tora Bora battle and since then has used this point d’appui and these assets for planning, training and executing attacks against the US and allied forces in Afghanistan.
From a military standpoint the biggest blunder on part of the Soviets was to exclude FATA from the Afghan war-theater. Soviet 40th Army that crossed into Afghanistan in 1979 consisted of about 85,000 troops and was a combination of airborne and mechanized infantry troops. The term used for the incursion was “organichennyi kontingent “or the limited contingent – not too different from Donald Rumsfeld’s concept of a lean, mean and high-tech force. The Soviet planners had decided to use massive fire power in lieu of ground maneuver. They failed to assign sufficient and well-trained light infantry to conduct offensive mountain combat. Soviets ultimately did deploy two brigades of Spetsnaz, which at the height of their activity had the responsibility for counterinsurgency action and the unenviable task of monitoring the Durand Line.
Nonetheless, FATA remained outside the ambit of any direct or indirect Soviet intervention – a mistake that Soviets realized at their peril after losing the 1987 battle of Jaji in Khost, on the Pak-Afghan border. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani remain the best known veterans of this battle.
The Soviet planning however, had to take into account a potential US response to any spilling over of hostilities to the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Indeed, out of the two opposing proposals submitted by the pro-PDPA Pashtuns of Pakistan, the Communist Party of Soviet Union adopted the one calling for restrain as against the one proposing broadening the scope of operations to drain the guerilla swamp in Pakistan. This pussyfooting in FATA cost the Red Army a war, in which it lost less than five percent of the ground battles.
The Pakistan Army has not proven to be a US ally in campaign against the Al Qaeda and Taliban. This alliance has been on the rocks for a while but the marriage of convenience is clearly dysfunctional now. Pakistan’s foreign policy has not been under the civilian control for the last thirty-two years and that is not about to change in near future. The US opinion leaders must stop rationalizing the dubious role that the Pakistan Army has been playing and ought to confront it publically.
Now that President Obama has rolled out the new US Afghan policy with focus on “regionalizing” the Af-Pak imbroglio, the US and the allied forces have a clear choice to make. The FATA must be included in the Afghan war theater and placed under the CENTCOM. It may require revising any Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that is in place.
The American and NATO planners need a paradigm shift in their approach to handling the mess in FATA. Without setting up metrics for specifically measuring the Pakistan Army’s efforts in dismantling its Jihadist assets, the US will be setting itself up for failure.
It is time to call Pakistan Army’s bluff. Ambivalence towards the Alsatia of FATA could ultimately cost President Obama the war in Afghanistan.
(Author practices and teaches medicine at the University of Florida and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)