The limits of Pakistan's counterinsurgency strategy
IN the Peshwar school massacre, the facts that 132 children were killed, and another 120 injured while the school Principal Tahira Kazi was burnt alive in front of the children, reveal the terrorists' intention to combine physical assaults with psychological trauma.
The Pakistan Government has responded to the attacks with a two-pronged strategy. First, the security forces cordoned off the area to rescue the hostages and prevent the terrorist from fleeing. While the civilian and military police units sealed the school premises, the army's Special Services Group (SSG) commandos intercepted the terrorist' communications system, and engaged them militarily in a rescue operation. The eight-hour long commando operations killed the seven militants in sniper attacks and direct engagement, and more importantly rescued 960 of the school's roughly 1100 students present on that day. Seven commandoes and two army officers were injured in the rescue operation.
The second component of the government's response strategy includes a re-invigorated military offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). The Pakistani military claimed that in less than three days of the Peshawar incident, 119 militants were killed in the FATA– 62 in ground operations and 57 in air strikes. Upon pressures from the military forces, the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif has also lifted a moratorium on death penalty which has been in place since 2008; and hanged two convicted terrorists – Mohammed Aqeel alias Dr. Usman and Arshad Mahmood. Punjab's home minister Shuja Khanzada claimed the terrorist executions would “boost up the morale of the nation” and that the government was “planning to hang more terrorists next week.”
Pakistan's hostage rescue operations, execution of convicted terrorists, and the military offensives in tribal areas constitute only a short-term strategy, and therefore are unlikely to succeed in combating the evolving threats of Taliban militancy. The problems with a rescue operation are manifold. First, it is reactive and not proactive, and therefore focuses more on the killing of militants and less on arresting them. But the dead terrorists tell no tale about their organisational structure, funding strategy, and operational details. Such information, if extracted from negotiations with terrorists during a hostage crisis or after their arrests and interrogation, could prove to be useful in foiling future attacks. Another problem with a commando operation lies in its unintended consequences of killing innocent civilians. Interestingly, the official account of the rescue mission does not report any collateral damage; nor does it say anything about any negotiation plans with the hostage takers.
The death sentence of convicted terrorists is also seen quite problematic as none of them relate to the Peshawar school massacre. For instance, Aqeel was hung for an alleged role in a deadly attack on Rawalpindi military headquarters in 2009, whereas Mahmood was hung for his involvement in a plot to assassinate former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2003. The United Nations human rights office has asked the Pakistani government not to “succumb to widespread calls for revenge” while international human rights advocates have called for a “measured and reasoned response” in dealing with hundreds of convicts.
More challenges relate to Pakistan's faulty counterinsurgency campaigns in the FATA. Security analysts identify at least two major problems with Pakistan's counterinsurgency operations. First, most soldiers deployed in the tribal areas know little about the demographic structures, topography, and local language, and thus are widely seen as an occupying force in the Pashtun society. Second, the Pakistan army's training and doctrine are largely informed by the country's historical experience of fighting three wars with India in 1947, 1965, and 1971, and thus place a heavy emphasis on conventional war preparedness. This has made Islamabad largely incapable of fighting a protracted insurgency in the FATA – a tribal region where the central government has historically had minimal control, and thus delegated power to the tribal leaders. The bitter political divide in the country, especially between the Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan and the incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has further worsened the crisis as Khan has consistently criticised the military campaigns in the FATA delegitimising the Sharif government's counterinsurgency strategy.
The Pakistan army's weak counterinsurgency campaigns are further compounded by the poor structure of its paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC). The FC soldiers are primarily drawn from the tribal areas, and thus are familiar with the local culture and terrain. This could make them an ideal counterinsurgent force. However, the FC is not a regular military force, and its training and preparedness focus on patrolling the frontiers and fighting cross-border smuggling. As a result, fighting insurgency and militancy have largely been alien to the FC personnel. When deployed for counterinsurgency purposes, along with Pakistani military forces, the FC has lacked the leadership and equipment, and demonstrated poor performance against the Taliban insurgents.
Poor intelligence collection and coordination have added more challenges to Pakistan's war on terrorism. The issue of poor collection was apparent in a statement made by military spokesperson Major General Asim Bajwa, who admitted “there were general threats regarding a terrorist attack on government and army installations since the start of Operation Zar-e-Azb, but the [Peshawar army] school had not been mentioned specifically” (The Express Tribune, Dec. 16, 2014). Put simply, the army acquired strategic intelligence about the TTP's possible intentions but it lacked any actionable intelligence on the potential targets.
The problem of intelligence coordination is also evident in the overlapping responsibilities of the civilian-run Intelligence Bureau or the Federal Investigative Agency, and the military-controlled Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, widely known as the ISI. While each of the three agencies has some counterterrorism intelligence related tasks, there is no effective coordination among their collection and analytical efforts. The problem is further complicated as religious extremists in Pakistan operate with various names, making it hard for the agencies to monitor them.
Although Islamabad created a national counterterrorism authority in March 2013 and adopted a national internal security policy in March 2014 to overcome the problems of intelligence coordination, these domestic efforts need to be bolstered by regional and international cooperation. This is precisely why a day after the Peshawar school attack on December 17, 2014 Army Chief Raheel Sharif visited Kabul and shared classified intelligence with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and ISAF coalition force commander U.S. General Josheph Dunford. It is widely believed that Pakistani Taliban leader Maolana Fazlullah, who is hiding in Afghanistan, has ordered the Peshawar school attack. General Raheel has asked the Afghan authorities to extradite Fazlullah. As the Afghanistan War draws to an end, the Peshawar tragedy and Pakistani Army Chief's Kabul visit may give more credence to a U.S. plan for maintaining a small footprint in Afghanistan in the coming years.
The writer is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He is also a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), London. Email: [email protected].