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Fighting the Taliban : Challenges for Pakistan Army

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
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  • May 01, 2009

    Rise of the Taliban in the frontier provinces of Pakistan portends several challenges to the Pakistan establishment, a fact that has lately raised much alarm and concern amongst the international community and in the region. The speed and vengeance with which several militant groups have rallied under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Falazullah undoubtedly puts Pakistan’s military on an acid test. The Pakistan Army to date has tackled the problem half heartedly in the troubled region. A substantial change needs to take place in Islamabad for the well-being of its people and the state at large.

    Fighting militancy is an art – a capability that does not develop overnight by sending combat units to military schools or war academies. It takes years of hard training, sustained combat experience and bitter battle reverses for a force to fully understand the essence and `art’ of undertaking successful counter terror operations. An effective counter terror philosophy calls for tenacity and a penetrating battle sense in the fighting force, which is often hard to find in equal measure amongst the rank and file of military organisations. It is about `engaging your self’ against all odds for months and often years at end and yet emerge successfully. It is about ‘mental strength’, where the `urbane’ soldierly intellect fights the `native’ intelligence – in a clear clash of `cultural extremes’ when it comes to toughness on the ground. It is also not just about technology and sheer physical strength – but more importantly about cultural sensitisation and motivation. It is an operating principle less understood by the participating militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The worsening security situation in Pakistan clearly demands the hardest from its military, more so when paramilitary units such as the Frontier Corps have been found grossly wanting, both in intent and expertise, to check the rise of the Taliban in the region.

    If the current situation in Swat Valley is true as reports suggest, then the region could well be compared to a `bee hive’ teeming with militants, busy feeding on misplaced virtues of `shariat’ and deplorable `medievalist’ practices. Common sense would suggest that, a situation like this can best be ignored, lest the `bees’ get disturbed and fly off to trouble the anxious neighbourhood. The new Af-Pak policy clearly hints at hitting the `hive’, leaving no choice whatsoever for the Taliban or the hesitant Pakistan Army, and countries in the neighbourhood. Confrontation certainly looks imminent despite some foot dragging displayed by the military hierarchy in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kiyani has urged his senior commanders to show positive results on the ground which indicates the evolving `intent’. It is too early to predict the future, given Pakistan’s past record of half-heartedness in proactively tackling the Taliban in the affected region. The recent statement by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen that “Pakistan is inching towards the tipping point” should also alert the political and military hierarchy in Pakistan. Now that there is no `looking back’, Pakistan’s Army needs to understand the first basic lesson of counter insurgency that anti-militant operations are not just about picking troops from one front and deploying them for operations in the affected provinces; but a more serious function of force generation and employability.

    First of all, it is about creating a capable counter insurgency force for the troubled region. The current practice of deploying military formations on rotation is perhaps not the best answer. Effective military operations call for a degree of `residency’ on the part of combat units and formations to clearly understand the `militant dynamics’ of the region. It also involves being able to trade time for `connecting’ with people, thus, slowly but surely degrading the hold of militant groups. Pakistan’s heavy operational bias in the East compels it to field troops otherwise only trained for conventional operations, thus putting them on a `learning curve’ for much of the duration of their rotation. Compulsion of `learning’ on the job seriously affects the `employability’ of military units in counter insurgency operations; this aspect will have to be addressed by the Pakistan Army soon. In this regard, the Indian experience of raising Rashtriya Rifles for counter insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir clearly stands out. While regular army units deter infiltration along the Line of Control, it is the Rashtriya Rifles which generates the desired `foot fall’ along with the paramilitaries to check militant activity in the hinterland. The role played by the Assam Rifles in the North East, a paramilitary force created under aegis of MHA and employed in conjunction with the Indian Army, is yet another example of India’s successful force modelling to counter militant activities. With concerns already having been expressed on the efficacy of the Frontier Corps, the political and military hierarchy in Pakistan needs to draw appropriate lessons from the `Indian experience’ and understand that `rotational’ employment of conventional forces is no substitute for a well trained counter insurgency force. Constitution of such a force could well be the first indicator of Pakistan’s sincerity towards fighting the Taliban.

    Secondly, the important issue is in preparing and motivating the force to fight the Taliban. Preparation essentially implies equipping and training the force. Above all, a great deal of motivation to undertake sustained anti-militant operations. This would surely be a tough call for the Pakistani Army. Having been an `exporter’ of terror for several years, it has never known how to fight it. Its doctrinal and organisational capacity to create an effective `counter insurgency force’ is suspect and, this would surely have a debilitating effect on the implementation of the US’ Af-Pak policy. Our past experience of fighting Afghan militants in Kashmir clearly highlight the ferocity of such encounters, a pattern of operations to which the Pakistan Army shall be increasingly subjected to, as it engages the Taliban under US pressure. Fighting the Taliban shall call for a high degree of motivation amongst the rank and file, an issue that has come under serious doubt in light of recent army and police desertions in FATA, Swat and Baluchistan. Creation and maintenance of high morale through an exemplary military leadership shall be the key for success in counter terror operations.

    Lastly, the Pakistan Army will have to conceptualise its fight against the `battle hardened’ Taliban. David Kilcullen, in his article titled Counterinsurgency Redux, emphasises that counter insurgency operations are all about `strategising at the tactical level’. Given the porous borders that Pakistan shares with Afghanistan, engaging the Taliban will be a difficult `cat and mouse’ game. Recalling how militancy evolved in Kashmir in the last two decades; initially taking shape in and around Srinagar, then gradually moving up North, till it again fell back to South Kashmir, and subsequently spread to Doda, Poonch, Rajauri and Jammu sectors, reminds us as to how difficult it can be to combat terrorism. Pakistan too will have to assess the dimension of the problem in military terms, implying matching the task at hand to the availability of troops to achieve a satisfactory operational impact on the ground. A cursory look at the expanse of the afflicted region suggests that fighting the Taliban will not be a mean task. It may at some stage `suck in’ a sizeable component of the Pakistan Army. This brings us to the question of `how then’ to tackle the Taliban problem. Compartmentalised operations with US forces operating in Southern and Eastern provinces of Afghanistan and, Pakistan confining itself to frontier provinces is likely to be a perfect recipe for disaster. It shall, in all probability result in a `volleyball match’, with militant groups moving up and down into areas which offer least or no resistance. Ideally speaking, there has to be a quarantine mechanism, which enables the security forces to confine disparate militant groups to a given region, and then take them to battle not only at a place of their own choosing but also at a time of own choosing. An operational concept perhaps difficult to conceive, but can yield immense dividends. Here again, the Indian experience of creating a counter infiltration fence all along the International Boundary and Line of Control clearly stands out. Containment of militant groups, when time is not an immediate operational compulsion is perhaps the most appropriate way of tackling trans-regional movement of militant groups. This enables a force to then undertake `neutralisation’ operations in a synergised manner. Pakistan therefore needs to strategise its anti-Taliban operations, firstly as to how it should geographically isolate them and then, annihilate them. The recent and sudden vacation of Buner town by Taliban clearly illustrates the mobility of militant groups. While this incident seems to be pre-meditated, under pressure militant groups are known to escape in no time, leaving military units chasing nothing. This militant tactic shall pose an immense challenge to the Pakistan Army, and also US troops deployed in adjoining provinces of Afghanistan. Geographically containing the Taliban should be the first step towards any worthwhile anti-militant operations in the region.

    The Pakistan Army today faces one of the worst challenges in its history, perhaps more painful and agonising than the fall of East Pakistan. The current situation carries the potential to consume Pakistan, if it still chooses to ignore the problem. It therefore needs to work seriously towards creating a capable counter insurgency force, and strategising its employment, lest the `learning curve’ becomes too difficult to negotiate for `units on rotation’. Pakistan also risks losing the larger issue in the muddle of routine military responses. The moot issue is does Pakistan have the time to recast its military for the emerging challenge. Even if it doesn’t, there is no way out but to change. India can surely offer a great deal of brotherly advice on matters that are `militant’.