October 15, 2009

Guerrilla Warfare

For all the opposition to escalating Afghanistan, relatively little notice is given to the current temperature in Pakistan. For instance, when Senator John McCain criticizes President Obama for stalling and endangering US troops, he usually forgets to mention Pakistanis are falling in greater numbers.

Taliban fighters staged their fifth attack in ten days on government targets: the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) building, Manawa Police Training Centre and Eliot Force Training Centre. The death-toll started at 5, stands at 24, and will probably rise. The attack itself is packed with significance; the surface is stained with blood but underneath lies a near complete picture of guerrilla warfare.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik told a local television station, “The enemy has started a guerrilla war.”

Either Malik is a fool or he's playing one because he's staring at an advanced stage of guerrilla war, one that started decades ago, perhaps centuries. The real question is whether the insurgency has become too advanced.

Every report today will speak of how these attacks are connected; obviously they’re connected. These attacks don’t happen randomly, they could have been planned months ago in Waziristan. Each attack is one move out of hundreds on the chess board, neither the first nor last.

Lahore itself was chosen specifically as a propaganda victory. Now the government is wondering just how deep the TTP has infiltrated Punjab province. Now nowhere is safe. Pakistan is said to primarily, if not exclusively, use military officials from Punjab to safeguard nuclear weapons keys, believing them to be disconnected from the insurgency.

The TTP is seeking to challenge this notion.

Though civilians died in the attacks, every target was a government buildings, three of them related to law enforcement. Malik is right, this is guerrilla warfare and the enemy is attacking political targets, creating an inverse scenario. Attacking government instead of civilian targets is the TTP’s way of hoping to stave off complete public abandonment.

It may or may not be working. What turned the Paksitani public was Swat, not everything before, even though the Taliban steadily declined in popularity as the war escalated. By attacking the police and army, the TTP is trying to attack legitimate targets of war.

Except it’s become too proficient. Bombings and attacks have lost their political impact and simply look like one act of war after another. Multiple sites are attacked in multiple cities, militants infiltrating the most secure army facilities, wave after wave. Sometimes the attack is purely civilian to instill control, which naturally backfires. The TTP would be better off with its populace in its territory, not evacuating.

The TTP is overwhelming the populace and ultimately imploding, winning battles but losing the war.

In another dimension of guerrilla war - foreign investment - Mohammed Sohail, chief executive at brokers Topline Securities said, “The market is sort of used to terror attacks. These high profile targets are a concern, but investors are optimistic that eventually the Waziristan operation will take place and the terrorists will be attacked."

Yes, Waziristan, the TTP’s only hope. Many reports are liable to claim the TTP is trying to prevent an operation. Imtiaz Gul, a political analyst in Islamabad, told Al Jazeera, “It seems that [opposition fighters] are taking advantage of the lack of leadership in Islamabad at the moment. Obviously these attacks are meant to prevent a ground offensive in South Waziristan."

Octopus Mountain offers a different theory: these attacks are meant to provoke a ground offensive in South Waziristan.

Beyond everything encapsulated in these attacks, sheer bravado is a driving force. Baitullah Mehsud wasn’t shy to wage war with the Pakistani government, but his successor Hakimullah is a loose cannon who vowed a bloodbath after Baitullah’s death. He's reportedly given Qari Hussain, commander of the suicide forces, a free hand to execute. Eager for war and believing his movement is still growing stronger, Hakimullah has the men and the means to launch almost any attack he wants.

He also seems arrogant and overconfident. How strong does he actually think he is? Strong enough to take on the Pakistan army? Waziristan has been invaded three times since 2005, all to no avail. The TTP has been constructing its defense network for years. They claim to have 20,000 soldiers, Pakistan estimates 10,000 along with 2,000 hardcore foreign fighters. Either is enough to challenge 40,000 Pakistani soldiers, but this depends on the type of war fought.

Does Hakimullah have the means to fight a war that will become less guerrilla, more conventional? More jets, tanks, and artillery. More drones. The TTP will suffer high casualties - is the it ready for such a transition? It could knock itself out if it tries to land a knockout punch.

Sohail perfectly stated, “investors (the Pakistani government and people) are optimistic that eventually the Waziristan operation will take place and the terrorists will be attacked.”

But if they withstand that attack? The TTP wants to fight the Pakistani army, wants to settle scores and test its strength. However, it will only outlast the army if it fights smart and to survive until winter. Such an outcome would deal a huge blow to the government if it survives and could be the TTP’s ultimate objective. Protraction is the correct move.

Pakistan must be on guard not to fall for the TTP's trap. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again - be absolutely sure of victory before launching. Don't launch prematurely in reaction to the TTP's attacks, don’t fall into the Waziristan trap. But if the TTP is so bold to deploy conventional tactics - large formations, challenging tanks - don't miss the opportunity to smash it.

The TTP will be at its weakest point outside of guerrilla war, a fish out of water.


  1. Reasonable analysis. You should also take into account logististics. TTP is under seige without fresh supplies they lash out. All supplies are blocked and there are nothing local. They could get supplies from Afghanistan but rather at high cost. Larger their numbers worse is their situation. On top the winter is appraching and any effort by either party would not be desirable. The political leadership in Pakistan is not exactly friendly with the army and they won't mind a failed operation to cut down army's standing. So it is obvious that the army would fortify their position for approaching winter and plan for a spring operation.

  2. It definitely makes sense to delay the operation based on Pakistan's own logistics, since it appears unready for the mission, but officials have already given the green light. They seem intent on attacking before spring, aware that the TTP is likely to keep attacking during winter. Ideally an operation would be more effective in spring, but realistically Pakistan doesn't have time to wait. It needs to demonstrate urgency not just to the military and US, but to its people. Your point is also well taken about the civilian leadership accepting a failed operation, but this would be shortsighted on their part. The worse the insurgency becomes the more problems they'll have, though such a scenario may fit the general pattern of Pakistan.

  3. The question of timing and need for urgency is an open question. Let's see what happens.

  4. That's what political science is all about.

  5. James you know a lot more than I do.

  6. That's not our attitude, we're glad that you're interested like us. The winner is hard to predict - this isn't like Gaza and Hamas. Both Paksitan and the TTP are trying to hit home runs. The TTP needs to do more than survive, it needs to put up resistance so to generate recruits and funds. The number to watch is dead Pakistani soldiers, not Taliban.

    Pakistan can't psychologically afford to let the TTP survive, so it will interesting how hard the army presses before snow. Army officials estimated two months, but an early winter will demand patience if the operation requires more time and forces. Rushing will likely lead to mistakes.