March 22, 2010

Pakistan Isn't Sri Lanka (and Shouldn't Want to Be)

They came in droves, to prove the power of numbers applies equally to military force and democracy.

An estimated 700 tribal leaders and 3,000 elders had gathered in Peshawar for the National Peace jirga, organized by Amn Tehrik (Peace Movement), to call for stiffer action against the TTP, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates.

"We will not rest until we banish the terrorists from the whole tribal region," said Syed Alam Mehsud, a leading member of Amn Tehrik, which is composed of ethnic Pashtun intellectuals and professionals from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Amn Tehrik’s efforts are both admirable and wise. Reports mention that the group has no faith in America and Pakistan’s governments and is assuming a proactive strategy. Organizing such an event is dangerous in the present and future, but only through local support can Pakistan permanently dismantle the TTP and exile al-Qaeda.

“If we strengthen these councils and make them more functional, I believe it will win us half of the war,” said Salar Amjad Ali. “We, the Pashtuns, live for our culture and tradition and we die for it.”

The exact demands of Amn Tehrik go unsaid. One organizer, Sayd Alam Mehsud, said the jirga was meant to bring together people from the area, presumably to organize them further, but what then? Are they calling for Islamabad to arm them or simply fight harder?

“It should be a genuine military operation like the Sri Lankans did against the Tamil Tigers,” said Sayd Alam Mehsud, a powerful tribal leader.

Amn Tehrik must think carefully because Pakistan isn’t Sri Lanka - and it shouldn’t want Sri Lanka’s outcome anyway.

A number of differences stand out. One is Sri Lanka’s ethnic makeup, heavily skewed at 75% Sinhalese and only 10-15% Tamil. Sri Lanka’s ethnic breakdown provided the government with an unlimited mandate, of which one aspect was to wage war against the Tigers.

Pakistan is ethnically scattered, a reality that has contributed to instability in the FATA, Balochistan, and the Indian border. Though Pashtuns generally support a campaign against militants of their own ethnicity, overall the government hovers in mediocrity, weighted down by domestic crises, making large scale war more difficult to wage.

Then there’s a more obvious divergence - water. Being an island, Sri Lanka exploited its natural counterinsurgency advantage to consume all of its territory until the Tigers surrendered or were pushed into the sea. Pakistan suffers from a porous mountain border with Afghanistan, and its borders with Iran and India aren’t secure either.

Any Sri Lanka-like offensive will only push the TTP into Afghanistan.

Both of these differences feed back into the crux of Amn Tehrik’s dilemma. What is meant by a “genuine military operation?” Does Mehsud mean a sincere operation, as in Pakistan is faking its South Waziristan operation for US consumption? Does he mean more operations, such as in North Waziristan? Or does he merely mean “conventional?”

Sri Lanka’s advantages allowed it to wage a more conventional counterinsurgency than Pakistan is able to. Colombo’s majority support allowed it to avoid winning over the minority populace and thus deploy large scale formations and artillery to pound Tiger locations - and any civilians hiding or being held in the area.

Without having to worry about popular opinion Sri Lanka’s army was able to steam roll all the way to Jaffna. Conventional warfare allowed it to physically crush the Tigers. But Sri Lanka’s type of victory wouldn’t bring victory to Pakistan, and not just because the two conflicts deviate. Both are still counterinsurgencies and share fundamental properties.

Pakistan has been here before and sits in its present hole because overwhelming firepower was too often relied upon in the 2000’s. Conventional war didn’t bring stability to the FATA, it rallied the insurgency. Only when Pakistan began to fight smarter, with greater concern for civilians, more special-ops, and emphasizing social development, did momentum start shifting back in Islamabad’s favor.

Victory isn’t sealed in Sri Lanka. Though militarily and financially scattered, the Tiger’s spirit remains at large and splinter groups have already begun reconstituting for a potentially long fight ahead. As Tamil grievances have largely been ignored, a resurrected insurgency appears to be a matter of time.

Sri Lanka blew everything to pieces, a strategy many Americans favor in Pakistan judging by comments on news sites and blogs, but the reality is that Amn Tehrik has no use for Sri Lanka’s kind of military operation. It was exactly that - a military operation.

Conventional warfare, not counterinsurgency.

All Sri Lanka accomplished with its war is one dead militant group, the rising spirits of new ones, a train of human rights abuses with UN investigation in toe, a disenfranchised Tamil minority and their jailed opposition figure, even if he is the general who defeated the Tigers.

If Colombo formulates a political and social strategy to engage and reintegrate Tamils then victory in the true sense is indeed possible. But the present situation is unstable and if it persists another insurgency will spawn, a new battle in an old war.

We don’t want to assume too much of Amn Tehrik’s intentions, but we would advise them to support Pakistan’s present operations. More force quicker isn’t the answer. More could and should be done in time, but there’s no point in clearing all territory held by the TTP and other militants if it can’t hold or build it.

The operations we’re seeing are only Phase 1 in the grand strategy.

Pakistan should stay its course and gradually reoccupy lost ground in proportion to the level of control the government can reestablish. It must also enter Phase 2, the rebuilding phase, as soon as possible since most tribes have given Islamabad one final chance. National political reform, in regards to both the FATA and Balochistan, would serve as the final phase.

Letting the bombs fly like Sri Lanka might sound tempting, but it would destroy Pakistan’s counterinsurgency.

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