August 7, 2010

Immortal Guerrilla Technique: The TTP's Devolution

Reaching a maximum diameter of four millimeters, Turritopsis nutricula has earned itself one of nature’s mightiest nicknames - the immortal jellyfish. Turritopsis nutricula possesses a unique ability to infinitely transform old cells into new ones and revert from medusa to polyp, the beginning stage of hydrozoan jellyfish. No surprise, then, that an organism this unconventional shares its trait with unconventional human affairs.

Guerrilla warfare similarly moves forward and backward through evolutionary stages, keeping guerrilla movements alive for what seems like an eternity.

Sifwat Ghayur is dead, the chief of Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary assassinated in Peshawar by a teenage suicide bomber of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). With 25,000 men in its ranks, the Frontier Constabulary serves as Islamabad’s paramilitary police force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). And since its local knowledge and skill is accentuated by training from US Special Forces, Pakistan and America’s condemnation was entirely predictable.

"We have lost a very brave and able official in this cowardly attack," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. "It doesn't mean the terrorists are gaining strength, but they have been beaten and are targeting those who are active in the war against terrorism."

Though Hussain is a brave man - the TTP murdered his son a week before Ghayur - his words aren’t entirely true.

A more accurate reading of the TTP’s health resembles the life-cycle of Turritopsis nutricula. The TTP isn’t gaining in strength but it hasn’t been beaten, instead devolving from insurgency to a heightened form of terrorism in response to intense Pakistani military operations. The TTP’s stubborn potency is visible without examining the stages of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Described as “widely respected and a “bold police officer... credited with many of the successes in the war against Pakistani militants,” Ghayur’s death culminates several weeks of political assassination in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The TTP has vowed more attacks and there’s no reason to doubt its ability. Senior Provincial Minister Bashir Bilour claimed the TTP is going “berserk” after failing to achieve its goal, but killing a key member of Pakistan’s (and America’s) relatively successful military campaign in the FATA is perfectly rational. That the TTP suffered a military and popularity setback is undeniable; no longer does it reign freely in South Waziristan, Bajaur, or Swat.

But guerrilla warfare both evolves and dies in stages.

Dissenters of any government first combine and extend their political, economic, and social contacts to build a platform to fight on. If local support and resources permit they skip directly to insurgency and multiply in the open, conducting guerrilla attacks on government and military personnel while offering services to their own populace. Otherwise clandestine cells target government, economic, and media installations, along with those civilians who collaborate with these entities, using semi-discriminate terror attacks. In this way militants hope to capture enough popular appeal to evolve into a widespread insurgency.

These two methods outline rural and urban (or foco) insurgency, and history demonstrates the former is far more successful than the latter. RAND recently concluded from a study on how insurgencies end that the government’s odds of victory improve from 25% in a rural state to 75% in an urban state, and the TTP, despite its urban tendencies, remains rural based. The final phase of an insurgency then crystallizes in pure guerrilla warfare, which the TTP shows no potential of.

Here guerrillas enjoy so much support that they became legitimate political actors in a state, Hezbollah and the Sandinista National Liberation Front being two examples.

Militants generally evolve and devolve between phases of guerrilla war in accordance to their environment. Some insurgencies survive for a decade or more in terrorist form, like the FARC or ETA. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, disadvantaged on an island from the beginning, regressed more than 15 years before collapsing. And guerrilla movements sometimes survive because they devolve, like the Taliban after 2001, making the ability to transform a necessary component of guerrilla warfare. The TTP had to devolve or be crushed by Pakistan’s frontal assault and will regroup over time.

Denying the conditions for its evolution becomes more important than killing foot soldiers and commanders.

Turritopsis nutricula is only theoretically immortal as it makes for easy prey. The way to kill it is to swallow it whole, illustrating why guerrillas are so hard to destroy - modern armies lack the capability to destroy a guerrilla organization in one moment. Always a piecemeal endeavor, the guerrilla body as a whole regenerates individual cells to keep itself alive.

The inability to destroy a guerrilla force all at once ultimately gave rise to the central pillar of counterinsurgency: protect the population. Instead of simply eliminating militants like a virus, all measures - limited force, responsive government, economic opportunity, social development - are directed towards preventing the making of new ones. So as guerrilla war evolves in states, so to does counterinsurgency.

Though it may not function as the ideal initial phase, a military sweep is often the first practical measure taken. The second phase of non-military development launches as the area is cleared and dovetails into holding operations. While counter-terrorism operations run in the background, political and economic reforms take precedent and assume the counterinsurgency's public face. That which is destroyed is rebuilt to secure local support. Thus the guerrilla steadily loses political, economic, and social power after his military power, impeding his ability to regenerate.

He degenerates into an insurgent, possessing less political and military power, and finally into a terrorist, which are most easily isolated in the final stage of a successful counterinsurgency. At least that’s the theory.

Unfortunately Pakistan may be stuck in the second phase of counterinsurgency for the indefinite future. While the FATA’s conditions have improved since Pakistan’s military campaign began in 2009, the non-military side hasn’t achieved the same progress. The TTP began re-infiltrating a war-scarred Swat before Maulana Fazlullah, the local commander, surfaced after being presumed dead, even before floods engulfed its residents. Now the TTP is capitalizing on the military’s distractions with floods and urban riots in Karachi by re-infiltrating dormant agencies.

Though thousands of TTP fighters have been killed, a similar amount is believed to have weathered the storm in Pakistani safe havens like North Waziristan and in Afghanistan, biding their time for the opportunity to reemerge.

Swat’s urgency is readily apparent in America’s latest humanitarian effort. While one target is Pakistani “hearts and minds,” reports of an increasingly active Taliban also drive Washington’s promises. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken the lead in Pakistani assistance, but she’s well aware of regenerating TTP cells too. At this point the focus is on currying local support to ward off the TTP’s specter.

That isn’t to say national Pakistani opinion is irrelevant; anti-US sentiment may be the single greatest factor in keeping US actions in check and Taliban approval above water. US popularity has undergone a minute improvement, if that, once more calling the TTP’s “defeat” into question. The TTP’s self-stated goal is an Islamic emirate in South Waziristan, followed by the FATA, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. A primary condition for this objective is the removal of US forces, which necessitates anti-US sentiment.

To this extent the TTP hasn’t failed, although through limited doing of its own. America has completed the task by itself, decreasing the efficiency of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency by sowing suspicions between Pakistanis and the government.

Observe the latest controversy surrounding US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in a recent interview with ABC was questioned on North Waziristan’s status and its relation to President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline. Though Gates makes clear that Washington wants to see more action from Pakistan, he never actually says what the Pakistani press runs with: a veiled threat of operations “on both sides of the border.”

This phrase never appears in Gates’ transcript, highlighting the durability of Pakistani suspicions. After Clinton’s humanitarian mission in July, where she called for Pakistani action against al-Qaeda, Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen landed in Islamabad demanding action against Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani Network. UK Prime Minister David Cameron would then allude to Pakistan’s support of the Haqqanis after Wikileaks, in India no less.

The message resonated loud and clear: do more.

But while Pakistanis generally express anxiety towards the ISI’s dual strategy, another feeling is all too common. With Clinton unable to wash away the impression she had come for North Waziristan and Mullen reinforcing it, the West then used Pakistan as a scapegoat for Wikileaks rather than address its own shortcomings in Afghanistan. This is the perception America competes against as it airlifts supplies into Swat.

Offering significant humanitarian assistance is the right thing to do, politically and morally, but America has aided in disaster relief before (the 2005 earthquake) and failed to overcome the systemic failures of US foreign policy towards Pakistan. And it’s not like TTP elements and cousins like LeT-affiliated Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) aren’t helping either flood victims either.

Meanwhile the weak point in Pakistani hearts stays untouched. Though eager to condemn LeT as a global threat, much to India’s delight, Kashmir’s unrest has unfolded in the silent shadow of the US State Department. Day after day passes with no mention of Kashmir’s battle for self-determination, nor the many youths caught in the crossfire of Indian security forces. It’s obvious to many that the region belongs to India in America’s eyes, and that Pakistan is a pawn in their geopolitical games.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon went to so far as to retract comments his office made on Kashmir, which, given the level of suspicion, was once again viewed as US interference.

By avoiding those issues Pakistan wants addressed and pressuring it where it’s most sensitive, America is solidifying the impression of a fair-weather friend and undermining Islamabad’s counterinsurgency. The “do more” mantra erodes the potential of US aid. Accumulating anti-US sentiment obstructs Pakistani officials from acting as Washington demands, ultimately keeping alive TTP sympathy and further obstructing development. Terrorists can flourish endlessly in such an environment, and possibly evolve back into insurgents if the government doesn’t meet expectations in the FATA.

While the TTP is unlikely to ever win its war, it will exist so long as US hegemony dictates the region, leaving the final stage of killing terrorists and eliminating their growth unachievable. Pakistan must improve relations with its people in all areas of society while also limiting US influence in policy, which would boost America’s image. And the TTP’s political agenda would shrink, leaving it open to permanent defeat.

The Taliban isn’t immortal, but it could seem that way by the time Pakistan's counterinsurgency finally ends.


  1. IMO: The Taliban will always have a tentacle in Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
    The ? is how big, how many, and how lethal.
    I am sure they are looking at what Al-Sadr, and Nasrallah have accomplished, and will follow suit.

  2. Though the TTP will never reach al-Sadr or Nasrallah's power, the Afghan Taliban have a real shot at reaching a mature guerrilla form, if they leverage their position into reconciliation and power-sharing. But the TTP could keep up the damage for years even in its present form. No longer can the Pakistani army smash large groups of insurgents. Pakistan must get development into those areas now. America should direct its humanitarian aid into wherever the Pakistani army goes, and not keep trying to buy its way into North Waziristan.

  3. IMO the reconciliation and power sharing is on its way.
    I think this irks the West more than defeat.

    Humanitarian aid should not follow the Pak military. It should have led and been in place long ago.
    Is it too late now?

    Drones do not drop K rations. they bring death.