The South Asia Channel

Bad journalism has big consequences

By Ahsan Butt Pakistan is a difficult country to understand for outsiders at the best of times, but this is particularly so when those that are meant to aid in the process of understanding — such as journalists — do their jobs badly. A report published on is titled “Pakistan’s Noncampaign Against the Taliban,” ...


By Ahsan Butt

Pakistan is a difficult country to understand for outsiders at the best of times, but this is particularly so when those that are meant to aid in the process of understanding -- such as journalists -- do their jobs badly.

By Ahsan Butt

Pakistan is a difficult country to understand for outsiders at the best of times, but this is particularly so when those that are meant to aid in the process of understanding — such as journalists — do their jobs badly.

A report published on is titled “Pakistan’s Noncampaign Against the Taliban,” which is a title quite curious in its own right, given the recent four-month military campaign against the Taliban which succeeded in routing the entrenched presence of the Taliban from Swat and the rest of the Malakand division, removed the Taliban threat from the major urban centers of Pakistan’s north and north west (at least for now), provided the security necessary for the return of more than a million internal refugees to their homes, and boxed the Taliban back into the Waziristan corridor from which they had spread over the last four years.

The report fails to provide this context in the least; indeed, an uninformed observer reading the piece would conclude that the first strike in this conflict was from the American drone that about a month ago killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Though few doubt that significant work remains to be done in this war, the suggestion that what the Taliban have been dealing with is a ‘noncampaign’ is simply erroneous.

The report itself is scarcely better than the title. The basic argument proffered in the piece is that Pakistani decision-makers do not wish to fight the Taliban any further because the militant group remains a useful pawn for both external and internal considerations.

Externally, some elements of the Taliban could be used to impose Pakistani influence in post-NATO Afghanistan. Internally, according to Bruce Riedel, whom Time quoted, the Taliban could prove to be useful “to keep civilians appreciative of the need for the army to be getting resources and priority attention.” Instead of capitalizing on Baitullah Mehsud’s death and fighting the Taliban, we are told, the Pakistan military would like to cut deals with the Taliban, essentially suing for peace from a position of strength only to serve parochial interests, at the cost of Pakistani — and perhaps American — security interests.

There are a number of problems with this view. The most obvious one is that the reason for the Pakistan military not going gung-ho in North and South Waziristan is most likely a problem of capabilities, not intentions. In other words, it is not that the Pakistan military does not want to fight a war in Waziristan, it is that it cannot fight a war in Waziristan, at least right now. The last time the military went into Waziristan was in 2004, when it was defeated badly, suffered substantial losses, and accomplished precious little.

(Read on)

Though there have been important advances in training methods, technology, and tactics within Pakistan’s counterinsurgency capabilities — some delivered by U.S. aid, some by attaining experience in this war — there  is little to suggest that this time will be much different. The terrain is extremely rugged and unfamiliar to the Army, and it is essentially TTP Central: the Taliban would enjoy a massive home-field advantage.

 In addition, the patchwork of tribal loyalties that exists in the region today does not lend itself to a massive military operation by the Pakistan Army, primarily because there is still substantial support for its adversaries, contrary to the situation it faced in its successes in the the Malakand division. If the Pakistani military were to go into Waziristan, it would at least enjoy greater support and coordination from the U.S. in terms of air power and the use of drones — both factors absent during the last Waziristan operation(s) — but it is questionable if that will be enough to ensure success.

Moreover, even if the Pakistan military were to be successful in physically wiping out the Taliban in Waziristan, it would come at appreciable cost, particularly in terms of blood. In turn, heavy military losses could easily erode fragile public support for the war. Until recently, the general public was generally predisposed to avoiding combat with Taliban militants because of the tendency to view the war with the Taliban as a conflict imposed upon Pakistan by the U.S, the extremely heavy civilian toll of retributive attacks from the Taliban, and the widely held notion that the Taliban would not attack the Pakistani state and its citizens if the latter abandoned its efforts to eradicate Taliban influence in the north west of the country.

It is only recently, as the Taliban made greater incursions into “settled” Pakistani territory despite promising not to, that the basis for these claims was challenged by Pakistani society at large, and greater support for military measures manifested itself. The important point to note is that military action against the Taliban enjoyed public support not as a default option, but as a specific response to changing circumstances on the ground. The lesson for observers is clear: the military should tread carefully, lest it lose public support — perhaps the most crucial element of winning counterinsurgent wars.

In sum, the constraints the military faces constitute enormously steep breaks to conflict in Waziristan and, to be fair to Bobby Ghosh, the writer of the article, he does say that it could be these constraints, and not the military’s intrinsic preferences, that are driving its decisions. Indeed, he quotes “some Pakistan experts in Washington” as well as “a senior Pakistani military official” as espousing this exact view. The problem is that Ghosh immediately dismisses the possibility out of hand, relying on the testimony of unnamed “U.S. officials” (presumably sitting in Washington) as well as Bruce Riedel (definitely sitting in Washington), both of whom might know less about the situation on the ground than they would like to think. Mr. Riedel, in particular, has been responsible for some remarkably alarmist prognostications on Pakistan, which — how to put this politely? — haven’t proved especially prescient.

None of this is to suggest that I do not support the military going in to Waziristan — eventually. I have in the past heavily criticized Pakistan’s proclivity to make peace deals with the TTP for two main reasons. First, because the TTP is an unreliable partner and rarely sticks to signed agreements, any deal with them is basically worthless as they do not actually deliver the one element they are designed to: peace. Second, and relatedly, the deals make the military’s job that much harder, because they allow the TTP to regroup, increase its organizational and fighting capabilities and necessarily entail a more challenging enemy the next time they are militarily engaged in battles on the ground.

The difference this time is that, in addition to the points raised above on the difficulties of actually prosecuting this war in Waziristan, the TTP is in the midst of a leadership crisis, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Such divisions lend themselves to political prodding from the outside as much as military bashing; at this point, it is not even a near certainty that the TTP will survive as an umbrella organization — even if elements of the Taliban continue to pose a threat both to the Pakistani state and western forces in Afghanistan.

It is certainly not my intention to single out Mr. Ghosh or Time magazine. Indeed, it is precisely the non-unique nature of a report this misleading that makes it so troubling, and makes it imperative that a clearer picture of facts on the ground is presented. News reports which fail to accurately depict the goings-on in this conflict have real and damaging consequences. In this internet age, reports such as these tend to spread far and wide quickly, and are often taken at face value. Their supposed implications — that more pressure be applied to Pakistan’s military to fight this war in a manner that satisfies Americans, not Pakistanis — can end up being deeply counterproductive.

Given America’s unpopularity in the country, and given that any military and population bristles when it is told how to conduct its affairs, the “do more” chant that we got used to during the Bush-Musharraf years hurts the war effort more than it helps it. For those of us that desperately wish to win this war, that is a possibility we would like to avoid. 

Ahsan Butt is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Chicago and contributes to the blog Five Rupees.


Ahsan I. Butt is a Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow with the International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an Assistant Professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

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