Seeing past Swat: what’s next for the Pakistani Army?

The Pakistan Army’s successful campaign against militants in the Swat Valley is not altogether surprising or unexpected. The Pakistan Army is a well-trained and disciplined force, effectively led at the tactical level. An important aspect of this spring and summer’s military success in Pakistan’s troubled northwest has to do with the tactics, techniques and means ...

580004_091002_pakistansoldiers22.jpg
580004_091002_pakistansoldiers22.jpg

The Pakistan Army's successful campaign against militants in the Swat Valley is not altogether surprising or unexpected. The Pakistan Army is a well-trained and disciplined force, effectively led at the tactical level. An important aspect of this spring and summer's military success in Pakistan's troubled northwest has to do with the tactics, techniques and means employed by the Army. It is obvious that the Pakistan Army is conducting operations as it would in a conventional battle, employing close air support and artillery, with few qualms about collateral damage. If the present tempo of operations continues, it is only a matter of time before the Army establishes its writ over all areas under the control of the Taliban. The question is, will it?

What remains unclear is whether the offensive is exclusively against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or it is the first phase of an overall campaign against terrorism. While the Army has set about the task of tackling the Taliban, the attitude of the government of Pakistan is cause for misgivings. Despite the determination it has shown against the TTP, there is no indication that the government will take the logical next step toward eliminating other militant groups in the region, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

The Pakistan Army’s successful campaign against militants in the Swat Valley is not altogether surprising or unexpected. The Pakistan Army is a well-trained and disciplined force, effectively led at the tactical level. An important aspect of this spring and summer’s military success in Pakistan’s troubled northwest has to do with the tactics, techniques and means employed by the Army. It is obvious that the Pakistan Army is conducting operations as it would in a conventional battle, employing close air support and artillery, with few qualms about collateral damage. If the present tempo of operations continues, it is only a matter of time before the Army establishes its writ over all areas under the control of the Taliban. The question is, will it?

What remains unclear is whether the offensive is exclusively against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or it is the first phase of an overall campaign against terrorism. While the Army has set about the task of tackling the Taliban, the attitude of the government of Pakistan is cause for misgivings. Despite the determination it has shown against the TTP, there is no indication that the government will take the logical next step toward eliminating other militant groups in the region, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

This lack of signalling from the military leads to reservations over its true intentions and sincerity. Some analysts have suggested that the present offensive is only a façade to convince the international community, the U.S. in particular, that Pakistan is at least trying to defeat its militant scourge — adequately enough to ensure that the political and financial largesse continue to flow unhindered. This is not unjustified skepticism; former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf played this double game for much of his time in office. He ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds by encouraging and aiding terrorist groups to carry out a jihad against India and elsewhere, while concurrently joining America’s so-called “global war on terror.”  

(Read on)

Several other questions about the intentions of the Pakistani military remain critical to moving forward. If the offensive is against the Taliban and not against other terrorist groups, then is it only against the TTP or will it extend to the Afghan Taliban, who are headquartered in Quetta, in southwest Pakistan? What are the ultimate objectives of the campaign? U.S. and NATO forces have long wanted to bring the hammer down on the Taliban in Afghanistan and have been urging the Pakistan Army to act as the anvil by blocking all routes of escape for the Taliban to safe havens in Pakistan. However, Pakistan has demonstrated over the past eight years its inability or unwillingness to do so effectively, and in fact, reports still suggest that elements of Pakistan’s military intelligence wing continue to support the insurgency on both sides of the border.

Pakistan has an ongoing dilemma: it would like to continue to use the Taliban to leverage its domestic and foreign policies, but the insurgency is becoming more and more of a problem and militants have frequently struck Pakistani security forces and other internal targets with suicide bombs and the like. This becomes particularly relevant when juxtaposed with Pakistan’s twin obsessions: turning Afghanistan into its strategic backyard and preventing India’s perceived hegemony at all costs. After Musharraf’s stratagem of ‘peace agreements’ with the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) patently failed, the Pakistan Army no longer trusted Taliban leadership — if indeed it ever truly did. While Pakistan does not want the TTP to dictate terms on its own soil, the government made concessions to the Taliban in Afghanistan to maintain its influence there. That, in essence, is the predicament for Pakistan.

The predicament is perhaps worse for the Army than that for the civilian government. The Army has its fingers in a lot of pies; running Pakistan including shaping major state policies, influencing Afghanistan’s internal dynamics through the ISI and in turn keeping a close watch on activities there, keeping the Army’s cohesion intact and its morale high, to name but a few important issues. If it stuck to what armies in most modern democracies should do, it would be concerned only with professional matters and not have to do the political skulduggery and balancing external relations (read: those with the United States) constantly.

The genuineness of the present offensive is also suspect. It does not seem to be an all-out offensive, but a carefully calibrated campaign against very specific geographical targets. The Army appears to have two main objectives: to encourage the attrition of the rank and file of the TTP in order to reduce the number of fighters, and to selectively eliminate the leadership. Perhaps realising this second goal, U.S. forces have been carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Pakistan Army has accepted these, while expressing objections in public. However, it is possible that the ISI may be providing accurate intelligence for strikes by the U.S. against targets that the Pakistani Army finds difficult or inconvenient to eliminate on its own for various reasons.

The arrests and elimination of significant Taliban commanders, either by American drones or the Pakistani military, also appear to be too few and far between. Pictures of the destroyed house where Baitullah Mehsud, the erstwhile leader of the TTP, was killed were liberally splashed across the world. Contrast that with the fact that, despite high intensity battles in northwest Pakistan with frequent reports of deaths and destruction, there is a conspicuous absence of much evidence of casualties, body bags and photographs from the battlefield. Foreign media and even the International Red Cross are seldom permitted to visit the battle zone, purportedly out of concern for their safety. Pakistan’s ISI has, as in the past, carefully stage-managed militant arrests and briefings that keep international media interested, but the CIA and the Pentagon baffled about Pakistan’s motives regarding its militant plague.

After the dust and din of battle settles, how does government of Pakistan propose to organise the return of the Swat Valley internally displaced persons (IDPs) and what role will the Army play? How will Pakistan execute plans for rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation? The huge population of IDPs will return only when they feel assured of the sincerity of the government’s efforts to keep the Taliban from returning. It is no secret that the Army is dominated by Punjabis. While the government in Pakistan has initiated strong measures against the largely Pashtun Taliban, it has shown little enthusiasm to go after the likes of LeT and JeM, which are mainly Punjabi organizations. The Army will, therefore, have to do more to demonstrate an unprejudiced and non-partisan attitude if the entire country is to support its campaign against the militants.

Assuming that the Pakistani Army has indeed launched whole-hearted military operations, what it has done thus far is easy part compared to what comes next. Challenges that await the Army are formidable, as the insurgency in places like South Waziristan is deeply embedded with the tribal networks that provide the fundamental structure of society in the region. The upcoming military offensive, if there is one, will leave extensive scars on the social fabric and the collective psyche of the people. Healing the scars is equally, if not more important, than repairing physical damage from bombs and gunfire. In other words, after driving away the Taliban, the Army’s first priority should be winning hearts and minds by providing essential services and reparations to those wounded or forced out of their homes by the battles. That calls for entirely different techniques and attitude than has previously been demonstrated; the Pakistani Army does not appear to have the necessary dexterity and finesse. Recent reports of extrajudicial killings of many alleged Taliban and their supporters in the Swat Valley could not have won the Army many friends. 

About 30 percent of the Army’s troops are non-Punjabis; nearly half of whom are Pashtuns. They have generally performed well in operations against the Taliban, save the few blemishes when Pashtuns in the Frontier Corps surrendered without a fight. The Army’s Pashtun troops will be keenly watching how the institution treats the predominantly Pashtun population in northwest Pakistan after the Taliban have been driven away – if indeed they are — and any contemptuous attitudes would be deeply resented.

A remaining question is critical: after being hounded out of Swat, what if the Taliban turn to Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan? They have shown their ability to strike at will there in the past, either singly or in collusion with the likes of LeT. If at some stage such activities reach the proportions of what happened in Buner, when the Taliban advanced within 60 miles of the capital city of Islamabad this spring, the Army may be obliged to step in. The question that will then arise is whether Punjabi troops will operate with the same enthusiasm and strong methods against the Punjabi-dominated outfits like Let and JeM as they did against the Pashtun Taliban. If the Army is seen as soft on the Punjabis, this would not augur well for its internal cohesion and morale; an ominous portent indeed.

Lt. Gen. VG Patankar is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based independent public policy think tank.

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

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