The South Asia Channel

Four things to remember during the Waziristan war

By Ahsan Butt None of the following are particularly ground-breaking insights, but I wanted to collate a couple of thoughts on this conflict today. 1. None of us can know how the war is actually going. Both the Taliban and the Pakistan Army are opaque organizations that do not like revealing too much about themselves ...


By Ahsan Butt

None of the following are particularly ground-breaking insights, but I wanted to collate a couple of thoughts on this conflict today.

1. None of us can know how the war is actually going.

Both the Taliban and the Pakistan Army are opaque organizations that do not like revealing too much about themselves at the best of times. In a guerrilla war, however, you can amplify those instincts a hundred-fold. The war for public opinion in such wars is absolutely vital. Not just in terms of justice and the question of which side is “right” but also in terms of winning and the question of which side is on top. This is especially true of militant organizations such as the Taliban in civil wars, as they must keep morale high for recruitment purposes. If it becomes clear that one side is losing, it will make it very hard to sustain the war-fighting effort.

So with all that said, we will hear a lot of conflicting casualty statistics in the coming days. Both sides will claim that they have killed or captured x number of the other. We simply will not know which of these claims is true, which approximate the truth, and which are simply and outrageously false — though we can always proffer educated guesses. The fact that journalists and other independent organizations are not heavily represented in the operational theater of war makes the entire thing incredibly murky.

2. The non-fighting aspects of the war will be as or more important than the fighting.

There were mistakes and negligence with respect to internal refugees during the Malakand and Bajaur operations, to be sure, but — under the circumstances — the authorities did a fair job of registering families and ensuring they return to their homes as soon as possible. That is not to say they enjoyed Trump Tower level accommodations, but that epic-level disaster was avoided.

The same level of effort will be required here. In some ways, the job will be easier, because the Waziristan agencies are sparsely populated relative to Malakand, so there will be simply fewer people to take care of. On the other hand, the job will also be harder in the sense that this conflict is likely to last longer than those operations, which were essentially three-to-four week campaigns. This one, at best, will be about twice as long.

The local populations are key to any guerrilla conflict; that much is a truism. But the logical corollary of that is often missed by decision-makers: to care and provide for at-risk populations to the fullest extent of one’s capabilities. The Army is required to fight. The civilians will be in charge of the rehabilitation. Both must do their job.

3. The Taliban are strategic actors, but we do not know their strategy.

Broadly speaking, there are three options available to the Taliban now that the conflict is fully underway. First, they can disperse across the country, weaken their center of gravity, and concentrate on attacking civilian targets across the country in terrorist attacks. Such a strategy, at bottom, will aim at the political dimensions of the conflict. By raising the price Pakistani civilians have to pay, the Taliban will hope that public opinion turns against the war, and the government simply backs off. The Algerian civil war, as an illustration, saw a lot of this.

The second option is to face the military head-on in pitched battles as the military advances. This is the least likely alternative, simply because the very point of being a guerrilla organization is to avoid direct combat with armored militaries, as the Vietnamese will tell you.

The final option is tactical retreat into the mountains and hills of Waziristan and stage classical guerrilla warfare with surprise attacks and isolated offensive in vulnerable areas. In effect, the idea is to draw the military in where they feel least comfortable, and then assault them in unexpected ways. Such tactics exact a high toll not just with respect to actual casualties, but also on the psychological well-being of fighting forces. Anyone who has studied guerrilla war will tell you that armies fighting militant organizations go, for lack of a better term, a little crazy. They don’t know where the next attack is coming from, they become suspicious of everything, trust dies, and they start acting in stupid and counter-productive ways.

How the Taliban weigh option one versus option three will determine the price Pakistani citizens pay in this war. In the week preceding the outbreak of hostilities, they clearly chose option one. Now that they have to face the Pakistani military in an actual war, the question becomes: to what extent will they change their strategy?

4. Two foreign actors will matter: the Americans and the Uzbeks.

On the American side, air power and intelligence will remain important in boxing militants in circumscribed geographical areas, where the military can take action on the ground. Taking care to coordinate border security, so that militants don’t cross over from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and vice versa, is also crucial.

As for the Uzbeks, they remain the ultimate wildcard. Estimates on how many of them are being imported by the Taliban range from the hundreds to the low thousands. They could conceivably tip the balance against the military, which in turn reinforces the importance of border control on the Afghan side.

Ahsan Butt is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago and contributes to the blog Five Rupees, where this was originally published.


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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