Activists gather at a July rally in support of the Pakistani army after the launch of military operation against terrorists in North Waziristan. © Masroor/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Pakistan: Take on the Taliban

The Asian country is right to send its army to fight against extremists—but it is only buying time
July 17, 2014

The military offensive this summer against the Pakistani Taliban in their stronghold of North Waziristan demonstrates yet again the resilience of Pakistan’s state and army. The Taliban rebels have been defeated in the field and split internally. But rather than capitalising on this success, Pakistan’s political elites and military leaders appear to be stumbling towards yet another political crisis.

If so, this will be a tragedy, because the example of the fight against the Taliban demonstrates that progress in Pakistan is possible. I was in South Waziristan in April, and witnessed not only the determination of the military to fight against the Pakistani Taliban but also their ability to back up counter-insurgency with successful development that helps the local population.

This shows, in my view, that Pakistan’s government is right in its decision—hugely controversial with the public—to avoid peace negotiations with the Taliban. In Afghanistan, there is no option but to broker a peace deal with them, but in Pakistan the army is having real success in pushing back the local Taliban and quelling their threat to national government.

Nonetheless, that can only buy time for the deep social and economic reforms which Pakistan badly needs. Without these reforms, the nation’s long-term future will not be secure—and despite the election last year of a government with an agenda of economic reform and a strong democratic mandate, reforms are not taking place with the speed and determination necessary.

It is important, when discussing Pakistan, not to confuse insurgency and terrorism. Terrorist attacks will continue for the foreseeable future, and some of them—such as the attack on Karachi airport on 8th June, which left 28 dead—will be very serious. The appalling Pakistani death toll from terrorism and counter-terrorist military responses is now approaching 50,000 since the insurgency began in 2004. The terror campaign has helped reduce foreign investment in Pakistan to historic lows. What’s more, Pakistani-based terrorist groups pose a severe threat to Britain, through troubled members of the large Pakistani diaspora in this country. This is a danger that will remain long after the present wave of British recruits for Isis—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, which has now renamed itself simply the Islamic State—has passed.

Terrorism, however, has never yet brought down a state. For that, you need an insurgency that can capture territory, like Isis in Iraq; or an urban revolution accompanied by the defection of parts of the armed forces, like Russia in 1917 and Iran in 1979. No force that could carry out such a revolution is presently at hand in Pakistan.

Yet although the army’s success against the militants can preserve Pakistan in the short and even medium term, it does nothing in itself to solve the country’s underlying economic, social and environmental problems. At best, the military can buy time for elected governments to implement serious reforms. Sadly, the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, elected in May 2013, has been proceeding much more slowly with reform than most observers hoped; and it is also replicating many of the miserable features of Pakistani political culture that for more than four decades have held the country back.

The opposition, too, has little to be proud of. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Party (PTI) is challenging the results of last year’s election in the courts, and is considering launching a mass movement on the streets in August to force new elections. Yet again, “democratic” politicians are scheming with the military to undermine the existing government and bring themselves to power.

Unless the leading actors abandon their present course and seek consensus, the result may be a new political crisis, and a return to the situation of the 1990s: a succession of weak coalition governments presiding over a bitterly divided political order, subject to constant pressure from the army, and with no possibility of carrying out desperately needed reforms. The difference from the 1990s would be that Pakistan would still be facing very serious internal security threats.

North Waziristan, an immense tribal “agency,” or area, on the Afghan border with a population (before the present operation began) of some 400,000 people, has been at the heart of the Islamist insurgency in Pakistan since that rebellion began 12 years ago. The reasons lie partly in history: Waziristan has an old tradition of Islamist and tribal resistance to state power, and was the site of numerous rebellions against British rule. The Pashtun tribes of the region are closely linked to those on the other side of the Afghan border, and during the 1980s were heavily mobilised (with US help) to fight with the Afghan mujahideen against Soviet and communist rule in Afghanistan (the first time I visited the region). As far as many local people are concerned, their support for the Afghan Taliban’s struggle is no different.

Despite the centrality of North Waziristan to the rebellion, Pakistan’s military and civilian authorities long hesitated to launch a military operation on the ground there. In the past, the most important reason for this delay appears to have been the military’s unwillingness to risk conflict with the formidable Haqqani network, the Afghan militant group allied to the Taliban, whose support lies in Afghan tribes that straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

On the one hand, the military does not want to drive the Haqqanis into support for the insurgency within Pakistan. On the other, the Haqqanis are old allies of the Pakistani military, and there is strong evidence to suggest that the military intelligence service (Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI) has been encouraging and helping the Haqqanis to attack Indian targets in Afghanistan, as part of their strategy of trying to restrict Indian influence in that country. The military is anxious to prevent what they see as Indian attempts to turn Afghanistan into an Indian client state and thereby “encircle” Pakistan.

Fear of India therefore still plays an important role in Pakistani military behaviour. In recent years, however, it has been balanced by a growing realisation that domestic Islamist rebellion is a more immediate threat than Indian strategy. The reasons for this partial change of military focus are obvious: more than 4,500 military dead since fighting began in 2004, including eight generals and several dozen ISI officers; a string of terrorist attacks on high-profile military targets; and a growing Islamist militant presence in Karachi that threatens a key part of Pakistan’s financial and industrial base. Moreover, the military appears anxious to secure Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan before the collapse of the Afghan state, which they are convinced will follow hard on the heels of US withdrawal from that country in 2016. Hence the present offensive in North Waziristan which began on 14th June.

A tragic irony of Pakistan’s position has been that even as western governments and commentators have cursed Pakistani governments and generals for not doing enough to fight violent Islamists, they have done far more than most of the Pakistani electorate would wish. Public opinion, especially in the Pashtun areas and northern Punjab, mostly remains unconvinced of the need for a military struggle against the Pakistani Taliban and instead favours a peace settlement.

At bottom, this all stems from the twin facts that most Pakistanis are deeply hostile to US strategy in what used to be called the “war on terror” and all too many of them see the war with the Pakistani Taliban as imposed on them by America, rather than as a struggle that must be waged for Pakistan’s own sake.

This feeling is especially strong among the Pakistani Pashtuns, a great many of whom are sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban campaign against “US occupation,” and tend to see the Pakistani Taliban as misguided but basically sincere allies of their Afghan brothers. There is also deep unhappiness in the Pashtun areas at the idea of Pashtuns fighting Pashtuns, whether at the perceived behest of the US or the Pakistani army. Finally, there is concern about the humanitarian consequences of military operations. Many thousands of civilians have been accidentally killed in such operations over the years and, according to Pakistani officials, the latest military assault has led to an exodus of some 750,000 people from the area affected since the operation began in June.

Responding to this public opposition, in the last two Pakistani elections the victorious parties have campaigned on pledges to negotiate a peace settlement with the Pakistani Taliban. In 2008-9, the new Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) national government of President Asif Ali Zardari joined with the Awami National Party (ANP) government of the Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province) to make an agreement with the Taliban in the district of Swat. This was seen as a precedent for possible future deals in the Tribal Areas. The agreement—which was immensely popular with the people of Swat—provided for an end to Taliban attacks, an amnesty for Taliban fighters and the establishment of sharia as the sole law of Swat.

When, however, the Taliban used the resulting truce as an opportunity to conquer the neighbouring district of Buner, only 75 miles from Islamabad, the PPP and ANP united with the army for a massive offensive in the spring of 2009 to drive them back. As a result of this unity, and the Taliban’s blatant aggression, it was also possible—for a while—to mobilise the Pakistani media behind this military campaign. The result over the following three years was a series of offensives which ended the Taliban insurgency (though not terrorism) in Swat and most of the Tribal Areas.

At heart, however, much of the population remained unconvinced. While successful military operations continued until they reached the borders of North Waziristan, a series of incidents in 2011 between the US and Pakistan—above all, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—inflamed hatred of America among the general population. There was less and less willingness to do anything that could be seen (however wrongly) to be helping America and not Pakistan.

Moreover, each time the Pakistani army (helped by US drone strikes) launched an offensive against the insurgency on the ground, the Pakistani Taliban responded with increased terrorist attacks elsewhere in the country. Ordinary Pakistanis, who had convinced themselves that military success against the Taliban meant the end of terrorism, began to think that the entire campaign was pointless.

So in last year’s elections, the PMLN, led by Nawaz Sharif, and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Party (PTI) again campaigned on promises of peace with the Taliban. The PMLN won the elections for the national assembly by a wide margin and have formed the national government, and the PTI won the elections for the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. For almost a year, the new governments pursued a strategy of negotiating with the Taliban, until this eventually foundered in June on a mixture of strict limits imposed by the military and continued terrorist attacks by the militants.

The realities of the fight against militancy in Pakistan were vividly brought home to me in a visit to the country in April. As part of this trip, I was invited by the army to visit South Waziristan, a tribal agency first established by the British. After independence in 1947, the Pakistani state continued the British tradition of “indirect rule” over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), relying on local tribal bosses and a modified form of Pashtun tribal law to keep the tribes quiet. The reason for this system was that it was believed that tribal hostility to outside authority would lead to revolt against direct administration (a belief to which the revolt against Pakistani military intervention after 2004 gives credence). The cost has been to leave these regions under-developed even by the miserable standards of Pakistan as a whole.

From 2003 to 2010, the area was largely controlled by Islamist militants, before the military reconquered it in a series of operations over the past four years. This and other victories indicate that the Taliban insurgency—that is, the control of large areas by the rebels—in Pakistan has been largely defeated. Terrorism is a different matter.

The cost to the Pakistani army and police of the reconquest of South Waziristan has been high: 632 soldiers killed in that agency alone as of mid-April 2014—the exact number that Britain has lost so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. In South Waziristan, as elsewhere, the army demanded that the civilian population leave prior to the commencement of major operations, stripping the militants of local shelter, and allowing the deployment of massive firepower against them. As a result, of a population of around 429,000, almost half remain in camps outside the area.

This has allowed an extraordinarily high ratio of troops-to-population (something that we utterly failed to achieve in Afghanistan). Today, the army has around one-twelfth of Pakistan’s entire military and paramilitary manpower deployed in an area a third of the size of Wales. This figure is a testimony to the ferocity of the resistance that the army has met, and gives credibility to Pakistan’s protests that its forces are seriously over-stretched by the campaign against the Taliban. (A key reason why the Pakistani army has reined in terrorism against India in recent years is that it simply does not have the troops to be able to risk a military crisis.)

The effort has been worthwhile, however. Pakistani Taliban forces have been driven back. As officers in South Waziristan told us—and as the map of incidents made clear—the great majority of attacks there now are the result of militants crossing from North Waziristan. Hence the eventual determination of the military to extend their campaign to the north.

Just as importantly, this military success—and relatively copious funding from the US and the United Arab Emirates—has allowed the military to embark on the kind of development in the area that should have been carried out many decades ago. Levels of infrastructure and education in South Waziristan, prior to the outbreak of the conflict, were truly miserable. Part of the new wave of development is the traditional British—or indeed Roman—strategy of building roads and bridges, to allow military movement and economic development and to extend state authority. As the local proverb has it, “where roads go, government follows,” which is why local tribesmen have always made a particular point of attacking road-building parties. US officials with whom I have spoken have praised the use that the military have made of their funds in South Waziristan and elsewhere.

This development has not come without costs. Thirty-one men of the Frontier Works Organisation—the military construction corps—have been killed in South Waziristan, and 134 wounded. Their memorials are the roads, dams, schools and hospitals that give some chance at last of lifting this region from the isolation and backwardness that did so much to allow the Taliban rebellion.

Military successes against the Pakistani Taliban have strengthened the determination of the high command to oppose attempts at a peace settlement, except when these are directed at splitting the ranks of the Taliban. In South Waziristan, a key part of its strategy is to split the Taliban by playing on ancient rivalries between the Wazir and Mehsud tribes. The generals are also very aware of the need for public and media support for operations, which they acknowledge were highly important to the success of the offensives in Swat and elsewhere.

There is, however, deep anxiety about the idea of local truces—let alone a general peace agreement—that would lead to the military withdrawing to its bases, and leaving areas to the Taliban. In interviews, senior military officers have made it clear, without saying so directly, that they would disobey orders from the government were peace talks to lead to more Taliban attacks on civilians. In the words of one general with whom we spoke (off the record), “We will not stand by and let supporters of the state be slaughtered. If this happens we will respond, and the government knows this.”

The issue of relations with the Pakistani Taliban has therefore helped generate an increasingly poisonous relationship between the military and Prime Minister Sharif’s PMLN government. Even after Sharif had reluctantly agreed to the North Waziristan offensive, in the military’s view at least, he did everything he could to avoid taking public responsibility for it.

Three other issues have combined to produce the deterioration in relations between the political class and the army. First came the backing of the Sharif government for a trial of the former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, on charges of treason and human rights abuses. The universal belief among officers with whom I spoke is that a promise was made by Prime Minister Sharif to the Chief of Army Staff that Musharraf would be allowed quietly to leave the country again. It is not that the army plans any kind of comeback for him, but to send him to jail would be seen as a serious humiliation for the military—and also an act of utter hypocrisy, since “every civilian government in Pakistan has committed the same ‘crimes’ as Musharraf, only much worse,” as one subaltern told me. The government may now be seeking to let Musharraf go—but the damage to relations with the military has been done.

The second problem came when Sharif appeared to endorse charges that the ISI military intelligence agency had attempted to murder a senior journalist and leading critic of the military. The third was when, during a visit to Delhi for the inauguration of the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sharif appeared to go much further than the military would like in seeking better relations with India.

These tensions are not the prelude to another military coup. With a difficult and bloody civil war on their hands, the last thing the generals want is to have to take responsibility for economic crisis, inflation, electricity shortages, corruption and so on.

The danger is rather that an accumulation of disagreements will gradually destroy co-operation between government and military on internal security; that the military in consequence will blindly and automatically use its de facto veto on issues like attempts at improving relations with India; and that the military will use its immense capacity for covert subversion against Sharif and his government. The result would be not a military government, but the military acting as a power-broker, backing calls for new elections and orchestrating the creation of a new coalition government—something that happened several times in the 1990s.

The military’s opportunities and temptations to do this will be immensely increased if Imran Khan does indeed launch a mass movement in protest at alleged rigging of the last elections, or if the courts decide against the government in cases brought over rigging. Khan’s capacity for causing really serious trouble on the streets has been considerably enhanced by his alliance with a Sufi religious leader (not an Islamist militant), Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, who has sought to use his middle-class religious base to launch a mass anti-corruption movement in Pakistan analogous to the Aam Admi (“Common Man”) movement in India that did so much to undermine the last Congress government.

The degree to which the Prime Minister and his brother, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, have been rattled by Qadri’s movement was shown in mid-June. A brutal and hamfisted move by the Punjab police against Qadri’s headquarters in Lahore, led to clashes in which eight of his followers were killed. The incident has not only increased Qadri’s support, but helped legitimise Khan’s plans for street action.

The military has been accused of backing Qadri’s movement. Whether or to what extent this is true is not clear. Like his Indian parallels, Qadri does seem to have quite widespread support among a Pakistani middle class exasperated with corruption and with the failure of the Bhutto and Sharif dynasties to bring about reform.

In this regard, the Sharif government is proving a serious disappointment. The failure is all the more dismaying, because the Sharifs’ past record seemed to suggest that, on economic reform at least, they would act with speed and determination. The situation certainly requires this. Pakistan’s GDP growth has averaged just over 3 per cent for the past five years, the longest period of economic stagnation in its history. With the population growing at around 1.8 per cent a year, present economic growth does not generate enough jobs for Pakistani youth.

At the heart of Pakistan’s economic problems lies the inability of the state to raise sufficient revenue to perform essential tasks of building infrastructure, providing energy and supporting education as a basis for economic progress. This requires highly unpopular moves to end many subsidies, crack down on corruption, increase collection (not just in the form of direct taxes but forcing people to pay for electricity and water) and do something to reduce the gross oppression of women which is holding Pakistan back in so many areas. This is not just a question of political courage on the part of governments. The middle classes in Pakistan are too weak, and the population too divided along ethno-religious lines, to generate the kind of mass support which such reforms require.

The PMLN government has taken certain positive steps towards economic reform, but so far it seems to be failing to tackle this crucial revenue problem. The proportion of GDP raised in taxes has edged up to about 10.5 per cent—and there it has stuck, because to go higher would provoke a political backlash and the defection of key allies. India has the lowest rate of tax collection among the Bric countries, but still raises almost 18 per cent of GDP in taxes. Without this money, the Pakistani state simply cannot do the things that it needs to bring about progress.

Nor has the present government made the slightest effort to rally such support. It has passed only one law during its year in office and the Prime Minister has appeared before parliament just seven times. His subordinate ministers are no better. Nor does Sharif appear even to value his own supporters. The circle of people whom he truly trusts has narrowed to two, both of them relatives, and the Sharif family itself is also increasingly divided.

The PMLN, like the PPP of the Bhuttos and the ANP of the Wali Khans—and so many other parties in south Asia—has not even tried to become a modern political party. It remains a dynastic party, in which loyalty to the dynasty trumps ideology or programme.

All the same, this is an elected government, and to overthrow it by a mixture of street power, judicial intervention and military pressure would be a terribly bad idea. The PMLN’s record of reform has been highly inadequate, but the kind of fractured coalition that would result from new elections (as pressed for by Khan and Qadri) would be no better, and very probably much worse.

Apart from anything else, the bribes and concessions necessary to win over enough opportunist local bosses to support such a government would make serious action against corruption, and serious efforts at the punishment of tax defaulters, absolutely out of the question. Some military officers may believe that they can impose the discipline necessary for reform; but the experience of the last two military governments indicates that they, too, end up ruling through representatives of the existing political elites, and therefore having to accept their corrupt agendas and soft-pedal reform.

So Pakistan today, as so often in the past, presents a Janus-faced appearance. On the one hand, Pakistan is not northern Iraq. As my experience in South Waziristan and the military offensive in North Waziristan demonstrate, the Islamist insurgency which has caused such terrible losses and raised such fears in the west is not about to overthrow the state. On the other hand, the political elites do not appear capable of the unity, the vision, or the resolution necessary to carry out the reforms that Pakistan needs if it is to survive in the long term.

Before India began its own reform process in the 1990s, there was a theory of what was dubbed (somewhat patronisingly) the “Hindu rate of growth.” It was suggested, both by Indian economists like Raj Krishna and western analysts like Robert McNamara, that ever since independence, successive Indian governments had essentially traded growth for stability, creating artificial jobs and redistributing wealth in ways that stifled growth but kept restive sections of the population quiet. I have a nasty feeling that there may also be something like a “Pakistani rate of growth,” held in place by deep political, social and cultural factors, from which Pakistan will find it even more difficult to escape. If it cannot, then it will survive for a while, and possibly a long while—but not forever.