Last summer, Pakistan’s military launched counterinsurgency campaigns against the Taliban throughout northern Pakistan, in Bajaur, the Swat Valley, and South Waziristan. As I wrote last July, the strategy succeeded because the military was able to minimize collateral damage, maximize precision, boost troop morale, and create better intelligence networks. As a result, the Pakistani Taliban are now weakened in the north and are moving south into Pakistan’s central and southern provinces of Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan. But the military should not rush to pursue them — instead, it must hold the territory it has already captured and, in so doing, maintain stability in the rest of the country.
Over the summer, plans to hold embattled territories were already emerging, focusing on the temporary resettlement of refugees, the creation of reconstruction teams, and the reintegration of certain Taliban leaders and soldiers. The first initiative, resettlement, was a response to the waves of refugees who fled their homes as the army moved into densely populated areas in Bajaur and Swat. To be sure, the movement of civilians out of the conflict zone had some benefits: in early campaigns, only about 20 percent of the population remained behind, most of which turned out to be Taliban supporters. This gave the military an immediate advantage in clearing and policing cities. As one military officer explained, “We wanted to drain the swamp, sanitize it, bring back the people, and then hopefully turn it into a nice lake.” Although some Taliban did escape as the swamp drained, upward of 7,000 were killed or captured.
But the cost to ordinary civilians was also high. The fighting in Bajaur alone displaced 300,000 people. In the Swat Valley, the military faced an urban population of four million people interspersed with around 10,000 Taliban fighters. About two million refugees fled their homes during the battles there, and yet the government had no relief plan. “The fate of the internally displaced was the Achilles’ heel of our mission,” said one senior military officer involved in relief efforts. “Without protecting them, we would have no local partners, good intelligence, or popular support to carry on.”
To protect civilians, military planners decided on a program of population resettlement. Locals were encouraged to move out of the war zone to temporary camps or other cities with the promise that their homes and businesses would be intact should they return when the fighting ended. Resettlement has been used in counterinsurgency operations before — for example, in the Philippines, South Africa, and Algeria — but has a record of limited success. This time, Pakistani officers were determined that the program would avoid the major pitfalls of previous efforts, such as the use of foreign troops, forced population transfer, and the gross mismanagement of the camps.
Even in the most successful cases of resettlement, such as the 1899 American campaign in the Philippines and the British anti-guerrilla efforts in Malaya in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the presence of foreign troops undermined the legitimacy and success of the missions. Although the Pakistani army is technically not a foreign occupying force, many Pashtuns living in the northern areas consider it one since the officer corps is predominantly Punjabi. To remedy the situation, the military assigned Pashtun officers and the paramilitary force Frontier Corps, which is mostly Pashtun, to execute resettlement programs.
Successful resettlement must also be voluntary and temporary. In South Africa in the early 1900s, British resettlement programs failed when they attempted to forcefully move entire villages. The U.S. “strategic hamlets” program — an effort to fortify and restore communities in Vietnam in the 1960s — effectively turned resettlement into depopulation as unhappy villagers were forced from their homes into insecure hamlets that were then targeted by the insurgents. In contrast, Pakistan’s military planners were careful to assure locals who moved that the transfer to camps was temporary and promised them better infrastructure, security, and jobs upon their return if they would cooperate. Security at the camps was also sufficient; not one refugee camp was attacked by an insurgent. All this made them more inclined to move.
Still, many Pashtuns were not keen on resettling back into their war-torn homes, and many Punjabis and Sindhis — fearing ethnic discord and Taliban infiltration — did not want them in their provinces. Instead of resettling refugees involuntarily in their own villages, or forcing other provinces to house them, the military sent most to interim camps in the north. Those that chose to move south to cities such as Karachi, in Sindh, were forced to register. The military was able to use this information later if any refugee was suspected of cooperating with the Taliban.
Of course, many resettlement programs, such as those of France in Algeria in the 1950s and of the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s, faltered due to lack of funding and poor management. In Pakistan, Nadeem Ahmad — a lieutenant general who was awarded Pakistan’s highest award, the Sitara-e-Esar, for his relief work during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake — was selected to overcome the management problem and serve as a bridge between in-conflict and post-conflict resettlement operations. He was appointed the leader of a special support group tasked with moving, feeding, and sheltering the growing number of refugees. Together with international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and USAID, the support group built refugee camps complete with hospitals, schools, and vocational training centers to house the refugees during the fighting. Although only 15 percent of the displaced stayed in such camps, most others received allowances to purchase necessities on their own. The management and delivery of services were inconsistent and slow at first but improved over time as the process was streamlined. And as the army moved into South Waziristan in August, it took the resettlement approach with it.
With the military’s quick victories against the Taliban, the in-conflict phase of the holding operations rapidly shifted to the post-conflict. By September, a month before the start of the South Waziristan campaign, 1.8 million of the Swat refugees had returned home. For the most part, they found their houses and businesses intact, but a great amount of reconstruction remains. For now, there are six infantry divisions of the army and 36 battalions of the Frontier Corps dedicated to protecting the new civilian development teams that will carry out reconstruction. Security forces have also been paired with reconstruction experts to create Pakistani versions of the district reconstruction teams that the United States used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has supported these efforts; USAID recently announced a $90 million aid package for electrical grids, roads, wells, and schools in Swat and South Waziristan.
At the same time, Pakistan is enhancing security in the cleared areas. The army’s 11th Corps is overseeing security and intelligence operations and helping to train special counterterrorism and counterinsurgency police units. The Frontier Corps is taking the lead in arming and supporting about 30,000 lashkars, or local militia members. The civilian government and military are also creating a new police intelligence branch for the Swat Valley.
As the security situation in these areas improves, the army will turn to the third initiative of its holding plan: reintegrating the Pakistani Taliban. Unlike U.S. military leaders who are still waiting for the Afghan Taliban to be weak enough for negotiations to be feasible, the Pakistani generals say that they have already gained the initiative against the Pakistani Taliban and are ready to talk now. This year, military and intelligence agencies plan to flip moderate Taliban to create divisions within the group and force a weakened Haqqani network toward political compromise with Kabul. This would isolate Al Qaeda, which supports both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.
The first step of this reintegration plan will be to flip an important moderate insurgent picked by Washington, Islamabad, Kabul, and Delhi, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the founder and leader of the terrorist group Hezb-e-Islami, or the Taliban insurgent Hafiz Gul Bahadur. After that, the tribes that support him can be threatened and bribed to turn against the Taliban as well. With amenable tribes, this individual can go to work on second-tier Taliban. In conjunction with a growing class of ex-insurgents, the United States, Pakistan, and other parties would, for example, be able to broker a cease-fire among the Haqqani network (the insurgents responsible for most of the attacks on U.S. troops in southern and eastern Afghanistan), the Pakistani and Afghan governments, and the international community.
If regional partners agree to this process, Pakistani intelligence officers say they would even be willing to give up Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban who is thought to be hiding in Pakistan with the protection of its military. And there is already evidence of cooperation: the media have recently reported meetings between Hekmatyar and the United States, as well as rifts in the Quetta Shura, the organization of the highest Taliban leaders. Last month’s capture of top Afghan Taliban leaders in Karachi is yet another example of cooperation between Pakistan and the United States.
So far, the initial phases of Pakistan’s holding plan have been successful in the north, where civil-military teams have deterred the return of insurgents and facilitated the homecoming of 80 percent of the refugees. Initiatives that are structured similarly but are focused on political reconciliation and law enforcement in Karachi and across Baluchistan are showing promise, too.
But even these well-designed initiatives will fail in the absence of a comprehensive plan that targets growing problems in Pakistan’s government, judiciary, and military. The government is unable to efficiently use the foreign aid that it receives, and widespread corruption plagues development efforts. Tension between the government and the judiciary could derail the holding operation, as could Islamabad’s difficulties in dealing with its detainees from the recent operations. Many of them have not been prosecuted, yet remain imprisoned — a fact that terrorists could use as a rallying cry. Moreover, the army and Frontier Corps are beset by battle fatigue; many officers have privately warned of increasing incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder.
And although the country has recently identified the Taliban as a primary threat to national security, its old habit of using militants to hedge against India will remain. Absent a U.S.-brokered deal on influence sharing in Afghanistan or progress in solving the Kashmir dispute, Islamabad will continue its business as usual. And if terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba execute another Mumbai-style attack on India, Pakistani soldiers will abandon holding operations and head east.
Asking millions to leave their homes and businesses — no matter how voluntary or temporary — is a tall order. But last year’s attempt in Pakistan was successful because it avoided the mistakes of previous attempts and built trust between the people and the government. Time will show how successful the second two phases of Pakistan’s holding plan are, but to help the process along Washington should strengthen intelligence-sharing and training programs, expand weapons sales to Pakistan’s military, and help develop a counterinsurgency institute in Pakistan to discuss regional threats, train troops, share lessons learned, and recommend policy.
Furthermore, Pakistan’s holding initiatives may well resonate in Kabul. As U.S. soldiers begin to withdraw from the country and Afghans take over operations in provinces bordering Pakistan, the lessons Pakistan has learned about resettlement, reconstruction, and reconciliation will be crucial. A counterinsurgency institute in Pakistan would be able to act as a hub for sharing such information if it were linked to similar agencies in Kabul, Washington, and — perhaps eventually — Delhi. Cooperation in the form of sister institutes and increased intelligence sharing will help bolster the ongoing détente among these countries so that cooler heads can prevail in future crises. In the meantime, Pakistan will also need to continue to destroy terrorist sanctuaries. But although conventional wars are won by capturing territory, counterinsurgencies are won by holding it. Pakistan must now hold what it has won, and the United States and the world must help.
HAIDER ALI HUSSEIN MULLICK is Fellow at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University, Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), and the author of Pakistan’s Security Paradox: Countering and Fomenting Insurgencies. His website is www.haidermullick.com
This article also appeared in Foreign Affairs on March 24, 2010: