The recent spate of news about negotiating with Taliban militants after the US pullout from Afghanistan, and also in the context of Pakistan, raises several issues to be tackled, not the least within the paradigm of negotiations with insurgents. This comes under the ambit of counter-insurgency or COIN, which first needs to be understood. Counter-insurgency (COIN) is the coordinated set of civilian and military activities that tackle insurgency, with non-military means often being a primary element of COIN regimes. COIN requires broad understanding and experience of several disciplines, along with a minute comprehension of the specific situation on the ground. COIN regimes should have the ability to ‘push’ the insurgency away from the contested area, simultaneously ‘pulling’ the target populations towards the state in terms of loyalty, nationalism or patriotism.
It needs to be remembered that, historically, COIN campaigns have almost always been more costly, more protracted and more difficult than initially anticipated at the planning stage. Taking the case of Pakistan, for instance, this probably prompted the Pakistani state to opt for negotiated settlements instead of going for an outright military solution. It must be said that military operations in Pakistani terrorism-ridden areas are not easy due to the ideological and physical proximity with Afghanistan, entrenched kinship, tribal bonds and hostile terrain. The Pakistani Taliban also use a combination of territorial control and flexible guerrilla tactics, which means that while holding a swathe of territory, they can also send roving groups of guerrillas to secure areas further afield. On the other hand, the garrisoned Pakistani security forces have to fight for every inch of ground gained and cannot emulate the Taliban’s terror tactics.
It does seem from previous trend lines though, that just negotiation and peace with the militants will not produce a coherent counter-insurgency policy in Pakistan in the long term, although it will bring relief to a beleaguered local population in the short term. From a strategic perspective, the militants have obtained quite a lot of advantages from the many ‘agreements’ between the militants and government forces. Such agreements tended to occur when the military, after initial difficulties, began to regain lost ground. Talks, usually brokered by third parties, such as jirgas, tended to be proposed when operations were reaching their peak offensive capabilities. They seemed to be a way to break the impasse since the government needed to address the huge difficulties faced by local populations as a result of operations.
The government, pressurised by the refugees created in the wake of operations, sought solace in the many peace deals conducted. However, many ‘agreements’ that seemed to be heading toward success were interrupted midway along their trend lines. It is more advisable for the state to engage in divide and rule tactics between the insurgents and their host communities rather than among the insurgents themselves as has hitherto been attempted. The Taliban insurgency gets its strength from the cementing bond of anti-Americanism and alienation from mainstream society. According to the American Small Wars Manual: ‘‘every means should be employed to convince such people of the altruistic intention of (the) government.” This implies that effective counter-insurgency also requires the delivery of essential services, economic development and improved governance. This requires unflinching resolve, which is sometimes easier said than done. In the long run, a quick fix would be cheaper than attempting socio-economic reforms on a large scale; perhaps, that approach explains Pakistan’s tendency to attempt trade-offs.
However, a concrete socio-economic uplift of the affected areas will pay greater dividends in the long term even if trade-offs are pertinent in the short to medium term. It remains to be seen how Pakistan, with its spiralling inflation and economic crunch, will attempt to handle this dimension of COIN.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2013.