War, peace and counterinsurgency

With counterterrorism as the preferred option in Afghanistan, Pakistan should be prepared for more turmoil

Shahid Javed Burki March 11, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

Could the recent near-war between Pakistan and India be seen as one more evidence of the historians’ claim that democracies don’t go to war with one another? With one notable exception, all the wars Pakistan has fought in its 72 years of independence were initiated by military rulers.

The only exception was the 1948 Kashmir war, the first of the three Pakistan has fought over the future of that state. Then both Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s ailing governor general and Liaqat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, were in charge of policymaking. The other three wars in 1965, 1971 and 1999 were the work of army generals-turned politicians.

If democracies don’t make wars but are pushed into it, why and how does that happen? Especially who are assigned the responsibility in democracies to wage war? The second question is the subject of an enquiry by the historian Michael Beschloss in his book, Presidents of Wars.

The United States has often been to war in the last 207 years. The first was fought by an independent USA in 1812 when the British briefly occupied Washington. It subsequently waged all the wars not against democracies but against those that threatened the political structure the country had built.

The main issue has been to find the right place where the responsibility to wage war should rest. Should the American Congress, the country’s legislature have the responsibility or should the elected president be allowed to start and manage wars? No clear answer has been found to this question over the last more than two hundred years.

In “naya” Pakistan, the decisions involving the right response to Indian hostilities were taken by Imran Khan, the Prime Minister, with the military playing an active but supportive role. This brings me to the discussion of what should be done to control the enemies of the formal state structure of Pakistan.

By that I mean the various extremist groups operating in the country. They have repeatedly brought Pakistan to the brink of war. This is where the question of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism enters the picture.

Following the near-war with India, the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced its intention to move against the extremist groups in the country. About four dozen activists were arrested and the Ministry of Finance announced that it would be moving to stop the flow of funds that finance the activities of the groups to which these people belong.

The official line is that this action is being taken not because of the Indian pressure. It is in response to the ultimatum of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, the FATF, that has threatened to place Pakistan on the black list unless Islamabad starves these groups of funds they receive from both abroad and from within Pakistan.

Policy circles draw a distinction between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies. The scope of the former is much wider while that of the latter is quite limited. Counterinsurgency entails more than the use of the military power. It incudes the state playing the role aimed at improving the economic, social and political conditions of the people who get attracted to insurgency because of unhappiness with their environment.

Counterterrorism on the other hand is a much limited endeavour. It focuses on identifying and eliminating people and groups involved in terrorist activities. Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb operation in North Waziristan was of the counterterrorism variety. The military was used to drive out most, but not all, terrorists from the area.

President Ashraf Ghani was not impressed by what Pakistan had done. In a conversation with me when I visited him in Kabul in 2017, he said what Pakistan had done was to “drive all the world’s filth into my country”. By the world’s filth he meant, the Uzbeks, the Chechens, the Uighurs, and the Tajik’s who were assembled in North Waziristan to wage war for Islam.

In his book, Counterinsurgency Warfare, David Galula places emphasis on gaining the support of the population that is suffering from the war being waged by insurgents. That is not what president George W Bush’s 'war on terror' set out to accomplish. The aim was to use overwhelming force to defeat the insurgents.

As Galula, looking at the history of insurgency in the twentieth century, points out that approach has never worked. However, the United States has opted for counterterrorism as its strategy as it begins to unwind its operations in Afghanistan. This will leave the country’s Pakhtun belt underdeveloped and would also have consequences for Pakistan.

The latest version of the shifting United States position in Afghanistan came in late February 2019 while Ambassador Khalilzad was engaged in negotiating with the Taliban. The Pentagon prepared a plan that was offered to the Taliban according to which all American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan over the next three to five years.

The rest of the international force would pull out at the same time. The number of American troops would be cut by one half from 14,000 in the next few months. It would give the 8,600 European and other international troops the task of training the Afghan force, and shift American responsibility to counterterrorism.

The plan would remain in place even if the peace talks fail. According to some experts such as James Stavridis who was the top NATO commander at one point, the planned division of responsibility between Europe and the United States was appropriate. But the Taliban are not likely to accept a counterterrorism role to be played by the United States, not for five years.

What is the likelihood of saving Afghanistan from collapse once foreign troops begin to pull out and pull back from the country? According to one assessment, “The track record for American-supported governments after peace treaties or troop withdrawal is shaky at best.

American-trained South Vietnamese fell to Communist forces two years after the United States withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1973. Large portions of the Iraqi Army collapsed after the withdrawal of the American military and its trainers necessitating a return to Iraq by international forces.” With counterterrorism as the preferred option in Afghanistan, Pakistan should be prepared for more turmoil on its northwestern border.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2019.

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