Another stupid twist in the Afghan game

Physical dominance of territory is of limited value, more of creating an illusion of victory than being victorious.


Ejaz Haider August 14, 2012

US President Barack Obama has signed the Haqqani Network Terrorist Designation Act of 2012 into law. The US Secretary of State now has 30 days to submit a report on whether the group meets the legal criteria for being designated as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO).

They asked us if we had any objections. We shrugged our shoulders and said the Haqqanis are an Afghan group, your problem. Go ahead and do what you want.

Difficult to figure out who is more stupid, they or we, but one thing is sure: the negative fallout for us will be bigger than for them.

We are now also planning to go into North Waziristan. When I interviewed Commander ISAF, General John Allen, he told me that Nato-ISAF will pay “extra attention” to any spill-over that may occur because of the operation.

Encouraging words but the reality may be different. Regional Command East, headquartered in Bagram, doesn’t have enough deployments in the east. The bulk of the forces belong to the Afghan National Army (ANA). As for the ANA, the less said the better. So, unless the Nato-ISAF is either prepared to beef up deployment or keep its aerial platforms ready — limited effectiveness against an adversary that won’t give a concentrated target — much of the spill-over will spill over.

Should we go into the NWA? Tough question, this. There’s the moral-legal argument. It’s our territory and we should be in control of it. Agreed. An operation will also let off some of the heat that the American narrative has put on us. (NB: for the American narrative of “victory”, a very good read is Michael Hastings’ The Operators.)

But anything beyond the moral-legal? Not much, I am afraid. Physical dominance of territory in irregular war is always of limited value, more a matter of creating an illusion of victory than being victorious. American operations in Helmand are a case in point. There are other cases.

What will the groups in NWA do against a superior force? As I wrote in this space in June last year, “...rather than losing too many men in pitched battles, the groups will disperse while retaining some fighters to engage advancing columns in combination with the use of area denial weapons like anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, ‘victim-operated’ IEDs and booby traps. This means that while they will try to slow down the advance and extract a heavy toll of advancing troops, they would not need to employ the bulk of their forces that are likely to extricate as the operation undergoes.”

The Haqqani fighters will go into Afghanistan where they control large swathes of territory and where the bulk of their fighters are already based. Other groups will disperse inland: the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Punjabi Taliban and foreign fighters. The foreigners have nowhere to go and they will continue to operate against Pakistan until captured or killed.

At least in the short term this dispersal will result in heightened urban terrorism, though I am told by sources that the intelligence agencies have been more effective in busting urban terrorist cells and nabbing and killing their fighters. That may be so but all indicators tell us that our counterterrorism capacity — civilian law enforcement — falls short of what it will take to effectively neutralise urban attacks. The reprisals will take their toll.

Two other factors are important from an operational perspective: one, if the army plans the operation conventionally, as one very senior officer, now retired, told me, it will suffer huge casualties. The planning, therefore, must be innovative. Two, if the US drones programme is as effective as it is made out to be (see multiple claims to this end), which is presumably one reason it has been ramped up, then why have the Americans not been able to degrade the operational capacity of the Network, Pakistan’s objections to such strikes, notwithstanding?

On balance, say sources, it is important to go into NWA. Okay. But I am also told that Pakistan should do away with its cautious attitude and play a proactive role in facilitating the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan. To me, it seems, such facilitation is more important in terms of strategic utility than an operation that, like most such operations, will have a balloon effect.

Here’s why. If, in theory, Pakistan could get the facilitation process on track, which Kabul and Islamabad are relying on, then it should help lead to the Haqqanis restraining themselves and becoming a part of the process. That should then leave the Pakistan Army to deal with the TTP and its affiliates, Punjabi and foreign elements, in NWA, a relatively less daunting operation conducted in an enabling environment.

That is not to be, given the development with which I began this piece. If the State Department review establishes that there are indeed reasons to declare the Network an FTO, it will all but put paid to the negotiating process because the Taliban will not like to be seen as negotiating with the US, supposing that the US actually wants to negotiate in good faith, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

It is from this perspective that our approach to telling the Americans to go ahead and do what they want with the Haqqanis doesn’t make any sense, especially at a time when we have reopened the bilateral track with Kabul. The move also turns the environment, crucial for launching an operation in NWA, against us. Important to remember in this kind of warfare is the basic fact that use of force per se means nothing; it must translate into, what Rupert Smith, a former British general, calls, the utility of force.

So, while we plan to go into NWA, we must accept three factors: the operational environment has been sullied by the American move to declare the Network an FTO; the degree of difficulty of the operation has increased manifold and its utility declined in direct proportion; finally, and most importantly, the bilateral track with Kabul for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan may have been set back before it could take off.

Any guess on who will lose out in NWA?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2012. 

COMMENTS (70)

khurram | 8 years ago | Reply

@Arifq: Dear , if every time we go to be a puppet of america ,collateral damage will be upon us , political system is not worth of any thing now ,we have to go for ISLAMIC system ,and any how if you people like americans and other enemies of islam you will be stand with them on judgement day ,,end is near brothers prepare your selves, as you see in syria also the annarchy is start..

Dr Azhar mukhtar sindhu | 8 years ago | Reply

There should be across the board terror cleanliness. Those who dont follow the universal rules of humanity should be dealt with force without exception

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