The year 2012 was of extraordinary violence, not just in terms of the number of casualties but also in terms of the frequency of violent attacks. According to Wikipedia’s entry for “Terrorist incidents in Pakistan in 2012”, there were a total of around 212 separate incidents which killed approximately 3,700 people. And that does not take into account either drone attacks or targeted killings in Karachi!
Just take a minute to think about those numbers. What they mean is that it was statistically abnormal for Pakistanis to enjoy a day without terror. During the Blitz, the Luftwaffe bombed London 71 times over 267 days, or about once every four days. In 2012, Pakistanis were attacked close to two days out of every three.
The standard wisdom in Pakistan is that we are victims of terrorism and that what we need to do is a better job of countering terror. The standard wisdom is wrong. What we are suffering is an insurgency by people using terror as a weapon. What we need to do is a better job of counter-insurgency.
David Kilcullen provides a summary of the differences between terrorism and insurgency in “Countering Global Insurgency”. In brief, a terrorist is seen as an unrepresentative aberration while an insurgent represents deeper issues in society; terrorists are psychopaths, insurgents use violence as part of a society; terrorism is a law-enforcement problem, insurgency is a governance problem.
Let me try to put the above points in the context of Pakistan. We think of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as terrorists, not as insurgents. We think of them as sick, demented individuals who “cannot be Muslims” because of the evil they wreak upon our society. We do not think of them as politicians with a strategy. And that is where we go wrong.
The fundamental truth about counter-insurgency is that it is a competition for governance. In the words of Bernard Fall, “a government that is losing to an insurgency isn’t being out-fought, it’s being out-governed”.
The consequence of this insight is that we cannot think of the TTP either as a mad bunch of psychopaths (the standard liberal trope) or as an extraneous problem foisted upon us by Western imperialism in Afghanistan (the Imran Khan position). The truth is that the TTP are neither loonies nor freedom fighters; they are political adventurists exploiting the failure of our governing structures.
There is a further consequence. If you think the TTP are psychopaths, then the remedy is to kill them. If you think the TTP are a consequence of our poor alliances, then the remedy is to disengage from those alliances and let the tribals alone. But from a counter-insurgency perspective, both of those options are wrong.
The ‘kill them all’ approach is insufficient because a) eradicating the ideological basis for jihadism is not feasible; b) military operations cannot — and should not — last forever; and c) so long as the virus remains alive, the conditions exploited by the TTP in the tribal areas will always remain open to be exploited once military operations cease.
Similarly, the Imran Khan approach is wrong because it both misunderstands the nature of ‘support’ for the TTP as well as the extent to which the TTP is driven by the war in Afghanistan.
To explain, Imran Khan assumes that the TTP are strong in the tribal areas because people support them. This actually places the cart before the horse: as explained by Kilcullen, “insurgents aren’t strongest where people support them: rather, people support them where they are the strongest”.
That conclusion may seem counter-intuitive but it actually follows from a very simple insight: the truth about violence is that it works. Beat a dog often enough and it will slink away in fear rather than attack you. Threaten someone’s life and the odds are that he will shut up. Kill enough people and the rest will obey. Or, in Kilcullen’s words, “people will do almost anything, and support almost anyone, to reduce fear and uncertainty”.
Second, Imran Khan is wrong in assuming that removing Pakistani support for the US in Afghanistan will automatically defang the TTP. Again, as noted by Kilcullen, insurgent theatres can become “self-sustaining” if given enough time and energy. In our case, the TTP reached ‘critical mass’ because our foreign policy wizards in the GHQ deliberately cultivated the precursors of the TTP. Now, even if the US quits Afghanistan and even if Barack Obama apologises on bended knee to Mullah Omar, the TTP will not be satisfied. Like all insurgents, what they want is power.
How then does one fight an insurgency? The short (and flippant) answer is, “with great difficulty”. Somewhat less flippantly, the answer is that one needs to have a comprehensive strategy, one which combines the hard task of finding and killing terrorists via military and law-enforcement action with the soft task of good governance. This, in turn, means that counter-insurgency cannot be left to the military. To repeat, counter-insurgency is a competition for governance. And there is no reason to believe that our military will prove any better in governing the tribal areas than it has in governing the rest of Pakistan.
The one thing I do know is that we cannot defeat the TTP by isolating the tribal areas; that is an approach which has been tried and failed. Instead, we must integrate the tribal areas into Pakistan. People who live there must be given access to the full range of human rights.
Second, we cannot continue to shrug our shoulders when it comes to corruption and misgovernance. Governmental incompetence isn’t something that can be substituted by private initiative, like replacing Wapda with a private genset. Instead, it is a disease that threatens the integrity of the state.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not — repeat NOT — trying to justify a Bangladesh-style technocratic coup. As I have repeatedly written, we have no option but to continue with democracy. What I am saying though is that criminal incompetence of the sort preferred by the current PPP regime is a recipe for national suicide.
Pakistanis will hopefully soon have the chance to exercise our right to vote. For all of our sakes, we had better use that right wisely.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2013.