Defining this war

Published: September 17, 2013
The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI

The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI

At a lunch the other day, a senior leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf asked a former general if the army can defeat terrorism and bring peace. It was a sincere question posited in the context of the current controversy over proposed peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban. Yet it betrayed a lack of understanding of the nature of this war, how to fight it and what would define victory.

While I do feel like Beckett’s tramps trapped in a silent universe, let me try and put some basics on the table again.

First, this war is not like an interstate war. While everyone knows that, or thinks he does, most do not understand the implications of that fact. This war has no front and no rear. It is being fought among the people. The enemy is elusive, flexible, ruthless and adept at countering and neutralising the state’s superior force.

Corollary: there are no defined boundaries of this war, and there is no line separating the zones of war and peace. Fighting it is more difficult because force has to be used, for the most part, deftly rather than overwhelmingly.

Second, the groups fighting the state act both as insurgents and terrorists. That requires using different techniques and operating in different environments. The two prongs complement each other. While the state has largely degraded these groups’ capacity in the badlands through military operations, it has been less successful in countering terrorism in urban centres. This point is important because when we talk about jaw-jawing with the militants, the argument generally is that the state has been unable to put them down. That is only partially true. But to degrade their capability more fully, the state will have to put them in a nutcracker, taking them on effectively in both the periphery and in the urban centres. It hasn’t done that so far — at least not effectively.

Third, even in the periphery, while force has been used to dominate physical space, the other two corners of the triangle, social-psychological and fiscal-economic, have not been addressed with the same vigour. The army is not trained to do that and the civil administration hasn’t really caught on to the changed ecosystem of the tribal areas. Moreover, mistakes have been made and the Taliban, sensibly from their strategic perspective, have exploited them.

Fourth, the strategy of dislocation, isolating the insurgent/terrorist from the context that strengthens him, has nearly failed. In a plethora of narratives, the realities have got lost even for educated people. This is further helped by imperfect information, growing Islamism begotten over four decades, arguing, beyond what is necessary, that the internal threat is simply a blowback of American actions and when the Americans are gone the Taliban will suddenly become law-abiding citizens. The proponents of this narrative deny the Taliban threat and focus more on the threat from the US and its espionage activities — a fact — passing off the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as a reaction to drone strikes, arguing that these are innocent tribesmen gone bad, et cetera.

(NB: Watch a TV programme on a Pakistani news channel, or even sit through a high-end conference, and you would be struck by the non sequiturs mouthed by even educated people. As for the Taliban apologists, they lie in the holy cause.)

Fifth, there is no real understanding that the TTP doesn’t have a solid, central command structure, but is a franchise of dozens of small and large groups. This fact, as should be obvious, has implications for the chinwag enthusiasts. Who will they talk to?

Sixth, in a deregulated ecosystem, the conventional definitions of war and peace, victory and defeat do not apply. This also means that there can be no real timeline of when this will end. Relative periods of peace will be shattered by a terrorist act or an insurgent attack. So, whether we want to jaw-jaw or war-war or jaw-jaw and war-war, we must be very clear that there is no return to the old world.

I stress this point because the not-so-hidden assumption behind the desire to talk is that it will transport us back to the state of innocence before Man ate the forbidden fruit. What is of course possible, over a period of time, is that the state, through hard work, can degrade the capability of the non-state actors to a level with which the state and society can live and even prosper.

Seventh, doing the sixth would require formulating short- to medium- to long-term strategies. The idea is to move from firefighting to less of it and use the space acquired through fighting to the state’s advantage. While the monopoly of violence is – or should be – the exclusive trait of the state, it must equally come across as concerned and benign to those who accept its writ. Good governance must, therefore, be the other prong.

In this context, it is important to note that for the majority of the people, the acceptance of the state’s monopoly of violence is directly proportional to the legitimacy of its actions. And legitimacy is largely a function of benignity, not malignance. Or as Nazih Ayubi put it so brilliantly, the state must be strong, not hard.

Eighth, fighting or talking is not an either/or proposition. Conflicts ultimately are settled or ended through talking. The controversy about whether we should talk or fight rests on a specious premise. The issue is not talking per se but understanding when to talk and who to talk to. Deregulated environments do not allow for linear approaches. The argument that since fighting hasn’t worked so talking is better is flawed at two levels. One, fighting has worked. The badlands today are not what they were in 2007. Two, talking in and of itself will not beget the desired result.

Finally, war is communication. The Taliban are addressing the Pakistanis. The state has to realise that it, too, is supposed to do that. The Taliban narrative is clear, concise and precise. It exploits the fault lines within. The state’s narrative is confused and timid. The problem with the irresolute All-Party Conference is not that the politicos want to talk but that they have communicated weakness. This might come across as a no-brainer to anyone with a brain, but they don’t seem to get it.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • Imtiaz Malik
    Sep 17, 2013 - 10:49PM

    The reason why I do not support military action as of now is because the society is way too polarized to back the military! All the previous attacks on military bases have come from leaks within! Unless a consensus is formed, army cannot act. Army needs overwhelming support from the public to make it worthwhile!


  • Nadir
    Sep 17, 2013 - 10:57PM

    The question is whether the TTP would have any motive to sit down and talk in the first place. From their perspective they are winning. The state is confused and running around in circles. The US will soon be vanquished and as society turns more conservative, more sympathetic ears for their brand of an Islamic order. After spending more than half a decade running a parallel state, do they have any incentive to potentially give that up? None.


  • csmann
    Sep 17, 2013 - 11:04PM

    A very good analysis of the current situation. Another point that could be added is the role of the citizen. They have not only to stand behind the Government and forces once decisions have been made,but also to be constantly vigilant about their surroundings and neighborhoods, be ready to report their neighbors or even their families if they are sheltering bad elements,and report all suspicious activities.They have to start looking at what their children are learning and being taught,and be proactive in the choice of syllabus.


  • Strategic Asset
    Sep 17, 2013 - 11:31PM

    What an irony. If you replace Pakistan with Kashmir in the above article, most of the author’s assertions still hold true.


  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Sep 18, 2013 - 6:04AM

    @Imtiaz Malik:
    Society is polarized because army is polarized and unclear. We want to stand behind our army but first army must stand in front of us. How could a nation stand behind an army which took attack on GHQ and other bases so lightly.


  • ak
    Sep 18, 2013 - 9:07AM

    learn from India. police has been the most successful in breaking the back of militancy in various part of India whether it is Maoist insurgency in Andhra or extremism in Punjab. while the former was mainly rural, the latter had a strong urban component. and oh yes whatever the author has written makes complete sense.


  • MSS
    Sep 18, 2013 - 10:22AM

    While the author has, as always, provided a rationale (everybody who matters should learn from it), he has ignored the utility of intelligence in this unconventional war.


  • Gp65
    Sep 18, 2013 - 11:00AM

    The author says in point 5 that the Taliban do not have a clear command structure. But later he says that the TTP is putting out a clear, concise and precise message (while the government is not). So if there is no centralized command structure, who exactly approves these consistent messages that are being sent out? The authorr’s argument is internally inconsistent.

    Your fourth point is only partially accurate. The state has made NO attempts to dislocate and isolate all terrorists. It wants to protect some terrorists and crush others but that does not work. You will make great progress once you crush the infrastructure of terror indiscriminately.Recommend

  • Anticorruption
    Sep 18, 2013 - 2:46PM

    A top quality piece by Ijaz Haider as usual!


  • Ann
    Sep 18, 2013 - 2:51PM

    If Taliban can bring the Pakistan Government to the table for talks, they can form a government in Pakistan as well.
    Does Pakistan realize how laughable this prospect is?


  • K Khan
    Sep 18, 2013 - 3:01PM

    The time for intellectual theorizing is gone. Time to show guts determination and muscle with tangible actions not tie ourselves in knots. No army needs additional authorization to defend itself or the territory of the state. No country ever has ‘consensus’ on such matters and it is futile and foolish to look for one.

    The first step should be to mobilize an additional division of fighting troops to show you mean business. The second should be to wipe out some known haven of terrorists. Third would be to keep the door open for talks.


  • Sep 18, 2013 - 3:35PM

    Taliban are more than a physical entity, they are an ideology. This ideology has manifested itself in various countries in various ways, especially in Muslim majority countries.

    So finding Pakistan specific solutions will just not work, nor make any sense.

    As long as the burden of Political Correctness is chucked aside and the blame put on the ideology of Religion these people claim to represent, all measures are useless.

    Its hard to attack an ideology so dear to one’s heart. That is why many countries will be stuck in perpetual cycle of violence.


  • unbelievable
    Sep 18, 2013 - 8:26PM

    At a lunch the other day, a senior
    leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
    asked a former general if the army can
    defeat terrorism and bring peace.

    So how did the General respond?


  • shahid
    Sep 18, 2013 - 10:07PM

    There is simply no end to the delusional theories of our desktop warriors. Sitting in the quite comforts of air conditioned offices they continue to insist that others step up to fight wars and create death destruction and mayhem. How often have they even taken the trouble to spend time in those areas whose people they want to condemn to interminable generational wars? Do they even know how many millions are rotting in refugees camps for years now because of the policies that they propose? Have they ever cared to actually go and look at what they have already done to them? Why do they not actually volunteer to go and pick up arms in support of the causes that they want others children to bleed? Ignorant of history and the contemporary realities they continue to want to subject the country to pointless military campaigns instead of following the path of negotiations, peace and prosperity.


  • Rania
    Sep 19, 2013 - 12:17AM

    Once again, a wonderful piece by Ejaz Haider. I am amazed by his ability to always produce such quality, in-depth writings on a variety of issues. Brilliant.


  • hassan
    Sep 19, 2013 - 6:52AM

    Your point of view will be read and will be dismembered very briskly. The focal essence with this article lies with the fact, we are all dullards and dont know what is going on - The person who tells us he knows everything and we are bunch of craps with a no-brainer defeating the idea of a healthy and positive aspect of the debate itself. Every argumentation leads to two sides, you might not agree with the other side but it does nt mean our point of view is hogwash. Everyone is entitled to have an opinion let them have it either calling each other you are wrong or right – its like we are making each other polarized. I agree with you there is no such thing as consensus in this world , but the idea of unanimity is the responsibility of the state. Unfortunately they are too officious yet !!


  • malik
    Sep 19, 2013 - 11:11AM

    What was a simple law enforcement issue has been exacerbated into mayhem and terrorism by the ineptness and callous attitude of the state. Now we are at a state where we don’t know what to do except beg them to negotiate with us. Atleast we need to deal with them with full force when we get an opportunity such as when they attacked DIG jail and wait for them to make such adventures again. Also we need to cease their funding sources and eliminate their sanctuaries and rest will follow.


  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan
    Sep 19, 2013 - 4:18PM

    @Imtiaz Malik:
    Please do not support the army action and tell them not to do anything. If things get worse, blame india paaji, a simple exercise of no use. You lost 50000 of your civilians out of which 4000 are soldiers and you talk about peace with them. We indians would have shot them blank like we are handling the Maoists. If you hate us learn from Sri Lanka and lttee conflict. Who did what and how it began is history, solve it. Rab rakha


  • np
    Sep 19, 2013 - 8:08PM

    @Prabhjyot Singh Madan: You claim to be a very secular man and wear hatred for BJP on your sleeve. That is fine, it is your prerogative. But are you aware that Tamil Hindus are an equaly large percentage of Sri Lankan population if not largerl than Muslims in India? While LTTE’s methods were wrong, the grievances of Tamil people were not. What Sri Lanka did with tens of thousands of Hindu Tamil civilians was horrendous – yet you ask people to learn from it. As long as it is Hindus that are killed you seem to be okay?


  • Chanakya_the_cynic
    Sep 20, 2013 - 5:46AM

    @Gp65 – You usually make a lot of sense, but here I think you’re mistaken. It isn’t essential at all that an organisation need a centralised leadership to have a clear and consistent message. Religion has always been good at organising groups into us and them – that is its core competency. A fundamentalist organisation, especially one that depends on an established school of thought – like the Taliban does, needs no additional clarity on its message or purpose. The same is not true of democratic government.


  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan
    Sep 22, 2013 - 1:14PM

    I am sorry if I hurt your feelings. Indian Tamils are my brothers too and I find them to be a very constructive people with a good heart and conscious. I am sorry if you found my comment offensive but lttee killed our ex pm. I have highest regards for all indians because we are one under the constitution. Cheerio, rab rakha


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