The Blog

Rethinking the War in Pakistan's Borderlands

Pakistan pursued a half-hearted strategy that allowed the Taliban to make inroads into Pakistani territory and challenge the writ of the state and the Pakistan army itself.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

It took the United States government over six years after 9/11 to concentrate on designing a strategy for the war against the militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan. It was not alone. Pakistan, too, managed to ignore the deeper issues at stake and pursued a half-hearted strategy that allowed the Taliban to make inroads into Pakistani territory and challenge the writ of the state and the Pakistan army itself. Now, as the militants have brought the war into the Pakistani hinterland, things seem to be moving in the direction of a new war strategy. But the remarkable lack of public discourse of the emerging approaches in both countries is symptomatic of the secretive and top-down thinking on this critical issue. For years the US pushed a Pro-Musharraf policy and relied on one man to help it fight its "war on terror" in the region. Now, rushing to put it into effect a new war strategy, even before a new popularly elected government takes over in Pakistan may compound the difficulty in shifting to a Pro-Pakistan policy.

First some background: the US made a serious mistake in Afghanistan by shifting its focus and resources from that country to Iraq before it had consolidated its position against the Taliban. A nominal force was left in Afghanistan under very difficult conditions and all attempts to reinforce its numbers were resisted, for instance by the offer of the Marine Corps to send a special expeditionary force. In effect, the US military command and its diffident NATO allies conceded the countryside to the Taliban, content to policing the cities and their immediate environs. Even the Special Forces, who had gained some rural traction, were largely withdrawn for duty in Iraq. The allies also failed to provide good governance and security for the population of Afghanistan, allowing its Pashtun majority to coalesce with the Taliban and against the regime in Kabul.

On its part, Pakistan recognized the cross-border influence of the Pashtun tribes that sit astride the border with Afghanistan but chose to ignore the Taliban that sought sanctuary inside FATA. In return for the injection of US payments for the army's expenses in entering FATA, Pakistan concentrated only on trying to curb the "foreign" elements in FATA, the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, and sundry other nationalities under the umbrella of Al Qaeda that had made their homes in the tribal badlands, some even marrying into local tribes.

Nothing was done to control the Afghan Taliban, who then spawned a Pakistani offshoot. More important, nothing was done to integrate FATA into Pakistan proper and give it the economic, legal, and political benefits potentially available to other Pakistani regions. Ignoring the Taliban only emboldened them, as they fought for space against an under-equipped and weak Frontier Corps and other local para-military outfits. And lack of training and individual command failures contributed to poor morale, defections galore, and ignominious surrenders. Meanwhile the FC and army suffered heavy casualties, showing their lack of preparation for counter insurgency warfare.

In November 2006, the Pakistan army came to the US with a $395 million plan for building up the capacity of the Frontier Corps. Discussions since then have led to a heightened US interest in FATA, with CENTCOM actively entering the picture. The result was a $2 billion Government of Pakistan plan over a nine-year period to help improve governance, economic development and security in the FATA and enhance the Pakistan army's capabilities in the region. The U.S. contribution will be a little over $2 billion, the most well known part of that effort being a $750 million contribution for development in FATA for the next five years. Another part of the U.S. contribution is the Security Development Plan (SDP) to improve security by enhancing the capability of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

In the face of a deteriorating security situation, the first phase of the SDP, approved for FY 2007, concentrated on improving the policing and antinarcotics capabilities of the FC and assisting the Pakistan army's commandos, the Special Services Group's operational capacity in the region with helicopter support. Much more is (pardon the pun) en train:

• 2 training centers for the FC
• 2 intelligence bases
• 4 sector headquarters for increased Command and Control, and
• A series of Border Coordination Centers to share intelligence, develop a common operational picture on both sides of the Durand Line, and help coordinate the activities of the US, Afghan, and Pakistan army in the area; the first one opening in Torkham on the Afghan side shortly, the second one being built.

The US hopes to begin training of the FC, starting in October 2008, especially its newly raised Wings, through a "Train the Trainers" program. Current FC officers will be trained in counter insurgency warfare. And intelligence training will be imparted to personnel of two new intelligence battalions of the FC. When all is said and done, the overall cost of these measures in the SDP may exceed $400M. But much time will have been lost by these plans become reality. Senator Joseph Biden has proposed an even larger aid plan for Pakistan to help it on its path toward democracy that would triple the non-security aid to $1.5 billion annually for a decade. He has also proposed a "democracy dividend" of $1 billion to encourage the shift from autocracy to democracy.

But there are causes for concern on both sides. First, in the direct military-to-military discussions there have been no exchanges on the need to politically and economically integrate FATA into Pakistan proper. The Department of Defense has conceded that ground to the Department of State that has been demure in pushing this agenda forward, only recently waking up to the issue. As a result FATA remains an anachronistic appendage, and its population deprived of the full benefits of Pakistani citizenship. A disconnected population will not actively participate in any development plans and this may led to "carpetbaggers" from the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province or other provinces taking advantage of economic opportunities and tax breaks in FATA. Second, there has been no sharing of information by the previous government of Pakistan with its general population of what is planned for FATA with the United States and what conditions for the entry and operation of US forces in Pakistan are being agreed upon and by whom. As a result, the few bits of information that leak out into the pages of the newspapers tend to paint the cooperation in the darkest hues. The danger seen by critics of the US plan is that Pakistan's leadership may be bartering away its sovereignty by allowing the US unbridled access to the borderlands. Third, a new civilian government is being formed in Pakistan these days. If it is not brought into the picture and allowed to make final decisions on the future plans for FATA and collaboration with the US in Pakistan's own interests, this whole enterprise may collapse for lack of political support. It would behoove the US and the Pakistan army to bring the new political leadership on board and allow it to decide on future plans so it takes ownership of these ventures before signing any agreements. This would also strengthen the move toward civil supremacy.

Finally, the enhancement of the FC should be seen only as a short-term transitional measure, with a greater and longer-term shift towards improving the capacity of the regular Pakistan army in counter insurgency warfare. Most thinking officers in the Pakistan army probably know that they will not be fighting any large-scale conventional war in the near future, especially against India. The posture there is purely defensive and the presence of a well trained, mobile Pakistan army, backed by nuclear weapons, should be enough to deter any regional hegemon from exerting undue influence on Pakistan.

Pakistan's wars within, against homegrown insurgencies, will demand a different type of force and a different mind-set. This will take time. Despite his desire to move towards this new objective, the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has only three years to complete his tenure. The shift in the army's posture and capacity for the new kind of warfare will likely extend even beyond the term of his successor.

But, the rush to get the US plans into action and to improve the FC's capacity, without looking at the more important longer-term issues affecting the region and the Pakistan army itself may not yield the intended results. Rather, pitting a locally-recruited FC against its own tribal cousins may end up creating more problems and feed the very insurgency they are meant to quell. Both the US and the Pakistani public need to be part of this important discussion. Haste and secrecy can only undermine these efforts.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within for Oxford University Press, due April 2008. He regularly appears as a commentator on television, radio, and at think tanks and can be reached at www.shujanawaz.com .