The assassination attempt on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan after eight years in exile to reenter politics, serves to highlight the continually deteriorating security situation inside the Pakistan. Al Qaeda, with the help of their Taliban allies, has carved out a mini state in the Northwest Frontier Province, and threaten the very existence of the Pakistani state. The current approach adopted by the Pakistani government – negotiations, limited raids, and abbreviated attacks – has failed, and Pakistan must consider fighting a counterinsurgency campaign to uproot the Taliban and al Qaeda from their havens in the Northwest Frontier Province.
The attack on Bhutto’s procession, which occurred less than 24 hours after she returned to Pakistan, was a coordinated, sophisticated strike consisting of a car bomb, a suicide bomber, a grenade attack, and a sniper team. The attack was carried out by al Qaeda, Taliban, and their Pakistani allies, very likely with help inside the Inter Service Agency, Pakistan’s infamous intelligence service; the military is a possible participant. It resulted in the largest terror toll in the country’s history, with over 136 killed and upwards of 500 wounded.
The Bhutto assassination attempt was but the latest in escalating violence since the North Waziristan Accord, which essentially ceded the tribal agency to the Taliban, was inked September 2006. Within months the North Waziristan Accord was followed by agreements in Bajaur, Swat, and Mohmand agencies. News from the tribal agencies of Kurram, Orakzai, and Khyber has gone dark. These tribal agencies are very likely under Taliban control. Open source reporting indicates all or portions of the settled districts — think of these as counties in the US — of Dera Ismail Khan, Laki Marwat, Tank, Khyber, Bannu, Hangu, Kohat, Charsadda, Dir, Mardan, and even the provincial seat of Peshawar are under Taliban influence to some degree or another.
The Taliban conducted a series of suicide bombings and conventional attacks against civilian and military targets during the winter, spring, and summer of 2007. Hundreds of police and soldiers were killed along with hundreds more civilians. During this time, the Taliban and al Qaeda attempted to assassinate President Musharraf in Rawalpindi, Prime Minister Aziz in Islamabad, and Interior Minister Sherpao in the Northwest Frontier Province, while soldiers were butchered in their barracks and savaged on the streets.
In Islamabad, the government allowed the Taliban-led leaders of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, to kidnap police and civilians while enforcing their radical version of Islamic law in the heart of the city. This occurred for almost a year until the military and police assaulted the mosque in July. The assault resulted in over a dozen soldiers and over 100 civilians killed. Every student of the Lal Masjid was released from custody within weeks after the assault was carried out.
Last week, the Taliban and al Qaeda fought the Pakistani army to a standstill in North Waziristan. In early September 2007, the Taliban captured a company of Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan without firing a shot. The soldiers are still in Taliban captivity.
Band-aids won’t work
Prior to 2007 the Pakistani military fought a failed and flawed military campaign in North and South Waziristan from 2005 through the spring of 2006. The Pakistani military was neither trained nor prepared for the fight. In the Northwest Frontier Province, they met a determined enemy in the Taliban and al Qaeda. The military was demoralized by the heavy losses in fighting in the province, while some resented fighting their own countrymen. Official estimates place military casualties at about 1,000 killed, but unofficial estimates put them at 3,000 killed or higher.
Since the Pakistani military defeat, the Pakistani government has resorted to negotiations with the Taliban, under the guise of negotiations with tribal leaders, as well as attempts at bribery. The US has contented itself with backing Pakistani policy, despite its ineffectiveness.
“Thus far, American policy toward Pakistan has amounted to unconditional support for Musharraf, coupled with occasional air strikes against high-level al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas,” writes Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who looks at the policy options for Pakistan. In interviews with national security experts, Gartenstein-Ross notes the suggested way forward in dealing with Pakistan includes incentives tied to the killing or capture of senior al Qaeda leaders, pinprick strikes using special forces, an air campaign, “a campaign of assassins,” or an Anbar Salvation Front model to recruit tribal leaders on the side of the government were proposed. Alone, these solutions will not work.
The problem is that most of these options, other than an Anbar-like tribal engagement, have been tried. And the US has had such success in Anbar because it maintained a permanent, beefed-up military presence in the region to ensure the locals willing to back the US against al Qaeda in Iraq could rely on reinforcements, logistical, financial, and other support.
The Pakistani government, backed by US special operations forces, attempted to halt the rising power of al-Qaeda by conducting precision strikes against camps and high value targets. Between 2006 through 2007, airstrikes hit several handfuls of al Qaeda camps and meeting places including Chingai, Danda Saidgai (twice), Damadola, and Zamazola. The strikes yielded few high-value targets, and the Taliban and al Qaeda’s power and support in the Northwest Frontier Province only grew.
These strikes also came at a political cost to Musharraf. He was attacked politically for bombing his own citizens, while portrayed as an American puppet for allowing US forces to operate inside Pakistan.
The Pakistani government has also tried political solutions to no effect. The “peace accords” were abject failures. The government promised billions of dollars in aid and paid off Taliban leaders to quell the violence and stop cross border raids into Afghanistan. The result was that as the Taliban coffers filled, the attacks in Afghanistan tripled, and the Taliban consolidated its power in the Northwest Frontier Province and struck outward at government and military targets throughout Pakistan.
Despite the Pakistani military and political failures in the Northwest Frontier Province, the problem is inherently a Pakistani problem that needs a Pakistani solution. The government must somehow muster the elements of national power and build real support within the population for a hard and difficult fight. Whether the Pakistani government wants to recognize it or not, it is fighting an insurgency within its borders. A full-scale counterinsurgency campaign must be launched.
The US cannot lead a counterinsurgency campaign inside Pakistan for both military and political limitations. On the military side, US forces are extended to the limit with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military was forced to extend tours in Iraq to facilitate the “surge” in forces, and will be forced to draw down in April, despite the fact that al Qaeda could be dealt a death-blow in Iraq if the US maintained or increased forces in theater.
US forces are also stretched in Afghanistan. NATO has failed to live up to its commitments in providing combat troops or has handcuffed troops on the ground with “caveats” that prevent forces from deploying in combat regions. Commitments in the Horn of Africa, South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere tie up the remaining US forces, while the troops returning from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan require time to rest, refit, and train for the next deployment.
Politically, a full-scale deployment of US forces into the harsh terrain of the Northwest Frontier Province to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda is unfeasible at this time. America has shown little will to fight protracted counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The over 3,000 combat deaths in Iraq in four years of fighting would likely be child’s play compared to the casualties taken fighting a battle-hardened Taliban and al Qaeda on their home territory where they have real local support.
Pakistan is still a sovereign state, and any US involvement inside Pakistan must have the government’s, and by extension the people’s, approval. Anything short of this constitutes a US invasion of a nuclear-armed state and will only increase al Qaeda’s propaganda and recruiting capacities. The US can and should play a supporting role inside Pakistan, but the Pakistani government and its military must bear the brunt of the fight and the political consequences.
The situation in Pakistan has reached the stage where only drastic solutions hold out any hope of working. While there is a major difference between what is possible and what is practical, there is no other effective means to dislodge the core of al Qaeda’s leadership and their Taliban allies from the Northwest Frontier Province short of a real counterinsurgency campaign.
But how can al Qaeda be dislodged when US forces cannot enter Pakistan? The Pakistani government must come on board. This is easier said than done. The US has thrown about $11 billion at Pakistan so far, has begun transferring F-16s, and has given other diplomatic, political, economic, and military incentives. Despite these incentives, the Pakistani government has failed to meaningfully address the terrorist threat.
One thing that can be done unilaterally is to strengthen US and NATO forces on the Afghan side of the border and increase intelligence assets among the Pashtun tribes. This would require significant US military resources – perhaps doubling or tripling the number of US troops in Afghanistan. Significant air, intelligence, special operations forces, logistical support, and other assets would be needed.
But whether the Pakistani government comes on board or some other clandestine means are found to produce the same effect Pakistan and the US must:
• Attempt to reestablish the human intelligence network that has been wiped out by al Qaeda and its allied movements in northwestern Pakistan. Do this by spending significant amounts of money on disaffected tribal members and appealing to those whose family members have been killed or brutalized by the Taliban.
• Purge the military and Inter Services Intelligence of officers and enlisted members sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
• Ramp up the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency skills.
• Identify the locations of the major camps al Qaeda and Taliban camps and track the activity closely.
• Reinforce the Pakistani security forces in the settled districts where al Qaeda and the Taliban is weaker
• Cordon the districts from the tribal areas and settled districts owned by the Taliban and al Qaeda.
• Attempt to seal the Pakistani-Afghan border from the Afghan side using mines, fences, electronic surveillance, patrols, blocking forces, and air power.
• Neutralize local Taliban leaders. Some of them operate in the open and their locations are well known. Recently a journalist knocked on the door of Swat’s Maulana Fazlullah and conducted an interview.
• At the same time, strike at al Qaeda’s camps via air, and if needed special operations forces, in as near a simultaneous fashion as possible. Put the terrorist leadership on edge and give them a reason to move from their safe havens and into the open.
• Launch the counterinsurgency campaign, which must be led by Pakistani military The US must act in a supporting role by providing air, intelligence and logistical support.
To be clear, nothing less than a war of subterfuge followed by a full-on counterinsurgency campaign in the Northwest Frontier Province can make a real difference. This campaign will be long, it will be bloody, and it will be unpopular in the US, in Pakistan, and in the international community. Depending on the level of support for the Taliban and al Qaeda among the Pashtun tribes, enemy casualties may approach near-genocidal proportions. Friendly casualties will be enormous.
The past six years have shown that half measures only embolden al Qaeda. The US can conduct pinpoint raids and airstrikes as much it likes, but the problem will not go away until the enemy is uprooted. Anything short of a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to retain their safe havens and terror camps, their breeding grounds for attacks against democracy. The major terror attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai, as well as foiled plots in Denmark and the London Airline strike have all been traced back to Waziristan. Future attacks are being plotted there while Pakistan and the West sleeps.
Bill Roggio is the editor and publisher of The Long War Journal. His coverage includes strategic and operational issues relating to the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Lebanon, and more extensively in Iraq, as well as al Qaeda’s operations, tactics, and strategy.