by Ahmed Humayun
(This is the second post on Pakistan's struggle against militancy. Part I is here).
To prevail against an insurrection, a state must fight on many fronts. It must construct a comprehensive military and political strategy, strengthen its institutional capacity to fight an internal war, and mobilize public support for a protracted struggle. Above all, an insurgency is a contest between the state and its challengers over legitimacy and credibility. In this clash of narratives, the state must persuade the population that its actions are those of a representative, duly constituted government attempting to restore its control even as the rebels repudiate the fundamental legitimacy of the state.
So far in Pakistan the militant groups are winning the war of narrative. As I wrote last time, the Pakistani Taliban is by no means a monolith but its different factions do come together around a clear strategic story. Insurgent propaganda states that the rebellion's goal is to replace an illegitimate, un-Islamic government subservient to Washington with an Islamic state. Their war is defensive—for Islam and against America. The state, on the other hand, speaks in contradictory voices. Some say that the state must fight until the rebels lay down their arms, forswear the use of violence, and respect the rule of law, while others insist on immediate, unconditional negotiations. The truth is that ending the turmoil within Pakistan requires some adroit combination of fighting and talking—but only if they are aspects of an integrated strategy that has as its aim the restoration of state control and that realistically accounts for the ambitions of the rebels, which are revolutionary, and which they have pursued from the mountains in the tribal areas to major urban centers across the heartland.
Yet advocates of negotiation —including leading politicians, retired generals, and influential pundits—blame the state and its alliance with Washington rather than the militants for fomenting the violence. As a result it is widely believed in Pakistan that the war against militancy has been foisted on the country by the United States; that insurgent violence is merely retaliation for Pakistani military aggression and American drone strikes in the tribal areas; and that conflict will cease when these operations end. The result is that formula recited by many: ‘This is not our war.' This dominant narrative has had a negative effect on the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public, created demoralization in the country's army and police forces, and emboldened the insurgents.
There are many reasons why this narrative has taken hold. The decades-long support by the country's security establishment of non-state radical groups has created an ideological atmosphere which is generally indulgent of militancy. Then, the military and political leadership generally avoid stating the facts about the origins and evolution of the insurgency in their country—it is easier to deflect blame to outside forces, especially when there is genuine confusion about how to put the genie back in the bottle. Also, the public is war-weary, does not trust its leaders and simply wants the conflict to come to an end. The political opposition in successive regimes have whipped up and exploited this anti-war sentiment to undercut the political standing of the government in power. And not least, the presence of Western military forces in Afghanistan, the discovery of American spy networks in Pakistan, and the flying of fleets of U.S. drones over the tribal areas have all distracted attention from the internal threat, in part by making it easy for anti-American elements to disseminate conspiracy theories and orchestrate outrage against the United States as the source of ongoing subversion.
While the debate within Pakistan has been stuck, the state has nevertheless been compelled to take some action as the costs inflicted by the insurgents have escalated. Since 2009, a series of military operations in northwestern Pakistan have resulted in the regaining of some territories formerly under insurgent control. Thousands of soldiers have died and thousands more have been maimed. In addition, there have been other vital measures such as investments in reconstruction, rehabilitation, and deradicalization programs in districts like Swat and Malakand. These efforts are flawed—military operations have generally emphasized killing militants at the expense of holding territory and rebuilding governance, and have contributed to the displacement of five million people since 2004—but they signal a real shift in which the army is gradually refocusing to contend with the internal threat.
The current democratically elected government, ushered into office last June, is also making moves in the right direction. Last November in Islamabad a senior counterterrorism advisor to the Pakistani government described to me a series of new steps being phased in to thwart militancy: the passage of new laws to strengthen law enforcement capacity; the development of a national counterterrorism strategy centered in the Ministry of the Interior and buttressed by province-specific elements; a new urban counterterrorism plan focusing on securing the cities and then progressively expanding outwards in wider rings; and a more coordinated strategy to counter militancy in the northwest designed to exploit militant divisions.
It remains to be seen how much of this agenda will be translated into reality over the current government's tenure. One of the reasons for the state's halting, stumbling movement on counterterrorism is the same that bedevils its other policies: a chronically weak system of governance that lacks the institutional capacity to design and implement programs and that is thoroughly compromised by politicized appointments. The fate of the National Counterterrorism Authority, created during the previous government to formulate and execute a national counterterrorism strategy, is typical. The founding head of the organization told me in Lahore that the institution had become ‘toothless', yet another ‘holding pen for patronage-based posting', which had had more than five heads in just over two years. Without institution-building, a reactive, firefighting approach will remain the default counterterrorism mode.
If the political will to counter the insurgency is weak, institution-building initiatives will remain stillborn. If it is believed that there is no real war to be fought, then there will be little sustained support for the large investments in infrastructure, training, and coordination capabilities necessary to contend with the Taliban. And if the state does not decisively establish the legitimacy of its position vis-à-vis the insurgents, then generals and soldiers, politicians and bureaucrats, will remain ambivalent at best about the years of drawn-out struggle ahead.
In recent years there has been growing recognition of the importance of changing the narrative about the war. In particular, the army's operations have catalyzed an attempt by its top brass to change public perceptions and counter insurgent propaganda. For example, in a speech at 2013's Day of Martyrs memorial, General Kayani, at the time the chief of army staff, spoke of the necessity for war against a ‘small faction' with a ‘distorted ideology' that is an ‘enemy of the state' and was violating its constitution.* This is a frame that may mobilize deeper support for the war if it is systematically disseminated. So far, however, there is no evidence that evoking the constitution, the democratically elected government, or the rule of law has changed hearts and minds.
Last November, when a U.S. drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the then-leader of the Pakistani Taliban, the head of one of the main Islamist parties stated that Mehsud was a ‘martyr' and implied that the Pakistani soldiers fighting the Taliban were not. The Pakistani army's public relations arm condemned these views, demanded an apology, and declared that ‘all of us are very clear on what the state of Pakistan is and who its enemies are.'** While this unprecedented back-and-forth was welcomed by many in the country who saw it as a sign of a sundering of the ‘mullah-military' nexus, its real significance lies in showing enormous Islamist confidence. And the Islamists are far from the only ones capitalizing on Pakistani disenchantment: Imran Khan, a leading opposition politician, launched a protest against the Mehsud drone strike, bringing out thousands of supporters and shutting down NATO supply routes.
Many in Pakistan have expressed the hope to me that as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerates and the drone war in the tribal areas slows down, the country will begin to see the extent of the internal threat clearly. Perhaps. Undoubtedly the American footprint in South Asia has deeply distorted the public debate about militancy, and it may become harder for the insurgents and their political allies to distract Pakistani attention from their agenda through anti-Americanism. But Western disengagement will not eliminate the deep seated dysfunction that has led to the current crisis. There is no magic bullet here: Once a state relinquishes portions of its sovereignty to non-state actors and legitimizes their operations to the broader public over several decades, it cannot just flip the switch back. It will be a long time before Pakistan's political and military structures unambiguously align themselves against domestic challengers – given the sheer scale of the problem, that day may never come. In the mean time, the most likely short to medium-term scenario is a continuation of the current firefighting policy—a path of muddling along that will produce neither victory nor defeat but a brittle, blood-sodden stalemate.
Ahmed Humayun is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C.
*Kayani Speech on Day of Martyrs
**Army ISPR Release