The next step is to ensure that use and utility of force are mated for force to become effective. If there is anything worse than not using force when required to do so it is using it ineffectively
The government’s decision to cleanse the Tribal Areas of Taliban-Al Qaeda elements, with the prime minister in the chair, shows that Islamabad’s initial enthusiasm for making peace deals with the militants has waned. No surprises there.
Equally, however, the high-level meeting and its decisions signal that at least in the last two months, effective governmental oversight of the effort may have both fallen prey to other political issues that have dogged the country and a misplaced notion that the militants can be leashed through a dialogue that is not backed by force or the threat of its use.
Let’s consider some facts.
Even before the civilian government took over, the strategy was not working and kept oscillating between mostly ineffective use of force and even more ineffective local deals. The Taliban strategy was clever: retaliate to use of force with suicide and other terrorist attacks both against military targets in the Tribal Areas and other parts of the NWFP as well as across Pakistan; and then switch them off to signal openness to dialogue.
The point is that this back and forth between use of force and talk-talk is not new. Yet, because the political cost of the strategy was increasing, the civilian governments in Islamabad and Peshawar came in resolved to change the hue of the game. That was not to be and it was naïve even if sincere.
First, let us be very clear that we are dealing here with a very difficult situation. There is no silver bullet that can deliver the result. The effort is going to be a long haul because the situation involves various actors, all with their own compulsions and interests.
Second, it will amount to kidding ourselves that the Taliban can be restrained through dialogue, especially one conducted from a position of weakness. They have acquired the asymmetric advantage over security forces and they will not dialogue on the state’s terms.
Third, let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that what the Taliban do is reactive — i.e., if we leave them alone, they will live and let live. They know they are on a winning streak and they now want effective control of territory. That is only possible if they keep up the military and ideological pressure on the state. That they are knocking on the doors of Peshawar is a move which I have often referred to in these pages and which was in the offing. Those who think that the Taliban-Al Qaeda elements are not pro-active have not really studied the manner in which they have slowly eroded the state’s writ.
While it is too early to equate their advance — military and ideological — at multiple axes as a Tet Offensive, let it be said that they are familiar with the Vietcong tactics and strategy and, because of Iraq, have worked out more innovative techniques to neutralise stronger adversaries.
Fourth, even if it is accepted for the sake of the argument that they will leave the state alone if Islamabad and Peshawar would let them be, it still does not solve the problem of their forays into Afghanistan where an international coalition mandated by the Security Council is fighting such elements. The legal regime that underpins that effort is robust and has international backing (Ejaz Haider, “The wrong pursuit;” Daily Times, June 17, 2008).
If Pakistan allows them a free hand by cutting deals with them and signalling that the Tribal Areas lie outside its municipal and thus state jurisdiction, it could give much incentive to concerned states to invoke the Security Council and get specific authorisation — considering that the existing legal regime is short of such authorisation which, according to one view, it is not — to deal with the problem east of the Durand Line.
So, what should the state do?
Here’s the dilemma.
Use of force has not really worked because mere use may not fulfil the demands of utility of force. It is only when use is wedded to utility that force can become effective. Moreover, use of force has political costs.
Dialogue has not worked either. It has been conducted from a position of weakness; plus, it has emboldened the Taliban, allowed them to make further inroads into the NWFP, given them space to re-org and make subsequent military operations even more difficult to conduct; and, finally, talking has allowed them to conduct more vicious attacks west of Durand Line.
As noted earlier, this is not an easy situation to deal with. But two things should be crystal-clear. One, this is not a situation that can afford half-way measures; two, dialogue cannot be conducted successfully until and unless use of force has been effective and the state acquires an asymmetric advantage over the Taliban.
This brings us to two problems. How can use of force be made effective since it has not been so far; two, how does the state offset the political cost of use of force?
Taking the second question first, let it be said that in the short term the cost will rise. There is nothing the government — this or any other — can do about it. In fact, Taliban reprisals will go up for a short while when — assuming effective use of force — the military campaign against them becomes more successful.
Corollary: the government will have to take this chance. It must go into the situation, knowing that this is the downside of this policy in the short term; but that it (government) has to keep the pressure up. As we have seen, being squeamish about the political cost has done nothing. If anything, it has served to make the situation increasingly intractable. Islamabad will have to be resolute, plan carefully and execute ruthlessly. There is no other way of tackling this situation despite the combined wisdom of all analysts here and abroad.
When the government talks about a “robust enforcement mechanism”, it implies force. How much more evidence do we need to convince ourselves that the Taliban, like all insurgents, require flexibility in their strategy to deal with a stronger adversary? And flexibility means both operational innovations and political and strategic deception.
The trouble is that everyone wants the solution to be neat and cost-effective. It will be messy, and cost-effectiveness is a relative, not an absolute term.
Once this is decided, the next step is to ensure that use and utility of force are mated for force to become effective. If there is anything worse than not using force when required to do so it is using it ineffectively. The militant thrives for motivation and recruitment on ineffective use of force as much as a lack of resolve by the state. The effectiveness factor becomes even more pressing, given the delicate balance in situations where force and dialogue have to go hand in hand and create complementarities.
How to use force effectively is the question to which we shall return tomorrow.
Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily Times, 27/6/2008