THE lashkars in the tribal areas are being touted as a great military plan to counter the Taliban. The governor of the Frontier province, Owais Ghani, for instance, was of the view that the lashkars would create minimal social disturbance, because the battle would appear to be waged by the local population rather than foreign forces.
The plan has been endorsed by Centcom commander Gen Petraeus who probably views this strategy as workable. Since it is being used in Iraq, it is being employed in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well.
The idea is to temporarily arm a select group of people to fight the Taliban and then disarm them after the job is done. The plan didn’t really take off because Taliban attacks on jirgas also killed people involved with the lashkars. However, there is a larger problem with this plan. Its continuation will gradually disempower the Pakistan Army and result in even greater chaos. Having lashkars is tantamount to outsourcing security operations that the US military might be comfortable with but which is hardly required in the context of Pakistan’s armed forces.
The erroneous supposition is that such outsourcing can be controlled and manipulated at a later stage according to the wishes of governments, especially the one in Islamabad. The outsourcing of security has not worked in the case of the Taliban nor has it borne fruit in the case of the private contractors deployed all over the world by the US. This is about militaries and governments missing the wood for the trees. The concerned authorities use non-state actors purely for tactical purposes, and they always spiral out of control.
Three examples of this relate to India, US and Pakistan. Indira Gandhi’s use of non-state actors in East Punjab for tactical political gains cost her dearly at a strategic level. Similarly, the US forces’ tactical use of private security contractors resulted in great embarrassment and the expansion of the conflict in Iraq and other places where non-state actors were employed. Finally, Pakistan’s dependence on the Taliban, starting in the 1990s, to establish Islamabad’s control over Afghanistan expanded the threat rather than helped the country achieve its goal.
The lashkars will not prove worth the effort. An example of how such small private armies go out of control pertains to the ‘Pratikar Samiti’ (retaliation groups) in Nepal. These forces were established to fight the Maoist forces but then went out of control and became part of the smuggling mafias. Reports began to filter in around 2004 regarding the exigencies of these private armies especially in the two districts of Nawalparasi and Kapilvastu. In Nepal, the Samitis were not only linked to violence but were a cause of increased corruption in the Royal Nepal Army.
Let’s not believe that the results would be very different in Pakistan’s case. Establishing lashkars means that the government has subcontracted the fighting and has indirectly ceded control of part of its territory to non-state actors to fight another group of non-state actors. Once this formula begins to work in the short term, there will be increasing dependence on this methodology. The lashkars will then become a nuisance exactly the way the Taliban have turned into one. The government troops, as has happened in the case of American forces in Iraq, will begin to depend on these lashkars even for intelligence which means that information could be manipulated thus posing a greater risk to the state.
In very simple terms, the Taliban problem in Afghanistan and the tribal areas cannot be solved through such short-term tactical manoeuvres. Such measures are likely to prove ineffective even in countering the American pressure. In fact, drone attacks will continue mainly because of the credibility gap between Islamabad and Washington.
Obviously, people in Pakistan are upset with the drone attacks, especially as they attribute the creation of the Taliban to the Americans. However, there are two facts which must be taken into consideration. First, the Taliban are different from the Afghan warlords. While the US was involved in preparing the warlords, often hosted by the Reagan administration, the more definitive stamp on the Taliban, dating back to the 1990s, is that of the Pakistani GHQ. This, in any case, was a different generation of warriors who had their own political agenda and were difficult to play ball with in contrast to the warlords who are still offering to talk directly to Washington by undercutting their former Pakistani hosts. This difference has to be kept in mind.
Second, even during the 1980s when the US was in favour of outsourcing military operations to Afghan warlords and jihadis, the deal between the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence was that all funding and communication would be routed through the latter. There are several narratives including the famous book The Bear Trap by former ISI officer Mohammad Yusuf who explains how his organisation was at the forefront of creating and interacting with Afghan warlords.
The American objective then was to defeat archrival USSR. Once the objective was fulfilled there was no purpose to hang on to the non-state actors. It was criminal that the US did not venture to disarm these warriors and pulled back from Afghanistan allowing Pakistan’s GHQ to conceive and activate its Monroe doctrine on its western borders. Rawalpindi saw Afghanistan as its sphere of influence for which the theory of strategic depth was also cooked up.
The problem now is that the superpower has taken another policy turn and wants the Taliban abandoned completely. Washington’s frustration is due to what is seen as its inability to convince its junior partner Pakistan to abandon the Taliban despite the fact that the US has paid billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to Islamabad. Although Gen Pervez Musharraf argues that Pakistan wasn’t paid enough, the assessment of how much Islamabad was worth is very subjective. After years of a patron-client relationship, Washington had its own calculation of how much it would take for Pakistani generals and politicians to deliver on Afghanistan.
The fact that the Taliban problem has not been resolved as yet is a reflection of how outsourcing of security creates problems at different levels. The Americans initially outsourced the war to the Pakistani intelligence and Afghan warlords and couldn’t roll them back. The Pakistanis subcontracted security work to the Taliban and the ball never returned to the GHQ’s court. In Pakistan’s case, it is more problematic because there have been fears that the military has not completely dumped the Taliban, an example of what happens when security is outsourced to non-state actors. The lashkars will be no different.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.