Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pakistani Pashtuns Tiring of Taliban?

Yesterday at the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio posted about the efforts underway by the Pakistani government and military to reach out to the multifarious but predominantly Pashtun tribes straddling that nation's embattled border with Afghanistan, and enlist their aid to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda "miscreants" in their midst:

Pakistan has touted its tribal strategy as being crucial to it security plan, but the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and the existing tribal dynamics work against the government.

The idea of using the tribes to fight the Taliban is not new in fight against the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan. The government raised lashkars to fight the Taliban in North and South Waziristan in 2004 and 2005. The Taliban, then led by Nek Mohammed and Abdullah Mehsud, routed the lashkars and fought the Pakistani military to a stalemate. These battles led to the government to negotiate a series of humiliating peace accords in North and South Waziristan, and beyond.

But today, the Pakistani government is engaging the tribes throughout the tribal areas and the greater Northwest Frontier Province and possibly inside Afghanistan.

Naturally, this brings to mind the enlistment of Sunni tribes in Iraq, whose Awakening Movement and its mobilizations of local security forces (the "Sons of Iraq") have proved so instrumental in facilitating the implementation of the Petraeus counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, along with a surge of troops and fundamental changes in the deployment patterns and rules of engagement for those troops. However, these comparisons need to be made with great caution, as the situation on the ground in the Af-Pak theater is qualitatively different, and presents a far more complex challenge than even Iraq had in store:

The Pakistani government has to coordinate different strategies for each individual tribe, making the task of tribal engagement difficult. "The dynamics [with each tribe] are very different, as is the strategic situation of each tribe," the source stated. "The biggest single hurdle is that there is no over-arching body to coordinate tribal resistance In contrast to the TTP [the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan]."

The Pakistani tribes are operating as distinct, local fighting forces, while the Taliban can coordinate their activities across the northwest and inside eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistani government claimed the Taliban and al Qaeda are pouring in from Kunar and neighboring provinces in Afghanistan to reinforce the legions fighting in Bajaur.

The challenge which this operational environment poses cannot be overstated: In Iraq, the Sunni tribes which began to push back against AQI well before Petraeus' COIN doctrine came on-line arose from a relatively homogeneous geographical and socio-cultural medium. There were common frames of reference and relatively well-established channels for communication and coordination, even as rivalries continually percolated. This showed in the seeming ease with which those tribes were able to act together when common interests were perceived -- at first for the Insurgency and its Jihadi agents provocateurs, then against the latter, and ultimately for the Nation of Iraq.

By stark contrast, the tribes of the isolated and perennially ungovernable hinterlands which stretch between Afghanistan and Pakistan live within an almost unimaginably rugged terrain in which historical divergences within formidable geographical contraints have given rise to a motley and mutually mistrustful melange of societies. Herding cats would be a mere trifle alongside the challenge of getting these people to work with each other, let alone with a Central Government and outsiders:

The problems are complicated by the tribes' unwillingness to cooperate with the government and the military. "We keep the government away," a senior tribal leader in Lakki Marwat told Geo TV. The tribes fear cooperation with the government will further turn the Taliban and sympathetic tribes against them. "If we became part of the government they would become an excuse, a liability, a rallying cry against us," the Lakki Marwat tribal leader said. This attitude prevents the military from providing the needed security to oppose massed Taliban attacks.

Other tribes claim to be equally opposed to the Taliban and US and NATO forces operating across the border in Afghanistan. "For us, the Taliban, NATO and the United States are all equals," a tribal leader in Bajaur said.

It is noteworthy that there should be such seeming agreement among many of these disparate groups that the Taliban represents at least a potentially malign force capable of meting out vengeance on those who stray from its agenda. That some tribes support the Taiban/AQ axis, while some bitterly oppose it may be seen as an exploitable bifurcation in the tribal ecosystem, one which the Pakistani government appears to be attempting to leverage (which seems to have gotten the miscreants' attention).

In this, it may be that the broad outlines of a viable battlespace for COIN operations is taking shape. If the fear of retribution for resistance against the Taliban, AQ, and their allied tribes can be credibly mitigated, it is conceivable that a more organized resistance could coalesce. The key would be to establish relationships with the tribal elders that are deeply informed by the nuances unique to each tribe, yet coordinated toward the attainment of a common purpose. This would take a special breed of field operators, led by an uncommonly perspicacious commander. Someone like....David Petraeus. As head of CENTCOM, Gen. Petraeus would be in the position to deploy conventional and (especially) Special Forces into the AO which could train and support local militias against their Taliban and AQ foes...not to mention rival tribes (which would likely be seen as a nice perk).

This possibility sheds an interesting light on what might otherwise appear to be another in a series of depressing accounts of counterproductive appeasements, in this case the overtures of Afghan president Karzai toward Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Karzai is a very smart man, with ample grounds for comprehending the malignancy represented by Islamist forces in the region. I don't think it is entirely out of bounds to speculate that by making an amnesty offer to those Taliban who choose to come in out of the cold, he is intentionally applying pressure to fracture lines within the Pashtun tribes which may be on the fence, separating the more intransigent elements from those who might be flipped. If so, it would be a cunning gambit which would make any subsequent COIN operations in the area a bit less difficult. If not, then the net results could still be exploited to good effect. At the very least, it could sufficiently disrupt the logistics and organization of AQ in the area enough to undermine or destroy the development cycles of any planned attacks on US or European interests.

If anything, this underscores the danger of simply throwing troops at Afghanistan, and potentially alienating the very people who are showing signs --albeit tenuous and sputtering-- that they might make enemies of our enemies. To borrow a phrase, this will take more scalpel than hatchet.

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