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Good Idea… Bad Idea?

16/06/2009

Should Islamabad hurry up and bring the fight to the motley crew in S. Waziristan? Nick Schmidle thinks that’s a bad idea as does Andrew Exum over at abumuqawama, who beat this blog by at least a day in linking to Schmidle’s piece… but given that we just launched like 5 minutes ago (and I just started a new job) let’s chalk that up to growing pains. In any event… I tend to agree.

In trying to work out my own thinking on it, I made myself a little good idea / bad idea chart. The good idea / bad idea chart approach is a favorite of one of my wife’s friends who runs a day camp. Whenever a kid ends up in her office for doing something bad, she holds up a piece of oak tag with good idea on one side and bad idea on the other.

Now it’s not that I don’t appreciate nuanced grey areas – I love to build myself a wall and sit on top of it as much as the next PhD student – but if I ever get a policy job there is no doubt I’ll have that chart hanging in my office.

Good Idea

1. The army is finally engaging and has pretty good success in Swat. More importantly, they seem to have learned a thing or two about how to fight this kind of war. A friend of mine went out there to survey the collateral damage last week and said it looks like they’ve managed to avoid flattening the place.

And when I was there during the beginning of the offensive, the reports I was hearing indicated that the army was trying to avoid falling back on overwhelming and indiscriminate force. While we shouldn’t be inducting the army into the COIN (counterinsurgency) Hall of Fame just yet, they do seem to be improving. So the momentum is there… and in an insurgency, I’m told that is something you don’t want to waste.

2. A significant number of the people involved in the violence savaging the rest of Pakistan are either working from, or working with people in, S. Waziristan. Ultimately, putting a stop to the terrorism now savaging the rest of the country is going to require going into S. Waziristan. And the longer Islamabad waits, the longer those attacks go on.

3. The population appears as if it might be primed for this offensive, and given its past history Islamabad should probably avoid looking like it is decided to roll over. When I was there in May the Army was saying it was going into S. Waziristan by June, though Abbas has done a good job of walking back off that particular talking point.

Nonetheless, as attacks escalate in the rest of Pakistan there will be increasing pressure to deal with the people responsible… and a lot of them are in S. Waziristan.

Bad Idea

1. As Schmidle pointed out, S. Waziristan ain’t Swat. And it’s not like Swat was exactly a cake-walk. More importantly, it’s also not over yet. Yes the Army has done a decent job of clearing the area of militants, and of doing so without actually destroying every house in the neighborhood.

But clearing is the easy part, and something the Army has been able to do before. Based on some of the conversations I’ve had recently with folks on the ground, at least some Pakistani officers are well aware that many of the militants simply melted away. Now they need to hold the area, begin returning refugees to their homes and protect them once they’re back.

2. And speaking of refugees… as anyone who picked up a newspaper in the last month knows, Swat created an enormous IDP (internally displaced people) crisis. Which Pakistan really needs to focus on fixing. For so many reasons. First, there is the obvious fact that the level of human misery is high. And all strategy aside, dealing with that is a moral imperative. Second, failing to do so would be a pretty good way to lose popular support. Third, beyond needing to get its governance on in order to maintain the support of its own population this is also a good opportunity for Islamabad to show the rest of the world it can, you know, actually take care of its people. Fourth, refugee camps = militant recruiting grounds. Just ask the guys from Lashkar-e-Taiba… I mean Jamaat-ud-Dawa… no sorry, I meant Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF). I’m told the first thing a refugee fleeing from the fighting sees when he/she comes to the camps in Mardan is a guy waving the LeT/JuD flag.

3. I think its great the Zardari and Sing are supposed to make nice to one another tomorrow (or today or yesterday depending on when this runs), but I’m doubtful that anything said at the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) summit is going to convince the Pakistani army to start pulling its forces off the eastern front in any great numbers.* I believe the Pakistanis are serious about ‘getting serious’ with the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan). But I’m also inclined to believe their officer corps when they tell me that India is still the long-term existential threat and that any reinforcements for the fight against militancy will probably come from the garrisons and not the Eastern front.

And that’s what they were saying to me a month ago… when the cameras weren’t rolling. They were also saying that technology is the answer to counter-insurgency, not doctrine or training. Which just made me sad all day. But long story short, it is unclear that the military is entirely prepared for what an invasion of S. Waziristan would entail.

4. And, according to Sabrina Tavernise and Pir Zubair Shah over at the NYT, the militants do seem to be getting prepared.

Mr. Mehsud now has thousands of fighters entrenched in mountain terrain that is nearly impossible for conventional armies to navigate, and past efforts to capture him, most recently last year, have failed. … Fighters loyal to Baitullah Mehsud have been moving into the area from elsewhere in Pakistan to fortify it. Commanders are dividing responsibilities, designating fighters for bomb making and remote detonation, said a fighter who spoke by telephone from the area.

5. The mission itself seems unclear. Are they going after militancy in S. Waziristan or just its most famous militant? The TTP is an umbrella organization and beneath that umbrella it’s fractious. So would killing or capturing Baitullah be a good thing?  Yeah. So would killing bin Laden, but that’s not going to stop your AQ problem.

And yes, I realize that analogy only goes so far since bin Laden is far more influential outside of Pakistan and even less hands on operationally inside Pakistan. But my point is that it’s not like the TTP is some sort of uber-hierarchical organization you can just decapitate and suddenly it falls apart and people start going home.

5a. The mission itself seems unclear. Part Deux. As the Tavernise and Pir point out, the military won a hard fought victory in Bajaur not so long ago and the militants are back there today. As Talat Massood, who is a seriously astute observer of Pakistan and all-around one of the good guys, made clear in the Times piece: that is because they failed to establish effective local governance structures afterwards. I’m not all that comforted by the idea that success can be declared if they nail Baitullah and his supporters.

So yeah… I can see the arguments for why S. Waziristan makes sense right now, but they fall short of convincing me this is not a bad idea. Because even if Pakistan clears out S. Waziristan – and that is a big if – I’m not yet confident they can keep it militant-free and develop lasting governance structures that work. And I’m even more concerned about what happens to the internally displaced population and the gains they’ve made elsewhere in the meantime.

* I’m actually not being flip. I think it’s great that they are going to hold talks even if that really only amounts to a sideline meeting.