June 16, 2009

FATA Follies?

For a moment there, I was excited by the possibility that the Pakistani Army might consolidate its gains in the Swat Valley and try a little of the "hold" and "build" phases of counterinsurgency. It now seems, though, as if the Pakistani Army is going to push into southern Waziristan in an effort to capture or kill Baitullah Mehsud, the rebel Islamist leader. This following sentence was, actually, the scariest thing I read all yesterday:

"Baitullah is the root cause of all the problems. He is the axis of evil," [Provincial Gov. Owais] Ghani told reporters.

Now why does that scare me? Well, first off, convincing one's self that your only problem is with this one guy -- and that once you kill him, everything will be alright -- has been proven to be a losing strategy time and time again in struggles against violent non-state actors. Whether one is talking about Israeli targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders or U.S. efforts to capture or kill Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, we have seen that killing key leadership might only have a negligible effect on the environment. How many days of peace did we get in Iraq when we killed Zarqawi? 18, I think?

The Pakistani Army, though, is nonetheless preparing to move into South Waziristan this summer against the advice of Nicholas Schmidle and others and is in for a tough fight. We wish them all the best of luck, because they are going to need it:

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.


“There’s a high level of preparation going on in all of South Waziristan,” he said. Even in Wana, a town outside Mr. Mehsud’s area, the roads were so heavily mined that many preferred to walk.


The fighters said the Taliban recently shut down courts they operated in the area, telling those who needed disputes resolved to come back in two months, because those who staffed them were now focused on fighting.


An associate of Mr. Mehsud said that the Taliban had the advantage of geography. “We are up,” he said, chopping the air above his head with the side of his hand, “and they are down.”

Well, good luck with that, General Kayani. One of the additional problems with this strategy, of course, is that by personalizing the conflict, it at once makes Baitullah Mehsud into a kind of resistance hero while not actually addressing the root causes of the rise of Islamist militancy in the tribal areas. The end of this article in today's New York Times talks sense:

Even if the military prevails, that will be only the beginning. The area is one of the country’s poorest, a condition that has made it ripe for militancy. A more lasting solution would require economic opportunity and government support, including an adequate police force.


In Bajaur, part of the tribal areas, the military cleared out militants last year, at great cost to civilians, but the militants have reasserted control. The reason, said Mr. Masood, the military analyst, is that a local government was never properly established.


That held a lesson.


“Militancy is like a monster,” said Habibullah Khan, a top bureaucrat for the tribal areas. “Even if only the tail is left, it will grow again from there.”

Again, my new BFF, General David Petraeus, made a claim at CNASapalooza '09 last week that the Pakistani Army "gets" clear-hold-build. I'll believe that when I see the "hold" and "build" phases of COIN. Specifically, I want to know what steps the Pakistani government is taking to address the problem of internally displaced persons from Swat. Show me a coherent plan for dealing with IDPs and re-establishing governance in the Swat Valley and I'll show you fresh confidence in your efforts on my end.

Just so I can end on a positive note, though, it is certainly heartening to see the way in which the Pakistani urban classes are united against the challenge posed by Mehsud and his ilk. That's a nice development to witness. And Lord knows, I don't think killing terrorists and their leaders is a bad thing. I highly recommend the activity as a job, in fact, for any young men out there possessing a reasonable amount of athleticism and intelligence. But let's be honest about what's really going to solve the problems currently facing the government of Pakistan. Killing some long-haired dude in a cave somewhere will no more solve Pakistan's problems than killing Osama bin Laden will ours.