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Pakistan Owes Much, But Not Suicide

By Firdaus Ahmed

29 October, 2009

Pakistan is no stranger to being at the vortex of global conflict. With Operation Rah e Nijat it finds itself once again centre stage; not for so much for its army is doing in Waziristan but the counter the operation has incited elsewhere in the country. The death toll elsewhere has surpassed 300 in the run up to the operation and since its launch. This is as anticipated. Musharraf had walked the tight rope in his years in power hoping to avoid just such a predicament. But his tenure was on Bush’s watch in which US radar screens had Iraq written all over them. Kayani has been denied the option by a watchful Obama pursuing his ‘war of necessity’. Zardari had for his part ordered the army to expel the Taliban from Waziristan way back in the aftermath of the Swat operation. The Army had taken time to prepare, using the excuse that the civil administration was not prepared to cope with the human aftermath of conflict. It was right. Pakistan cannot cope; therefore its Army should rethink strategy.

Conflict has an inbuilt tendency to spiral. This inherent feature of war is tempered by political aims limiting conflict. This is the Clausewitzian principle. Applying conflict theory to Pakistan, the bloody contest has potential to harden positions through a cycle of vengeance. The resulting spiral or slippery slope would involve greater application of military force and a more violent and indiscriminating counter. This has been the precedent of such conflict both in Algeria through the early to mid nineties and in Iraq in mid decade. The bomb blasts of this month in Iraq are signs of reversion. Thus, there is no guarantee of success, even from using greater military force in pursuit of the elusive position of strength. Strategic prudence requires a revisit to the aspect of political ends.

Political ends alone determine the levels of military means to be applied. The Powell-Weinberger doctrine, thought up in the run up to Gulf War I, was to ensure that the ghost of Vietnam is exorcised through a successful military campaign. The test of war aims was through a set of questions, prominent amongst which was: Is victory at all possible? The answer to this in the context of Pakistan can be taken as negative. In case the assessment is that Pakistan cannot win against the insurgents, should it be entering into a conflict with them in first place? This begs the question: Why cannot it win?

Pakistan’s Army is better at controlling irregular wars, witness its proxy wars against the Soviet Union and in Kashmir. Its counter insurgency skills are not only wanting, but in its use of artillery and air power against insurgents are positively counter productive. The Swat operation yielded the largest displacement of people in the region in so compressed a time frame since Partition. The Pakistani Army does not have the luxury of numbers in comparison to its adversary, the Indian Army, for it to ‘clear and hold’ such a large area as the FATA. The Pushtun insurgents and their Islamist allies of the Al Qaeda are reputed to number 15000 and are spread into NWFP and northern Baluchistan. They have penetrated the Punjabi heartland and the Saraiki belt through the umbrella linkages with the Punjabi Taliban. This assortment of foes is battle hardened, reasonably led and equipped enough to keep the Army at bay. This implies that to whittle them down, greater levels of force of questionable effectiveness would require application. The insurgent counter, as demonstrated all through October, would be to expand the theatre of operation through terror attacks into Punjabi heartland, thereby destabilising Pakistan’s core areas.

Concerns cannot be limited to Pakistani territory alone. The ISAF has demonstrated like incompetence to the north. The commanding general there, General McChrystal, has stirred up the latest round of policy review in Washington. Obama is awaiting the outcome of the Waziristan operation, along with the results of the run off elections, to make up his mind on sending more troops. It is likely that Obama would honour the opinion of the military expert on ground, specifically since the report was solicited by Washington for just such a policy review. However, in case it is decided not to send troops, then the political aims would be suitably moderated depending on what is doable in the circumstance. The decision would be dependent on the assessment of whether its allies in Islamabad and Kabul are up to the task of taking on the Taliban on respective sides of the Durand line. The centre of gravity of the opposition being in Pakistan, it is consideration of whether Pakistan would be able to ‘take out’ the Taliban that will determine the outcome of the review. As assessed above, this is not possible without compromising the very stability of Pakistan. With stability risked, there is no guarantee the Pakistani state can survive.

Therefore, it is unlikely the US would press Pakistan harder, knowing that regional stability and US purposes in the region require a coherent Pakistan. This could imply a political opening up to the Taliban, even as additional troops, not amounting to the 40000 asked for, are made available. This is not impossible to visualise in light of increasing public distaste for the war and the necessity for Obama to be responsive, particularly in glow of the Nobel Peace prize. Consequently, there is no reason for Pakistan to inconvenience itself in operations that threaten its very stability.

The US would prefer to see at a minimum the Al Qaeda remnants wrapped up. The Al Qaeda has been considerably degraded over the past eight years. The current operations in Waziristan are to cause attrition in particular to the Uzbeks there. The operation’s aims met, the Pakistan would be wise to likewise switch to a political mode; one equally democratically responsive to the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. No nation can be compelled to commit suicide even for the sake of supposed best interests of the international community.


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