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Conflict and Opportunity on the Afghanistan / Pakistan Frontier
Along the Durand Line
by BRIAN M. DOWNING

In February the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) came to an agreement whereby the government accepted the latter’s imposition of Islamic law in parts of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in exchange for a ceasefire. Few thought the agreement would last long and indeed it soon fell apart – because of government support for US Predator strikes, according to TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud. This raises new questions about the future of Pakistan and US/NATO operations in Afghanistan.

On announcing the end of the agreement, Mehsud sent his bands south, toward the political and military centers of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. In so doing, he let passion override strategy and badly damaged the TTP cause. Their thrust into the Punjab heartland accomplished what has only rarely and ephemerally happened in Pakistan: agreement between civilian and military leadership. The rancorous politicians and generals saw the sortie as a challenge to the existence of Pakistan, and struck back.

Guerrilla forces like the TTP are effective in insurgencies and inter-tribal warfare but success can give rise to senses of destiny and invincibility. In going on the offensive toward Islamabad, the TTP had to forego the advantages of insurgents and, to some extent, fight in a conventional manner. They had to concentrate forces, hold positions, and organize supply systems – often in areas where they did not have local support or intimate knowledge of terrain. Such quixotic attacks play into the hands of all but the most inept conventional armies and lead to failure, as the Afghani Taliban learned in its 2007 offensive, as did the Viet Cong in the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Mehsud’s attack also turned large portions of the Pakistani public against them. Many Pakistanis were amenable to tribal autonomy and even Islamic law in parts of the NWFP. After all, the government presence there had never been strong, not even during British rule, and the affairs of Pashtun tribes up in the mountains were of little interest. But the TTP’s drive into the Punjab threatened many Pakistanis who, regardless of comfort with secularization, had little affinity with harsh interpreters of Islam. Attendant images of the TTP’s brutal justice brought a veritable national resolve to defend their way of life and drive the Taliban back into the mountains, regardless of their putative identities as fellow Pakistanis.

The frontier has long been marked by warfare, but it was almost always tribal warfare – a form of conflict circumscribed by custom to limit death and destruction. Led by a young visionary, not tribal elders, the TTP bring an almost limitless idea of warfare that has occasionally jarred the frontier, wreaking havoc on villages and tribal systems alike and portending convulsive but unknowable change. TTP support is localized – South Waziristan, the Swat valley, and a few other pockets. But their sortie brought war to disinterested areas and not all the blame for destruction fell upon the government. In recent days, tribal councils have been pressing for the TTP’s withdrawal from their regions.

Neither popular support for war on fellow Pakistanis nor agreement between government and army can be relied upon to last. Anti-US sentiment is strong and nears the intensity reserved for India. Of particular concern is the response of Islamist personnel in the army and frontier corps whose affinities with the TTP may conflict with professional discipline and lead to balks or worse.

Political-military cooperation and public opinion allow the opportunity to pursue a counterinsurgency program in parts of the NWFP, perhaps only in the Swat valley. Such a program would likely violate constitutional principles or at least long-standing customs in the tribal agencies, and some areas are likely beyond reclamation from the TTP for now. Some army and security forces will remain in towns and villages to keep the TTP at bay, help local police develop intelligence networks, and protect development programs that will ensue.

The government would do well to use foreign aid to bring government services to Swat. Development programs and medical-veterinary services are straightforward but the matter of schools presents critical opportunities. Madrassas have been boot camps for insurgents on both sides of the frontier ever since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when foreign money poured into their coffers. They continue to supply insurgents but in many regions they are the only means of education and advancement. An alternate school system could build rapport between government and society and reduce the number of insurgent recruits as well.

Land reform presents another opportunity. Islamist insurgencies are usually based on religious passion, armed intimidation, or hostility to a foreign presence. The TTP, however, have mobilized support from the those lacking economic opportunity and their own land to till. As with education, the government can make headway against a TTP resurgence by pushing through land reform over the objections of landlords.

For now, the TTP is being driven back and may be in full retreat. Pakistani reports provide casualty figures that are unreliable if not fantastic, but the TTP has undoubtedly been unable to hold ground or inflict high casualties on government forces. TTP commander Maulana Fazlullah recently ordered his forces to leave the main city of Swat to avoid civilian casualties – a ludicrous justification that attests the fight is going badly for them. Reports from Afghanistan indicate an influx of TTP fighters, especially in Kunar province just west of the Swat valley. Bloodied by their foray into the Punjab, the TTP will add numbers to the Afghani Taliban offensive, which is what the Pakistani government wanted when it made the short-lived agreement last February. Whether the TTP have lost their reckless zeal or will forge a lasting agreement with Islamabad remains to be seen.

US/NATO forces may seek to drive the TTP back across the frontier, reengaging them with Pakistani forces and perhaps precluding another short-lived agreement. Caught between a hammer and anvil, the TTP may find negotiating – and abiding by – a settlement to its benefit – perhaps one leaving them latitude in one or more of the tribal agencies. And the US/NATO side will have stripped away one part of the insurgency along the Durand Line.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com