How Pakistan’s army is failing, and what America must do, to crack down on rampant Islamist insurgencies in the region
IN A rooftop restaurant overlooking the old Mughal city of Lahore, Richard Holbrooke dined on February 11th with a group of liberal Pakistani businessmen, human-rights campaigners and journalists. He had come, midway through his inaugural tour as America’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a heavy question. Against a rising thrum from the narrow streets of the red-light district below, Mr Holbrooke asked: “What is the crisis of Pakistan?”
Well might he ask. Pakistan, the world’s sixth-most-populous country and second-biggest Muslim one, is violent and divided. A Taliban insurgency is spreading in its north-west frontier region, fuelled partly by a similar Pushtun uprising against NATO and American troops in Afghanistan. Some 120,000 Pakistani troops have been dispatched to contain it, yet they seem hardly able to guard the main road through North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). On February 3rd NATO briefly stopped sending convoys through Pakistan—which carry some 75% of its supplies to Afghanistan—after Pakistani militants blew up a road bridge in NWFP. A related terrorism spree by the Pakistan Taliban and allied Islamists, including al-Qaeda, whose leaders have found refuge in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of the frontier, has spread further. Pakistan has seen some 60 suicide-bomb blasts in each of the past two years.
Parts of Pakistan’s vast and thinly populated western state, Baluchistan, are also in revolt. And fears for the security of Karachi, a rowdy port city of 15m, from which a militant group close to the army, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), launched an amphibious assault on Mumbai last November, are rising. Faced with these threats, the central government in Islamabad, a coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and presided over by its leader, President Asif Zardari, is struggling. Cobbled together a year ago, after an election that swept the former army-backed government from power, it is short on competence and dogged by allegations of corruption. It has no one deemed fit to be finance minister. An unelected banker, Shaukat Tareen, holds the job, pending his expected election to Pakistan’s upper house, or Senate, in March. Another unelected friend of Mr Zardari runs the interior ministry.
After a decade of army rule, it was inevitable that the new civilian government would take time to bed down, even if the times were less troublesome. Yet unfortunately, as always during Pakistan’s bouts of civilian rule, the government has been beset by feuding. In a popular move, Mr Zardari pitted himself last year against the country’s former army ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, forcing him to resign last August. Almost at once, Mr Zardari and his erstwhile ally, Nawaz Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, or PML(N), fell to blows. Mr Zardari has been leaning on the country’s Supreme Court to disqualify Mr Sharif from contesting any elections, because of a conviction some years ago on a hijacking charge. In the same throw, the judges may force his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, to step aside as chief minister of Punjab.
Mr Zardari, who inherited the party from his murdered wife, Benazir Bhutto, and fears that he too will be assassinated, is almost as unpopular as the detested Mr Musharraf. A survey released by the International Republican Institute in December found that only 19% of Pakistanis wanted him for their leader; 88% thought the country was heading in the wrong direction. It is, though Mr Zadari is mostly not to blame. After two years of political turmoil and spreading violence, the economy is moribund. The textiles industry, which accounts for about half of Pakistan’s industrial jobs and foreign-exchange earnings, has been pole-axed by gas and electricity shortages. A third of the textile factories in Punjab are said to have been shut down. In November, faced with the prospect of defaulting on its external debt, Pakistan had to return to the International Monetary Fund for a $7.6 billion bail-out.
The Taliban insurgency is a particular worry. It is fiercest in the tribal areas, which the Taliban more or less rule, but is spreading throughout NWFP and touching Punjab in places. On February 16th NWFP’s government, which is led by the Pushtun-nationalist Awami National Party, vowed to implement sharia law in the district of Malakand, where over 1,000 civilians are reported to have been killed recently by army shells or by beheading at the hands of the local Taliban. This may or may not placate the militants’ leader, Mullah Fazalullah. His black-turbaned gunmen already control most of the area, including its lovely tourism region of Swat. Fittingly, Pakistan’s tourism ministry is currently held by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), an Islamist party that has sown hundreds of radical madrassas across NWFP. The ministry has vowed to correct the “immoral practices” of foreign tourists in Pakistan, assuming it can find any.
Holding back the tide
In Lakki Marwat, a district close to two thoroughly Talibanised tribal areas, North and South Waziristan, a hereditary Pushtun chief, Anwar Kamal, describes his efforts to hold back the militant tide. He and other chieftains have deployed a tribal army of 4,000 bearded Marwats along their 110km (70-mile) Waziristan frontier. In recent weeks they have fought several battles against the forces of Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander who controls much of South Waziristan and is alleged to have supplied the killers of Ms Bhutto. Mr Kamal, who is also a senior member of Mr Sharif’s party, says: “We are heavily loaded with heavy weapons, from top to toe with anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns and mortars. It is the fashion these days, heavy weapons.” And yet, with perhaps 15% of his tribesmen openly supporting the Taliban, “For how long can I control my area?”
Security in Peshawar, NWFP’s always-wild capital, home to gun-runners, dope-peddlers and, during the days of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, is deteriorating. Taliban bosses and bandit gangs—the Islamists’ fellow travellers—are said to be renting houses in the city. Accordingly, wealthy Peshawaris are moving out. Fugitives from the frontier—where over half a million are estimated to have been displaced—have descended on the city. Two Afghan diplomats and one Iranian were recently abducted in Peshawar; the American consul was lucky to survive a murder attempt there last year. Last week a Taliban gang from Khyber circulated a video of an abducted Polish engineer, Piotr Stanczak, having his head sawn off with a butcher’s knife. They had taken him hostage in Attock, a district of Punjab only 80km from Islamabad. On the day of his dinner in Lahore, Mr Holbrooke had also visited Peshawar—and a member of NWFP’s government had been killed there by a roadside bomb.
Foreign diplomats in Islamabad sound increasingly despondent. One says: “The more effort we’ve put into this place, the worse it’s got.” The rate at which Mr Musharraf’s few achievements have crumbled to dust is shocking. Bolstering the economy, mismanaged by Mr Sharif, was one. An ambitious package of local government reforms, establishing elected mayors to run the district-level bureaucracy, was another. In NWFP this system, perhaps unfairly, has been blamed for ushering in the Taliban, and is now being hobbled. Other provinces are expected to do likewise.
More depressing is the demise of Mr Musharraf’s biggest triumph, a detente with India. A bilateral peace process, launched in 2004 by Mr Musharraf and Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s then prime minister, had brought the two countries closer than at any time in their painful history. Even a settlement of the dispute over divided Kashmir seemed possible. But in 2007 Mr Musharraf’s attention wandered to crushing his democratic opponents, and the initiative drifted. In November, after the attacks in Mumbai in which over 170 were killed, India put it on hold.
On February 12th Pakistan’s government admitted, for the first time, that the atrocity in Mumbai was LET’s doing. It also vowed to try the plot’s ringleaders, including six LET members already in its custody. This was encouraging. But it is much less than the eradication of anti-India militancy that India demands.
The generals’ game
With all this bad news, it is tempting to wonder whether Pakistan could be heading for a meltdown—a Taliban takeover, perhaps. Even Mr Zardari has admitted that the militants hold “huge amounts of land”. Yet the headlines give a distorted picture of the place. Most Pakistanis are moderate. That is why, in last year’s unusually unrigged election, a coalition of Islamists, including JUI-F, did miserably, losing power in NWFP and Baluchistan. And though Punjab, where 60% of Pakistanis live, is LET’s heartland, it is more orderly than several big Indian states, and richer.
To revert to Mr Holbrooke’s question, Islamist militancy is not the only crisis of Pakistan. In fact, as America’s envoy was emphatically told over his dish of spicy lentils, it is partly a consequence of the country’s abiding affliction: the refusal of Pakistani generals to abandon a national-security policy that they have presumed to dictate, with disastrous consequences for Pakistan and its region, for six decades. It was founded on a belief that Hindu India is Pakistan’s mortal enemy, and on an ambition to drive India from Kashmir. For a rear-base—or “strategic depth”—against the threat of an Indian invasion, the army has sought to control Afghanistan; thus it helped propel Mullah Omar and his turbaned friends to power there in the 1990s. In fact, Pakistan’s generals have consistently employed Islamist militants as proxies, from 1947 onwards.
By toppling Mr Sharif in 1999, Mr—then General—Musharraf followed a long tradition of army coupsters seizing power to “save the nation”. However, by turning his back on the Taliban in 2001, he promised a new track. And in extending his hand to the Indians, he seemed to show that he was serious. At America’s request, Mr Musharraf shifted troops from the eastern border to secure the north-west frontier. At the same time—and especially after Islamist assassins twice tried to kill him in 2003—he vowed to eradicate militancy in Pakistan, including some 40-odd jihadist groups with links to the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. For this reason, liberal Pakistanis who were sceptical of Mr Musharaf’s other promises—to improve Pakistani democracy, for example—supported him. Yet there were always reasons to doubt that a genuine policy shift was under way. Banned militant groups, including LET, re-emerged under new names. Militant leaders, such as LET’s Hafiz Saeed, remained at large. After Mumbai, alas, these doubts have proliferated.
The alacrity with which the Pakistani army rushed to embrace the threat of an Indian military reprisal was remarkable. In fact, India did not explicitly threaten any such thing. And Mr Zardari, as a conciliatory gesture, offered to send the head of the ISI, Lieut-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to Delhi. Yet Pakistan’s generals, having scotched that offer, leapt to battle-stations. They shifted several thousand troops from the north-west to the eastern border. Pro-army media commentators, spewing anti-India propaganda, whipped up the nation for war. In a briefing to Pakistani journalists, a senior ISI officer said that the Taliban had assured the army of its support in the event of a war with India. He referred to their leaders, including Mr Mehsud, the alleged killer of Ms Bhutto, and Mr Fazalullah, as “patriotic Pakistanis”.
Tensions have since eased. But a senior ISI officer, giving a rare interview to The Economist last week, says he still regrets that a “strike division”, trained to punch into India, had been posted to the north-west frontier: “Never in my lifetime will we ever have peace with India.”
Hapless on the frontier
Doubts about the army’s commitment to securing the north-west have also been persistent. In the aftermath of America’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan arrested over 600 al-Qaeda fugitives, but did nothing about the Taliban, who poured into Baluchistan and the tribal areas. From the start, the army believed America and its allies would swiftly withdraw from Afghanistan, opening the way for its former proxies to return to power. When America’s attention wandered to Iraq, the generals became doubly convinced of this. To hasten the Westerners’ departure, they are alleged—especially in Kabul—to have helped the Taliban launch their ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan. Around the same time, after entering the tribal areas to hunt down al-Qaeda, the Pakistanis found themselves fighting a billowing Pushtun insurgency of their own.
To pay for its campaign costs, the army has received some $10 billion from America. Yet its efforts have been so hapless that many accuse it of not really trying. It has lost over 1,500 men, for little obvious gain. The civil administration along the frontier, which was always weak, has collapsed. The tribal elders whom the government had used as interlocutors have been murdered by militants (who are mostly youngsters; Messrs Mehsud and Fazalullah are in their early 30s). The army seems demoralised. Designed to fight tank-battles against Indians, it is ill-equipped to take on Pushtun guerrillas in their mountainous terrain. Its troops are disinclined to kill their Muslim countrymen in a war that few Pakistanis support. This is a serious problem. It also means Pakistan feels bound to keep collateral damage to a minimum. The army claims that an operation against Mr Mehsud’s men in South Waziristan was ended last year after the militants corralled themselves in a thickly populated area. Instead of scattering the militants, the army made a deal with them.
In return for their promise not to fire on the troops garrisoned among them, not to play host to al-Qaeda and not to fight in Afghanistan, Mr Mehsud and his confrères in North Waziristan have been left with the run of their areas. The army aims to make similar deals with militants in Bajaur and Mohmand, where it has been fighting fierce battles in recent months. That would leave it free, it hopes, to launch further operations in Orakzai, a pristine Taliban haven, and Khyber. But piecemeal operations of this kind have merely shunted al-Qaeda and other militants around the tribal areas. And the army’s ceasefire deals have often been flouted; Mr Fazalullah has torn up at least two of them. Worse, suspicions that the ISI, or at least some of its officers, are still in cahoots with their jihadist enemies persist. Last year America, whose trust in the Pakistani army’s good faith was almost a testament of its belief in the war on terror, began launching frequent missile strikes on the tribal areas. At least 30 people were said to have been killed in a strike in the Hurram tribal area on January 16th.
This strategy is reported to have been effective. By one—possibly wishful—estimate, American missile strikes in Pakistan have killed 11 of al-Qaeda’s 20 commanders in the past six months. But they have also boosted anti-Americanism among Pakistanis, especially within the army. Senior ISI officers attribute most of their troubles in the tribal areas to anger over the American strikes. They also accuse India of giving “significant” support to their Taliban enemies there. On both counts, this seems unlikely. Moreover, recent reports allege that the unmanned drones being used in the strikes are in fact based inside Pakistan, which would suggest a certain Pakistani complicity in the ploy. Nonetheless, as a symbol of America’s mounting mistrust of its vital Pakistani allies, the policy needs better management. One suggestion is that a joint Afghan-Pakistani-American counter-terrorism agency might be set up to do it.
Presumably this is one of the problems that Mr Holbrooke has been hired to solve. His brief is certainly daunting. Unless Pakistan’s army can be persuaded to undergo a “strategic renaissance”, in the phrase of Lieut-General Talat Masood, a Pakistani military pundit, it may be unwilling or unable to deny the use of its north-west frontier to the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban. It will not, in a month of Fridays, be bulldozed into complying with America’s demands. “You can’t insult a country into co-operation,” says General Masood. Besides stern words, Pakistan’s army will therefore require even more American money and equipment, especially counter-insurgency kit, such as helicopters and night-vision gear, which it has long demanded. It will also require America to allay the army’s fear of encirclement by a pro-India regime in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, America needs to stand up for Pakistan’s democratic leaders, who are on its side. Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif both say they want peace with India and an end to ruinous militancy. Neither is a friend to the army.
Finally, America and NATO must convince the Pakistanis that they mean to stick it out in Afghanistan until the fledgling state can stand up for itself. Some ISI officers concede that NATO will remain in Afghanistan longer than the army had expected (“maybe another 15 to 20 years”). But none seems to believe it can stabilise the place; and this remains NATO’s improbable task. Without better help from Pakistan, it may not succeed. But even with this help, as the Pakistanis know, NATO may fail.