Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban: Military Considerations

November 10, 2009

 (Photo available at pakistanarmy.gov.pk)
 

Conventional wisdom holds that Pakistan’s leaders are unwilling to take effective action against the Haqqani Network (HQN), the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), and Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) for a variety of reasons including: 

  • Hedging against an expected U.S. withdrawal from or failure in Afghanistan;

  • Fear of a U.S. success in Afghanistan that empowers India in Afghanistan;

  • Decades-old ties between elements in the Pakistani security establishment and these groups;

  • The desire to maintain valuable proxies for use in Afghanistan and also against India.

Significant evidence supports this wisdom, which no doubt explains much of Islamabad’s consistent refusal to acknowledge that some of these Afghan-focused insurgent groups have sanctuaries within Pakistan’s borders, much less conduct or support meaningful U.S. operations against them in Pakistan.

But these explanations are only part of the story.  In truth, Pakistani security forces would face a major challenge if they broke the compact they now maintain with the QST and HQN.  American policy and strategy discussions have not heeded the scale of that challenge, nor have they recognized the important implications it has for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that would be required to support any efforts taken by Pakistan against these groups.

 

The Islamist Network under Strain

From the 1970s until 2001, a network of Islamist groups developed in Pakistan, often with the active assistance of the Pakistani government and security forces.  These groups included the anti-Soviet mujahideen, some of whom became today’s Afghan Taliban, as well as India-focused groups such as Lashkar-e Tayyiba (LeT).  Although a handful of Islamist groups such as Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ), and Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM) pursued sectarian objectives within Pakistan, they did not identify the Pakistani government itself as the enemy.  Even groups such as the Tehrik-e Nafaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi (TNSM), which pursued objectives that put them at odds with the government from the outset, were easily distracted from their goals by events in Afghanistan prior to and immediately after 9/11 (when the group reportedly sent several thousand fighters across the border to participate in jihad against the American invaders).

President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to align formally with the U.S. after 9/11 and support, at least in a limited way, U.S. efforts against al Qaeda within Pakistan, generated a backlash among Pakistan-based Taliban groups, some of whom turned their guns toward Islamabad.  The reaction was particularly strong in Waziristan, the base of the Haqqani Network, because the presence of al Qaeda leaders there made it a high-priority area for U.S. operations and, increasingly, for Pakistani operations.  A similar phenomenon did not occur in Quetta because al Qaeda leadership did not take up residence there (or were prevented from doing so, possibly to protect the QST from American attacks), and the U.S. consistently prioritized the fight against al Qaeda over the anti-Taliban effort.

Over the last eight years, the Pakistani government has found itself drawn into a series of meeting engagements with Pakistani Taliban groups in Waziristan, Swat, Dir, Bajaur, Mohmand, and elsewhere.  As Islamabad has increased its efforts against these groups, tensions have risen between them and the other Pakistan-based Islamist groups such as HQN and LeT.  Those groups had been willing to fight together in Afghanistan, where the TTP and LeT provided support to HQN, for example, but were unwilling to take up arms against the Pakistani government because they did not wish to jeopardize the support and sanctuary Islamabad was providing them in return for their passivity in the internal Pakistani fight, among other things.

The tension has been manifested in a number of statements by Mullah Omar calling on the Pakistani Taliban to cease fighting Islamabad and focus on the American threat in Afghanistan first, and by the equivocal position LeT has taken—not supporting the TTP in its fight against Islamabad, but not breaking off ties with the TTP either. 

 

Operational Impact

The compact between Islamabad and the Afghan-focused Taliban has been a critical enabler for the current Pakistani operations in South Waziristan.  Key lines of communication (LOC) supporting those operations run through North Waziristan, specifically the towns of Mir Ali and Miramshah.  These areas are controlled by a Taliban and Waziri tribal leader named Gul Bahadur and by the Haqqani Network with which he is allied.  Another key LOC runs through Wana in South Waziristan via territory controlled by Maulvi Nazir, another Taliban and Waziri tribal leader who is himself committed to the fight against the U.S. in Afghanistan, if on a more limited scale.  The Pakistani military, in fact, appears to have delayed the start of its major offensive in South Waziristan until it had secured real commitments from Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir that they would not fight alongside the TTP and would permit the movement of Pakistani forces relatively unhindered through their areas.  As a result, the Pakistani military was able to isolate the Mehsud tribal area before the start of operations and to conduct several weeks of major combat operations now with no significant enemy threat to its LOCs and no major distractions.

Should Islamabad break the compact with Haqqani either by going after the network directly or by permitting widespread U.S. strikes against it, it seems likely not only that the Haqqani Network itself would fight back, but that Gul Bahadur and possibly Maulvi Nazir as well could break with Pakistan again and open one or two new areas of conflict on the flanks of the current operation (something that has happened in previous Pakistani efforts to operate in the area).

Could the Pakistani military take on an additional such operation at this time or in the near future?  It has already committed two regular divisions (the 37th Mechanized Infantry Division and the 19th Infantry Division) to ongoing operations in Swat and Malakand.  Two more divisions (the 7th and 9th Infantry Divisions) are fully engaged in operations against the TTP in South Waziristan, and they may be supported by the 14th Infantry Division as well.  It appears that Pakistan has already committed a considerable portion of its rotary-wing aviation to the struggle.  Facing an uprising by either Gul Bahadur or Maulvi Nazir, let alone both, could well require additional commitments of the same close order as the current operation against the TTP.  Put another way, it appears that Pakistan has already committed 4-5 of its 25-or-so combat divisions to current operations, including three (the 14th, 19th, and 37th) that were drawn from important positions on the Indian frontier.  If Islamabad had to reinforce the operation in Waziristan significantly, it would have four options:

  • Pull the 19th and 37th out of Swat and hope that local security forces can handle the situation there (a dangerous options considering the failure of previous Pakistani operations resulting from the premature withdrawal of military forces from supposedly cleared areas);

  • Pull a significant proportion of the units now operating in South Waziristan to the north, potentially jeopardizing the long-term success of the operation against the TTP;

  • Move all or most of the force now based in Quetta into Waziristan (that could probably amount to around one division’s worth of combat power); or

  • Redeploy additional forces from the Indian frontier.

Most Pakistani corps are mixed infantry and armor formations with 2-3 divisions each.  Without knowing the details of Pakistani military planning, it is likely that significant redeployments of forces from the remaining corps (the 14th, 17th, and 39th were all taken from corps that had three divisions; the remaining corps have two and occasionally an independent brigade) would seriously derange plans for defensive or counter-offensive operations against India.  The U.S. is generally dismissive of the risks to Pakistan from India, but Pakistan’s military leaders are not.  Considering that the two countries last fought in 1999 and came near to fighting again in 2002 and, perhaps, 2008 following the Mumbai bombing, Pakistan’s commanders would be wrong to dismiss the danger entirely.  At all events, they take it most seriously, a fact that highlights the significance of the movement of three divisions away from the Indian border to fight Taliban.

It is far from clear how Islamabad would respond to such an emergency, to say nothing of the danger of a significant increase in domestic terror attacks if elements of the LeT joined in the fight.  It is clear that any response would lead either to the failure of one or more ongoing Pakistani efforts against Islamist groups or to a major military evolution of the kind that the Pakistani military has shown no ability to conduct on short notice.

 

U.S. Response Requirements

Assuming the Pakistani government decided to go after the Haqqani Network, or to allow the U.S. to do so seriously, the requirement for additional American forces in the P2K area of eastern Afghanistan (Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces) could rise significantly.  HQN would have a number of moderately bad choices in response to a major operation in North Waziristan.  It could:

  • Attempt to draw fighters from Afghanistan into the FATA to defend key sanctuaries;

  • Attempt to withdraw fighters and leaders from the FATA into P2K;

  • Attempt to go to ground in either or both areas in hopes of waiting out the offensive;

  • Combine all of the above—say by moving some key leaders out of exposed positions in the FATA to safer areas in South Paktika while sending fighters from Khost to resist Pakistani operations around Mir Ali and Miramshah, where still other fighters might attempt to wait the operation out.

The Pakistani government will be even more insistent that the U.S. stop cross-border movement in support of any operation in the FATA against HQN.  The movement of fighters and leaders, moreover, presents a limited challenge, but a major opportunity.  It would be highly desirable to be able to flood the zone in advance of any such operation in order to do as much damage as possible to a dangerous organization at its moment of maximum vulnerability.  The forces now in P2K, however, are unlikely to be able to take full advantage of such an opportunity.  Moving forces from elsewhere in the sparse Afghan theater would require accepting significant risk in some critical area.  It might be necessary to accept risk for a long time, moreover—Pakistani operations tend to be preceded by long periods of rumors and preparations (including negotiations to secure the neutrality of local tribal leaders), and this operation would likely protract in execution. 

If the U.S. does seriously mean to press Pakistan to take action against the HQN in the next year, it would be vital that we deploy sufficient forces into P2K, or as a real theater reserve that will not get permanently pinned-down elsewhere, to take maximum advantage of that action.  Failure to deploy the necessary forces in advance not only reduces the chances of success, it also reduces the chances that the Pakistanis will conduct the operation in the first place (at least, if we think that there is a chance they might do so to begin with).

 

Conclusion

The U.S. simply cannot assume that the Pakistani government will go after the HQN seriously any time soon.  Apart from the fact that the Pakistani leadership has shown no interest in doing so, attacking the Haqqani Network could pose a major military challenge that jeopardizes other ongoing operations against threats more vital to Pakistan’s survival.  It is not clear, therefore, that the U.S. is well-advised even to press Islamabad to do so from an operational military perspective in the context of a regional strategy that recognizes the priority of Pakistani stability as well as the fight against al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.  Nor does it seem that U.S. forces are now able to set the conditions on the Afghan side of the border to enable and support such a Pakistani operation if it occurred.  That is why the emphasis in the COMISAF theater assessment on defeating HQN (and QST) within Afghanistan rather than relying on Pakistan to defeat them in its own territory is the only sound strategic assumption from which to proceed.