KP’s blueprints for counter terrorism


Apparently, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government has a plan to deal with terrorism and extremist violence. That’s good. The KP government also believes that the 3-D strategy (deterrence, development and dialogue) of the federal government is vague and falls short of a comprehensive state response to fight the terrorist groups. That’s even better.

So, what’s the KP plan?

Reports indicate the plan was presented before the KP cabinet, with the chief minister in the chair, through a presentation titled, Continuing Militancy, Challenge & Response. Full details of the plan are not known but some of the findings that have made their way into newspapers are interesting and, for the most part, apt.

The state is facing an acute internal security threat that requires a comprehensive response; the American withdrawal from Afghanistan will not put an end to it; the terrorist groups are motivated, well-trained and battle-hardened; a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will provide strategic depth to these groups; the groups’ strategy is to corrode the state structure from the inside, ultimately eroding its writ; they have created space for themselves by acting as the government where there’s absence of the state’s writ; they rely on effective governance as well as coercion; the groups have propaganda, religious and political wings and have also developed a vast spy network.

As for the state’s response, the security forces are poorly equipped and trained, lack motivation, and the counterterrorism effort is disjointed. Solution: the state apparatus, all agencies and departments, will have to act in concert and implement a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond just relying on the use of force; the state will have to govern. So far it doesn’t.

The presentation has provided a set of measures that need to be implemented. That is where the rub lies. The presentation has warned that “failure is not an option”. And? Well, as one unnamed minister was quoted as saying: “It is a good plan but consistency, perseverance, implementation and accountability are not something we are known for.” Bingo!

Seems like the plan is doomed from the word go. But let’s not be harsh. It must be said that for a provincial government to take the lead on such a strategy is a good omen. The task is onerous and while plans can be made, implementing them is always the difficult part. There’s much theoretical literature on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. By now everyone knows what needs to be done. The problem is how and arises because of two crucial aspects that set the irregular war apart from the regular, inter-state armed conflict: the centre of gravity and the definition of victory.

As I have written elsewhere, the French soldier and theoretician, David Galula, proposed four ‘laws’ for COIN (counter-insurgency). The centre of gravity is the people. That being so, people’s support is crucial. The problem in actualising this is how to co-opt and secure that active and friendly minority in the larger population which can help the COIN force in reaching out to the neutral majority. Not easy. Support from the population is conditional and cannot be taken for granted. Also, the very minority a COIN force will target for co-opting, because it is inimical to the insurgent/terrorist groups, will be intimidated and destroyed by the groups.

The groups know that this population is the starting point of the COIN force. Destroying this population is therefore the primary objective of the groups. This is what has happened in Fata. By the same logic, if the neutral majority is to be turned around, this friendly minority must be protected. This is the arena where the contest unfolds and this is where security forces have badly failed so far.

A related second problem is defining victory. This is also the problem of timelines. How long will it take to completely defeat the groups? Generally, the operations needed to protect the population from the mortal threat and to convince it that the COIN force will ultimately win are of an intensive nature and have long time horizons. “They require a large concentration of efforts, resources and personnel. Theinsurgent must be driven away and the COIN force must be able to strengthen its presence by building the required infrastructure and developing a long-term relationship with the population.” The COIN force has to do this area by area, using a pacified territory as a basis of operations to conquer a neighbouring area, what has come to be known as the ‘Ink Spot Strategy’.

This also means that victory is not merely the destruction of the insurgent’s forces or groups, though doing so and leapfrogging from one area to another is important. The crucial task is the permanent isolation of the insurgent from the population, the strategy of dislocation. Unlike conventional warfare, where strength is assessed according to the military or other tangible criteria, such as the number of divisions, the position they hold, the industrial resources, etc, in this contest strength is to be assessed by the extent of support from the population. This is true for both the insurgent as well as the counterinsurgent.

This has often proven difficult in the Pakistani context because of the religio-political narrative used by the terrorist groups and its corresponding appeal in society. Terrorist cells hide in the urban centres for urban strikes and recruitment is easy to come by because of this. Add to these problems exogenous factors like the presence of the United States in the region and how effectively its hubris can bungle indigenous COIN/CT (counterterrorism) efforts, and the degree of difficulty in dealing with the groups and their narrative at home is increased manifold.

Even so, the very realisation that the state mayn’t be doing enough — which it is not — is a good beginning for which the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government must be commended. Equally, the very nature of this war and its spread is such that a provincial government alone cannot deal with the threat. The KP plan, therefore, must be adopted by the federal government which can pull in other provinces to allow for a coordinated implementation of this strategy.