In Pakistan, my advice to the US – RTFM

by | Aug 4, 2008

So…The US is hassling Pakistan to crack down on its border regions. But it wants the Pakistanis to use the same tactics that it failed with in Afghanistan (and Iraq, of course). Yes, it’s another episode of the dysfunctional US-Pakistan relationship.

All this comes, according to the LA Times, after the new, and beleaguered, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yusaf Raza Gillani, “got an earful from both the White House and Congress about the need to act far more aggressively in the tribal areas.” Their response? Send in the Special Forces. A US-trained and equipped commando division is being sent to the tribal region, we are told. Its mission – to put the insurgency to the sword.

I am sure this is a heady stimulant for the armchair warriors in the White House, but it flies in the face of the US counterinsurgency doctrine, which states flatly that “the military forces that successfully defeat insurgencies are usually those able to overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war against insurgents.”

But conventional war has long been the strategy of choice for Pakistan to deal with its internal problems (problems that could eventually lead to total state failure). Look at what happened back in 2004, when the US bullied General Musharraf into a disastrous attack on the tribal areas:

The tribesmen considered the military action as an attack on their autonomy and an attempt to subjugate them. Attempts to persuade them into handling over foreign militants failed and, with apparent mishandling, the military offensive against suspected al-Qaeda militants turned into an undeclared war between the Pakistani military and rebel tribesmen. Anger grew as government forces demolished the houses of members of the defiant tribes as collective punishment and seized their properties, even in other parts of the province.

The result was humiliation. One Colonel took shelter in a mosque and emerged with the Koran on his head, begging for mercy. Tribesmen stripped him of his uniform, and sent him on his way. In the end, the army signed a truce with the militants – a move that was widely (and rightly) interpreted as surrender.

In 2004, there was some excuse for this. The US, after all, was still learning some very hard lessons in Iraq, lessons that led David Petraeus to come back to the US believing that:

Success in a counterinsurgency requires more than just military operations. Counterinsurgency strategies must also include, above all, efforts to establish a political environment that helps reduce support for the insurgents and undermines the attraction of whatever ideology they may espouse.

Five years on, however, and the US’s Pakistan policy remains stuck in the dark ages. One of the most fragile countries on earth continues to be used as a political football in Washington (with Obama a willing participant, sadly).

The US’s field manual on counter-insurgency is selling well on Amazon (who would have predicted that a few years ago?). It described counterinsurgencies as ‘learning competitions’. At the moment, that’s one game we’re clearly losing.

Can I suggest that someone in Washington RTFM and reads it soon?

(Via Juan Cole.)


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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