Insurgency is not invincible
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse July 29, 2009
Although the army claims considerable victories in the Malakand region, paving way for tens of thousands of families’ return to their homes, yet many ask as to how long will it take to claim the conclusive victory against those non-state actors.
Sri Lanka needed 27 years to defeat Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. The Russian Federation employed the entire wherewithal to practically crush the rebellion in the ten million Muslim republic of Chechnya in about 15 years.
The mujahideen of Afghanistan, supported to the hilt by the United States and allies, drove the Soviet Russian army out in about a decade.
How long will Pakistan army need to put down the followers of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban movement of Mullah Omar?
The Indian Army has been engaged in internal counter-insurgency operations since the 1950s, currently battling about a dozen insurgencies including in areas like Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, and Operation 'Sadhbhavana' in Jammu and Kashmir.
Spread over about 7,100 islands inhabited by more than one hundred tribal groups, Philippines continues to reel under the Moro Muslim Insurgency in the south. In fact the Philippines has had a history of insurgencies that began with the ‘Huk’ Rebellion, which took off in the late 1940’s, faded in the 1950s and later some of its elements merged into the communist rebellion.
Interestingly, communist-backed Vietnamese nationalist insurgents fought the United States for over a decade (1964-75). The Americans called it an insurgency, whereas the Vietnamese took pride in this war of liberating their homeland from foreign occupation. A superior outside force had to bite the dust and eave just because it could no longer justify the fighting to its citizens back home.
The Soviet Russians failed to hold on to Afghanistan after invading and occupying it in 1979. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the insurgent mujahedeen and raising pro-Moscow cadres in Kabul, the Soviets finally gave in to the mujahideen guerilla’s (backed by the US and other major players) and pulled out in February 1989, humiliated.
Similarly, the French fought Islamic insurgents for eight years (Algeria (1954-62) to retain control but anti-French insurgents kept the pressure up, forcing the 400,000 troops to give up and leave Algeria in 1962.
Malaysian nationalist insurgents fought the British relentlessly between 1948-60. Despite the forces’ superiority, the British had to shift the strategy from military to political negotiations, and began in 1952 co-opting Malaysians into the system of governance, thereby giving the locals a sense of participation and eventual transfer of power before leaving.
As far the latest insurgencies – Iraq and Afghanistan – the US has yet to extricate itself from a complex situation. The timeline of exit from Iraq seems to be 2012 (albeit with a heavy military US presence in the region.) but no timeline has yet been set for exiting Afghanistan. The insurgency there, largely by the offshoot of mujahideen who had been supported to the hilt by the United States and allies in the 1980s against Moscow, is raging. Coalition casualties are mounting by the day and most of the 41 countries involved in the counter-insurgency getting restless because of little prospects of success – at least for the time being.
The insurgency that Pakistan faces in Waziristan, and Swat/Malakand, is also a direct consequence of the questionable war being fought against Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban on the other side of the Durand Line. It is a multitude of factors that allowed non-state actors to mount a rebellion on the state; ideological inspiration, cross-border ethnic bondages, conservative social milieu, socio-economic deprivations and extremely poor governance structures that helped religious insurgents take control of certain areas and also challenge the army.
Lack of respect for rule of law, tedious and expensive justice system combined with political patronage of criminal gangs has created conditions that are conducive to ideologically-driven insurgents.
In fact, most of national insurgencies - the Huk Rebellion or the More Muslim insurgency in the Philippines, the Biafran Revolt in Nigerian, or the upheaval in India’s northeast were rooted in dissatisfaction and alienation. They used socio-economic injustices, just as the Taliban have been in Afghanistan and some Pakistani areas to justify their war against the government.
In India, for instance, the northeastern states seek greater participation in self-governance, or increased regional autonomy.
The Huk Rebellion sprung from farmers’ discontent because of the inherent injustice and oppression in the tenant / landlord system.
Although, practitioners of different kind of Islam, Taliban in FATA, and Swat in particular, employed the same tool; they drew hundreds of local Maliks, Khans and well-off people from their homes and lands and told the locals to take control of them. They argued that these lands once belonged to the elders of these poor people, and were appropriated by the influentials against petty unpaid small loans and liabilities.
Essentially, the insurgents take advantage of existing socio-economic inadequacies and try to fill the gaps created by poor governance and absence of across-the-board rule
The insurgencies against the US in Vietnam, the French in Algeria and the British in Malysia, were essentially driven by a national desire to oust foreign invaders. The same is true for the anti-Russian mujahideen, though it was raised on the slogan of Islamic jihad.
What makes the current insurgency in Afghanistan, Iraq and in Pakistan different is the Al-Qaeda ideology that sprouted from the Afghan jihad and meanwhile transcends borders. It becomes even more complex and formidable for Pakistan because of the “past baggage.”
Certain factors, however, suggest that, if dealt with wisdom and clarity of purpose, the current insurgency can be gradually put down. Firstly, the “past baggage” favours the state of Pakistan. Most of the groups and people that were used as foreign policy instruments should be amenable to perusal for renouncing violence.
Why? Because the insurgents are not facing an alien enemy. They largely comprise local tribesmen and dissidents from Punjab. So, except for their dislike of Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S, they have little to justify their lethal attacks on the Pakistani government agencies.
The return of many IDPs demonstrates that common people are ready to stand by the government in its fight against militants if the peoples’ perception on the invisible mullah-military alliance can be removed through demonstrable and tangible actions against those challenging the state, there is no way the space on the militants will shrink.
Finally, if the civilian leadership and the bureaucracy picks up courage, acts transparently, addresses fundamental issues of governance, narrows gaps between promises and delivery, there is no reason why a few thousand misguided insurgents cant be fixed. All we need is determination, uprightness, and a clear vision.
(The author is the chairman, Centre for Research and Security Studies).