AS CONCERN BUILDS within Washington's political, military, and intelligence circles over the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda in northwestern Pakistan, the search for a proper policy to deal with the threat has come to the forefront. Earlier this week the New York Times leaked details of a classified recommendation for a new strategy to assist the Pakistani government in dislodging the Taliban and al Qaeda from their entrenched positions there, where the groups have effectively established a terror sanctuary. In short, the recommendation consists of funding and arming Pashtun tribes, reinforcing the paramilitary Frontier Corps, providing additional Special Forces trainers, and assigning additional teams from the Special Operations command to target high value targets whenever such opportunities arrive.
The plan is being sold as somewhat analogous to the highly successful counterinsurgency campaign in Anbar province, where tribal leaders and former insurgent groups banded together to fight al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies with the aid of Coalition forces. But the situation in Anbar is not comparable to the situation in the Pakistani northwest, and there is little reason to believe that a strategy like that reported in the Times will succeed in this more hostile environment.
The conflicts in Iraq's Anbar province and Pakistan's tribal areas are fundamentally different, and while both provinces are dominated by a strong tribal culture, al Qaeda's draws support in each for different reasons. In Anbar, the tribes and insurgent groups aligned themselves with al Qaeda in Iraq largely because they viewed al Qaeda as an ally in the fight against American occupation. However, they turned on the terror group once it became clear that al Qaeda threatened their very existence. In Pakistan, the Pashtun tribes have by and large openly supported the Taliban and al Qaeda since the groups first formed. The Taliban, with the help of the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence agency, was born in the Pashtun tribal belts, and al Qaeda fighters and its senior commanders are welcomed among the Taliban supporting tribes there.
Also, the counterinsurgency campaign proposed for Pakistan is not at all similar to that executed in Anbar province. In Anbar, the tribes organized to fight al Qaeda only after they realized the error they had made in aligning with them. And the tribes openly fought al Qaeda of their own accord before seeking help from the U.S. Marine and Army units in Ramadi.
Only later would U.S. troops play a significant role by nurturing the tribal movement, known as the Anbar Awakening, which ultimately formed the core of local resistance to al Qaeda. The U.S. military provided funding, helped organize local tribal security forces, encouraged the Iraqi government and military to allow Sunni tribesmen to join the army and police, and had the tribal security forces integrated into the military by reorganizing the units into Provincial Security Forces.
The Pakistani counterinsurgency plan, on the other hand, explicitly calls for U.S. forces to take a hands-off role in the Northwest Frontier Province. Unlike Anbar, the closest U.S. troops would come to direct involvement in Pakistan would be the embedding of Special Forces trainers into the Frontier Corps and Pakistani military. U.S. forces would not be able to come to the direct aid of Frontier Corps units.
The proposed Pakistani counterinsurgency plan would instead rely on the Pakistani Army to conduct the counterinsurgency operation and to buttress the Frontier Corps, itself a failed counterinsurgency force with a long history of deserting, or surrendering to the Taliban outright, whenever the situation becomes difficult. The Pakistani Army's track record in battling Islamic extremists in the tribal areas is equally troubling.
The 2005 South Waziristan Accord (also known as the Sara Rogha Accord) and the 2006 North Waziristan Accord were both negotiated after the Pakistan military suffered a slew of defeats at the hands of Taliban and al Qaeda forces. After the signing of these "peace accords," the Taliban and al Qaeda conducted a vicious campaign against any tribal member suspected of working with the Pakistani government or U.S. intelligence. Beheadings of "U.S. spies" were a daily occurrence.
Given this history of capitulation, relying on the Pakistani military to protect those tribal leaders opposed to al Qaeda and the Taliban without the support of U.S. forces seems certain to place any anti-al Qaeda elements in grave and immediate danger. During the rise of the Awakening in Anbar province in 2006, the anti-al Qaeda tribal leaders were nearly defeated. The first iteration of the Awakening, called the Anbar Revenge Brigades, was routed after al Qaeda assassinated its leaders and murdered or intimidated its fighters.
The Awakening was only able to survive the al Qaeda onslaught with the direct support of the U.S. Marines and soldiers based in Anbar. U.S. forces provided protection for the group's leaders, as well as air support, financing, and communications and other equipment to bolster its efforts. U.S. forces also conducted joint operations with the Awakening's fighters and coordinated operations between the Iraqi police and Army. Despite this U.S. support, the Awakening was close to being defeated after al Qaeda conducted a massive terror campaign up and down the Euphrates River Valley in the winter and spring of 2007. Al Qaeda used suicide bombs, chlorine gas attacks, and targeted assassinations against the tribal leaders and their supporters.
In Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, al Qaeda and the Taliban have extended their influence well beyond the tribal agencies and into its "settled" districts. The tribal agencies of Bajaur, Mohmand, and North and South Waziristan are firmly under Taliban control, and the Orakazai, Kurram, and Khyber regions are on the verge falling into that camp as well. The Taliban recently took control of the settled districts of Swat and Shangla, and two more are effectively off limits to the central government, as the police and military will not stray from their bases in those areas.
Under these conditions, arming anti-al Qaeda and anti-Taliban tribes and bolstering the Frontier Corps without solid support from both the Pakistani and the American military would be a death sentence for any tribe foolish enough to join the fight. The United States must get its counterinsurgency strategy in Pakistan right the first time, lest it risk the annihilation of any potential allies that remain in the region. But Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province isn't Anbar. More, not less, direct support from the United States military will be necessary for such a strategy to have any chance of success.