“COIN” for Dummies
Lt Gen (R)Asad Durrani
“One should see the Whole before the Parts”
- Fredrick the Great
(This is a cross post by the Institute of Regional Studies, published in 2005).
COIN follows the classic strategic cycle of “battle and manoeuvre”. Both the state and the insurgents battle against each other to create a favourable environment for the manoeuvre, which is essentially non-military. They may agree to hold fire to give “peace a chance” or because one of them needed a breather. Improving respective positions for the subsequent phase- fighting or talking- remains a constant goal. The process continues till one side concedes defeat or both of them come to an arrangement that they could live with.
During the battle- aptly described as a form of asymmetrical warfare- the insurgents have an advantage: they can merge with the masses and are usually more familiar with the area. The state on the other hand is constrained in the use of force to avoid collateral damage. The insurgents have no qualms about offering a truce from a position of weakness. The state even when in trouble is reluctant to lose face and digs itself deeper in the hole. The manoeuvre phase- often merely a “lull in the battle”- is again more skilfully used by the non-state actors. They can position their assets for the ensuing battle more discreetly.
What however harms the state’s ability to conduct a successful COIN the most is its propensity to seek truce, or battle, prematurely. Usually, it is because of public pressure; when the casualties start mounting, or if the insurgents were seen to be taking undue advantage during the ceasefire.
The much maligned Nizam-e-Adal deal was struck because the military operation was taking too heavy a toll of civilian lives and property. As a stratagem it made plenty of sense, provided the state planned to reposition its assets for the battle that was inevitably to follow. The militants’ forays in neighbouring districts were imprudent, but panic in Islamabad was endemic. On a small scale map, Buner looks uncomfortably close, and the hills in between, or the Indus, not very daunting. Goethe once famously said: “no one ever deceives you; you deceive yourself”. If alive, he would have said the same thing about “terrorism”. Having terrorised ourselves, we scrambled the Army without adequate groundwork, civil and military.
Some aspects of this operation can be debated ad-infinitum: could we have organised the evacuation of the population any better; or if we had the right intelligence to use heavy weapons against the Taliban. One can, however, safely assume that many of the militants would escape to fight another day, and another place. The COIN continues.
Would that make us act more patiently in future? Not very likely. If all the conventional wisdom could not prevent us from making waste in haste, some strategic claptrap had no chance. Moreover, who wants to wait for years and decades? What we need is a “Quickie COIN”. Let me try to evolve one.
Since we are pressed for time, we should cut the chase. “Whose war is this?” is a pointless debate. Those who have a war to fight do not fight over its “ownership”. I suggest we settle this matter after the war. If we win, it was ours. Otherwise, we will dump it on someone else.
Waiting for this government to come and lead the war, is equally futile. Wars are not led from bunkers that add a protective layer every time there is an explosion. The only wait worth its while is for the bunkers or this government to collapse under their own weight.
Moaning and groaning over the root-causes of the insurgency again would be in vain. Root-causes are embedded in history that cannot be rolled back. Those who created the Mujahedeen rolled back a superpower, which became history. Their successors, the Taliban, are in the process of doing the same to its opposite number. We have to take care of their sidekick, the “Pakistani Taliban”.
Now that we have decided to fight this war, we should not make any excuses. ‘Our army is not trained for an unconventional war’, is a pretty lame one. All armies are trained in conventional warfare and then adapt to the task at hand. No one trains for COIN and then awaits an insurgency.
And for God’s sake do not threaten the world that if it did not come to our rescue we would go down the tube and take it along. It is dangerous to put a gun on our head, especially if it fired nuclear shots. What if we were dared to pull the trigger? Invoking external help to fight an internal war in any case was never a good idea. Incidentally, the US has neither the sway nor the intent to arm-twist India to resolve Kashmir. So, do not hold your breath on that account.
Having shed all the extra baggage that was holding us back, we should now get on with the war, which would indeed involve a bit of manoeuvring and some battling. The manoeuvring first.
There are many wars raging in and around Pakistan. Let us try and contain or outsource some of them. Baluchistan is part of the “New Great Game”. While the external actors (and there are some big ones there) vie for influence, our spooks should know how to keep them engaged. The eastern front has been mercifully quiet the last few years. Don’t let another Mumbai hot it up.
Many of the militants in the North-West could be persuaded to join their kith and kin in Afghanistan. Some are small time criminals who have acquired the Taliban label to raise their price (I believe we have handled them reasonably well). The rest, including the “rogue groups” (always to be expected in this game) have to be fought down, possibly piecemeal and in the right order. (Bajaur followed by Mohmand, and now Malakand, looked OK.)
The real battle- and that has to be waged by us, the people of Pakistan- is to ‘check and rollback’ the insurgency (‘contain and counterattack’ in military idiom). A few months back, some citizens in Peshawar sent a message to the militants threatening to takeover the city. It simply stated that this time around they would be faced with people’s power. It had the desired effect, but was not followed-up by any solid steps. The local’s response to the mosque carnage in Upper Dir again illustrates how best to deal with the insurgents. It can also serve another purpose.
Howard Zinn, an eminent historian of our time, had recently the following to say: “where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it's been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn't just moan. They worked, they acted, they organised, and they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power”.
We needed no Zinn to tell us the virtues of a mobilised community. This is precisely what we have experienced during the last two years, reaffirmed by the Peshawaris and the Diris. Any community that can organise a system of civil defence has the best chance of deterring the next sneak attack by the Taliban, and with a little pluck, to drag this leadership from behind their fortresses on to the battlefield.
(The writer is Former Head of ISI).