Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Emerging Wisdom of Pakistan's Military Strategy

Pakistan is sending hundreds of commandos into a Taliban hideout near Mignora. And while the over-arching strategy is not announced (it's unclear whether the US administration even knows what the strategy is), there is a good story to be told in what such a strategy might be. Below I submit a proposal for what the Pakistanis might be doing, with some evidence for it.

With 5000 Taliban militants (and only 15000 military to combat them), Pakistan fell far below the "standard" 10:1 ratio of counter-insurgents to insurgents. Simply trying to stick troops in the area and hope they could provide security was foolish. So Pakistan first asked its civilians to move out of Mignora. They are now refugees, and this has made life terribly difficult for both the government and said civilians, but mixed results seem to suggest that Pakistan is up to the challenge. In doing this (and I've talked earlier about how tough it would be for the Taliban to try to sneak up with these civilians), Pakistan was largely able to turn a counter-insurgency campaign into an urban warfare campaign. But 3:1 are still pretty bad odds against a dug-in urban enemy--things would get pretty bloody, at best.

So Pakistan, possibly ready to reimburse owners of whatever houses the Taliban holed up in, decided instead to throw a bunch of explosives at them, instead. To a large extent, the Taliban broke out of their dug-in areas in fear, and fled the streets when the Army showed up to intercept them. Such a tactic was a brilliant stroke of taking advantage of the Taliban's lack of military discipline and rigor--the Taliban might have had an advantage if the fight had gone how the Taliban had prepared, but they had not prepared for how to deal with heavy bombing campaigns, and decided (wisely), not to fight the Army on the Army's terms.

And then, Pakistan gets even smarter. As the 5000 fighters retreat (after about 750 casualties), many of the slightly-less-nutty Taliban (especially the youngsters) may be rethinking their long term life plans, and deserting. The Army estimates that only about 1500 are total die-hards, and the rest are new/young/coerced recruits. This mass retreat is a good opportunity for them to run to the paramilitary (scattered all over the outskirts of the city) with their arms in the air, and get 3 squares and a cot to sleep on. Why would they surrender? Well, this is probably the hardest that the Pakistani military has hit the Taliban in many years, and many of the new recruits have likely gotten more than they bargained for.

But it gets better. There are 1500+ remaining die-hards to deal with. This is where the Commandos come in. There is a pretty big mountain base that seems an obvious retreat location for a scattered and disorganized Taliban that has no other place to go. It is apparently well-stocked, and well-guarded. But what if the Pakistani Army flew (in helicopters) ahead of the Taliban retreating on foot to this base, with hundreds of Commandoes, in order to shut it down? If these Commandoes are successful (and frankly, they likely will be), these retreating Taliban will be a long way from any friendly territory, disorganized, under-supplied, and without morale. Their capture will likely be relatively easy with the 15,000 troops sent to the area. And, voila, Mingora will be cleaned up, if all goes to plan.

But, frankly, Mingora is only the start of a much greater, more pervasive Taliban problem. It's big. The BBC provides an excellent map (shown here) of where it thinks the Taliban is in control. The Pakistani government, of course, contests the extent of alleged Taliban control, but even if it's a bit less, it's a lot. The Pakistani Army has a very long way to go if it is actually going to break Taliban control over this swath of its country.
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