Monday, May 11, 2009

Flushing the Taliban Out?

This will be a short blog post. I'm getting word from Al Jazeera that the Pakistani army is "flushing out" Taliban from main Swat cities, and that the Taliban are now "on the run." Apparently about 700 Taliban have been killed in Swat in the last 4 days, which is about 1/6 to 1/7 the 4000-5000 militants in the area.

But with most of these Taliban on the run, the Army may not actually be successfully accomplishing goals that lead to the long-term security of the AfPak (as it's called) region. There are benefits to routing and disorganizing an enemy force--they are less effective in future combat, they cannot launch offensives, and indeed, you take the territory. But the entire point of an insurgency is to run when the heavy weapons come, and to slowly seep and sneak back into an area being held by the government, and use terror/hit-and-run tactics to grind them down. Like Vietnam and Iraq, causing the enemy to turn tail and run is only a short-term victory. They will find refuge elsewhere (there is a great deal of space in northwest Pakistan and southeast Afghanistan in which they can take refuge) and come back to fight another day. Unfortunately, in the case of hardline militants, the only ways to achieve victory are to A) convince them not to fight (which is unlikely with a single flushing) or B) kill them all. Killing some large portion of them with a grinding and bloody operation would have certainly gotten the job done to a large extent, but it would have cost large numbers of civilian and army lives. But by not paying the price now, the Army may have to pay a greater price later in the form of a coordinated vengeance attack.

There is an alternative explanation, that I am quietly hoping that Pakistani tacticians have elected. If the Pakistani Army was not willing to deal with massive casualties in door-to-door fighting (which is understandable), then urban warfare would not be an option. There is a second option that would require more finesse and fewer casualties--though the finesse part may be tough to muster. If the Pakistani Army can effectively rout the militants and channel them (by cutting off alternative escape routes) into some relatively obvious hiding spot, then the Taliban will have lost their defensive advantage: they will be on relatively unfamiliar ground, they will be disorganized, they will have lost much of their weaponry, and they will no longer be "dug in" to an urban area, well-placed for brutal urban combat. If they enter an unfamiliar mountain range, then not only do they have less preparation and ammunition, but they also (more importantly) are no longer shielded by civilians to endless bombing and artillery. The Pakistani army can spare lives and throw metal instead at the problem, and simply surround the mountain region to catch and capture or destroy any escaping militants. Such a tactic could create Taliban casualty rates that would spiral towards 100%.

It's unclear whether that's the Pakistani Army's tactic of choice. If it was, they wouldn't be advertising it. If it's not, then they may instead try a very thorough hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency campaign in the city to win the loyalty of the population and keep the Taliban from coming back. Unfortunately, most civilians from Swat urban centers are in refugee camps that are undersupplied at best. The Army will struggle to win their loyalty to an extent that exceeded their loyalty pre-invasion.

Alternatively again, the Pakistani Army might intend to simply use a series of cheap "flushing" maneuvers on the Taliban until they retreat, in a disorganized way, into Afghani space, at which point better-trained NATO troops might be able to eliminate them. At such a juncture, the Pakistani Army would be able to close in on Taliban bases and safe zones, and eliminate the free operating area that the Taliban had in Pakistan. And frankly, this may be the only way that NATO got the Pakistani Army to agree to the operation--if NATO was willing to do the actual hard work in fighting the Taliban to the death, then the Pakistani Army would return the favor by ensuring (as best as they could) that the Taliban have no safe zones in Pakistan. While it would result in higher NATO casualties early, it would mean a significant strategic victory, and quite possibly a full turnaround in the war in the area.

If this is the case, I tip my hat to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton for excellent strategic diplomacy. But I may be being optimistic.
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