Taming the Frontier: Pakistan’s Counterinsurgency Campaign in the FATA — By Uzair Younus

As militancy engulfed Pakistan in recent years, the power disparity between the Pakistani military and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)-led insurgency worked against the former, prompting the military to resort to heavy-handed, counterproductive tactics in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that exposed the central government’s political vulnerabilities. This article adapts Ivan Arreguin-Toft’s framework for understanding the interactive dynamics of asymmetric conflicts and applies it to the ongoing insurgency in the FATA.


Saudi citizens trained in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda carried out the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. After 9/11 and the quick fall of the Taliban regime, no one in Pakistan thought that the country would be dealing with the blowback from 9/11 for over a decade. Islamic extremism had been a problem in Pakistan since the independence of the country in 1947, but the events after 9/11 have unleashed forces with which the country has failed to grapple.

A lot has been written about Pakistan’s fight against militancy in the post-9/11 world. Most of this analysis has focused on Pakistan’s unwillingness to take decisive measures, its reluctance to stall the cross-border flow of militants into Afghanistan, and the duplicity of the country’s security establishment, Pakistan’s obsession with the idea of ‘strategic depth’ and its paranoia with regards to India’s increased influence in Afghanistan.

Those are legitimate factors that have led to the resilience and continued resurgence of militant networks in the country. This piece, however, focuses on an alternative framework that uses the concepts of political vulnerability and policy interaction between strong and weak actors.

The first part of this article establishes a framework for understanding insurgencies in their various forms. The second part develops a framework for understanding why conventional militaries fail to defeat insurgencies. Finally, a historical analysis of the insurgency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is conducted to help understand why the Pakistani military had been unable to defeat it.

Defining Insurgencies

The phenomenon of insurgencies has plagued modern nation-states, colonial rulers, and imperialist empires for centuries. The Romans faced numerous insurgencies. The Chinese emperor built a wall to protect the empire from the tribes living in the hinterlands of the empire. French and British colonial forces in Indochina and Afghanistan, respectively, encountered armed resistance. Today, the United States and its allies are fighting insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria to name a few.

Despite the long history of insurgencies and their increasing prevalence since World War II, events after 9/11 have led to a growing confusion over their salient characteristics. It is important to put forth a robust definition of an insurgency.[1] According to Bard O’Neill:

Insurgency may be defined as a struggle between a non-ruling group and the ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources (e.g., organizational expertise, propaganda, and demonstrations) and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics.[2]

The United States military defines an insurgency as an “organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.”[3] These definitions are quite broad and encapsulate within them a number of tactics that an insurgency can use to achieve its goals.

Insurgencies and Terrorism

Since 9/11, the term terrorism has been, at times, misused as a catch-all phrase for defining violent acts by non-state armed groups. Terrorism, rather than being understood as a tactic, is often confused as a strategy. To avoid such confusion, it is important for us to define terrorism in a clear manner. Terrorism has several salient characteristics: it is directed at non-combatants; it is used to achieve short, medium, and long-term objectives; and it is utilized as a tool to shape public opinion and enhance political status of the insurgency.

Insurgent groups often use multiple modes of violence to achieve their political goals. In Pakistan, the Taliban have used conventional warfare to overrun military forts, guerrilla tactics to hit military convoys and supply chains, and terrorism to project power deep into the urban heartland of Pakistan. At times, however, it can be difficult to neatly categorize violent acts into one of the three categories mentioned above.

Insurgencies and Conventional Militaries

Asymmetric Wars: the Achilles’ Heel of Strong Powers

Since World War II, there has been an upsurge in the number of prolonged conflicts, which are often referred to as low-intensity, small, or asymmetric wars. Whatever the nomenclature, the commonality among them is the fact that stronger military forces have found it very hard to defeat enemies that appear far weaker. The question one must ask is this: why is it that modern militaries—despite having sophisticated weapons systems, better training, and more resources—have failed to successfully defeat insurgencies?

Political Vulnerability and Policy Interaction

One argument that is put forth by experts is that the gap in power between strong and weak actors makes strong actors more vulnerable. Jeffrey Record defines a strong power as the side with greater resources at its disposal.[4] This includes population, territory, financial, economic, and industrial capacity, as well as the firepower, size, and technological ability of that side’s conventional forces.

According to Andrew Mack, political vulnerability and resoluteness of both strong and weak actors depends on the gap in relative power.[5] As this gap widens, the strong powers become more vulnerable in the political sphere and less resolute in the military sphere. On the other hand, weaker powers become more resolute militarily and less vulnerable politically as the gulf in power between them and their opponent widens. The relative vulnerability of strong powers, according to Mack, provides a sufficient explanation of why weak actors win asymmetric conflicts.

Ivan Arreguin-Toft takes Mack’s work a step further, arguing that the outcomes in asymmetric conflicts can be explained by the interaction of opposing forces’ policies.[6] Arreguin-Toft defines strategy as “an actor’s plan for using armed forces to achieve military or political objectives.” This article adapts Arreguin-Toft’s definition, treating the strategic goals as the military or political issue an actor is trying to solve (e.g. consolidation of state control over the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier) and policies as an actor’s plans for doing so. Two types of policies are available to both strong and weak actors. While the strong actor can use a policy of direct attack or barbarism, a weak actor can use a policy of direct defense or guerrilla warfare.[7]

  • Direct Attack: The goal of this policy is to eliminate the military capacity of the weak actor to wage war. Thus, the fundamental focus is on the war-making capacity of the weak actor. This can be done by: capturing key towns or villages; destroying enemy arms depots; or gaining physical hold of key targets, such as roads or mountain posts.
  • Barbarism: This policy relies on the explicit violation of laws of war and affects both the physical capacity and willpower of the weak actor. The use of biological or chemical agents, indiscriminate bombings, forcible shifting of local population, and collective punishment fall under the category of barbarism.
  • Direct Defense: Like the direct attack policy, direct defense also relies on direct engagement with the strong actor. The capacity of the enemy is the main target and the weak actor seeks to inflict damage on advancing enemy forces.
  • Guerrilla Warfare: The preferred form of warfare for weak actors, this policy inflicts continuous costs on the strong actors military, supply lines, and infrastructure. Furthermore, the goal of this policy is to affect the capacity and will of the attacking forces. To successfully execute this policy, the weak actor must have a sanctuary to which it can retreat, as well as a population that is able to support weak actor fighters.

Based on the understanding of these policies, two key approaches emerge: direct and indirect.[8] While direct attack and defense target the capacity of enemy forces, barbarism and guerrilla warfare seek to destroy the willpower of the enemy. Given this, Arreguin-Toft develops four key hypotheses using these policies:[9]

  • Hypothesis 1: If both strong and weak actors use direct policies, (i.e. direct attack and direct defense), strong actors should win quickly and decisively. This is because strong actors possess overwhelming firepower and capabilities that they can use to obliterate weak actor forces in conventional warfare. The quick and dramatic victory of international forces against the Taliban after 9/11 is evidence of this.
  • Hypothesis 2: If the strong actor uses a direct attack policy while the weak actor uses guerrilla warfare, then weak actors stand a better chance of winning. This occurs due to two main reasons. First, the stronger actor’s use of overwhelming firepower will inevitably kill civilians, fueling increased resoluteness in the population. Second, as argued earlier, the inability of the strong actor to quickly defeat insurgents, despite overwhelming superiority, will lead to an erosion of domestic support and increase political vulnerability of the strong actor.
  • Hypothesis 3: If the strong actor uses barbarism while the weak actor defends using conventional tactics, then the latter has a better chance of winning. Targeting the will of the weak actor, sometimes through the use of aerial bombings, often backfires, as evidenced by Hitler’s failure to defeat the British despite continuously bombing London. A similar result emerged in Vietnam, where strategic bombing campaigns failed to coerce Viet Cong forces into surrender.
  • Hypothesis 4: Use of barbarism by strong actors when weak actors use guerrilla warfare should lead to victory for the former. This is due to the fact that guerrilla warfare depends on physical and political sanctuaries and the use of barbarism eliminates both. Forcible movement of insurgent population and other coercive tactics means that the insurgents are denied their sanctuaries. In the Boer War, the British followed a similar policy, forcibly relocating entire villages. Hypothesis 5: If the policies utilized by both strong and weak actors rely on the same approach (i.e., direct or indirect), then strong actors are more likely to win. On the other hand, when strong and weak actors interact using opposite approaches, then the outcomes are expected to favor the weak actors.

Analyzing the Insurgency in Pakistan

The framework established above highlights the key factors that make strong powers unable to defeat insurgencies: political vulnerability and policy interaction.

First, the policy interaction theory adapted from Arreguin-Toft’s work enables us to study the insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This highlights the policies used by both the strong (Pakistan military) and the weak (Pakistani Taliban) actors, analyzing the outcomes in each phase of the counterinsurgency campaign. In addition, Mack’s argument of political vulnerability aids our analysis by helping us understand the relative gap in power between the military and the insurgents and the impact of that gap on political appetite for waging the campaign.

Second, the above analysis of asymmetric wars and the reasons why strong powers fail to quickly defeat weak powers helps us in developing a point of reference with which to understand the TTP-led insurgency that emerged in Pakistan after 2001. Using this framework, we can analyze the events that have occurred since 2001, understand how the choice of policies and tactics influenced outcomes, and why the Pakistani Taliban continue to pose an existential threat to Pakistan after more than a decade of war.

Rebellion in the Frontier

To understand why this insurgency has raged for over a decade, we must go back to 1947 when Pakistan emerged as an independent country. One of the first actions that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father and the first Governor-General of Pakistan, undertook after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was to withdraw military units from what became the FATA. Home to Pashtuns, who are proud of their culture and tribal traditions, FATA was never fully integrated into the modern state of Pakistan and continued to be ruled through colonial-era laws.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s, the government of Pakistan under General Zia-ul-Haq set up numerous militant training camps with Saudi and American monetary aid for those wishing to join the Afghan jihad. Up until 9/11, this area was relatively calm even as Afghanistan became a hotbed of militant activity.

After 9/11, the government of General Pervez Musharraf was under immense pressure to take action against militants who had escaped from Afghanistan and found sanctuary in FATA. When military forces finally moved in, the tribes began agitating as their independent way of life was threatened. A tribal insurgency began to take root, focusing on the very codes, traditions, and cultures of Pashtun identity that had allowed the Afghan jihad to be successful. Over the next few years, this insurgency would inflict tremendous costs on American, NATO-ISAF, and Pakistani military forces.

The Tribes Unite

As the onslaught against al-Qaeda and the Taliban began in Afghanistan, hundreds of militants escaped across the porous Durand Line into FATA. These militants, many of whom had trained in the region during the Afghan jihad, were well aware of the Pashtun code nanawatay (hospitality). They invoked this to obtain shelter in the region, and militants with cash to spare paid up to $250 per month to families that agreed to provide it.[10]

In 2002, General Musharraf moved against militant groups within Pakistan and banned them. Almost 2,000 militants were arrested, but subsequently released; a number of these militants began migrating to FATA.[11] Militants came from a number of groups, such as Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). This laid the foundations of the nexus between al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Punjabi militants that would later emerge to challenge the very foundations of Pakistan.

Musharraf was under immense pressure by the United States to take action against militants escaping from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Giving into this pressure, he moved the Pakistan Army into FATA for the first time since 1947. Almost 25,000 military and paramilitary forces were deployed, and the total force numbers were raised to 70,000 by the end of 2002.[12] At this time the militants had not become entrenched in the region and were viewed as weak actors by not only the military, but by society as a whole.

The power mismatch between the two sides would make Musharraf’s regime politically vulnerable and lead to disastrous military campaigns. This was evidenced by the policy of the military in the early stages of the fight. The commander of the military in Waziristan, General Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai, was keen to negotiate with the militants and dismissed the emerging threat.[13] Despite the fact that he hailed from the Orakzai tribe, Gen. Orakzai had never served in the region before and viewed the incoming militants as incapable of challenging the state.

While the state turned a blind eye on these militants, South Waziristan became the center of militancy with 15 training camps operating in the agency.[14] Two assassination attempts in December 2003 came as a rude shock to General Musharraf. The first attack, carried out on December 14 in Rawalpindi, blew up a bridge that Musharraf’s motorcade had crossed minutes earlier. Days later, on December 25, two suicide bombers crashed into Musharraf’s motorcade, killing 14 and wounding 46 people.

Investigations later revealed that the attack was planned by Abu Faraj al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda leader, carried out by Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and given assistance by Pakistan Air Force personnel.[15] This was the first event that brought to the forefront the threat Pakistan was facing – al-Libi had escaped from Afghanistan, JeM was banned by Musharraf in 2002 and its militants were now in FATA, and the radicals had infiltrated the Pakistan military.

Dismissive of the militant threat in previous months, the government now found itself in a peculiar position. Musharraf found himself politically vulnerable as what was perceived as a nonexistent threat had carried out daring strikes in the heart of the country.

Soon after these events, a more concentrated effort to flush out militants in South Waziristan was launched. The Kaloosha Operation focused on the areas near Wana in South Waziristan. Planned as a targeted operation that sought to carry out surgical strikes on militant command and control networks, it ended in disaster. The military had underestimated the firepower and capabilities of the militants and was quickly pushed back.

It was only after the use of indiscriminate bombings that the military was able to dislodge the militants: 80 houses were bulldozed, irrigation channels destroyed, and 200 local civilians were killed.[16] Roughly 500 foreign militants and 2,500 local tribesmen were now pitted against the military.[17]

The use of conventional military tactics against an enemy using guerrilla warfare strategies fueled local resentment and sowed the seeds for a tribal rebellion against the Pakistan military. For the military the operation was disastrous, as 50 soldiers died over 12 days of fighting.[18]

Despite this setback, the government continued to underestimate the threat faced by the state from this emerging nexus. Arguing that these militants could be contained, Lieutenant General Safdar Hussain, the Corps Commander of Peshawar, pushed Musharraf to sign a peace deal with the locals after the disastrous Kaloosha Operation. Signed on April 24, 2004, the Shakai Agreement completely sidelined local Maliks and brought to prominence the militants against whom the military was fighting. Three militant leaders, Nek Muhammad, Noor Islam, and Baitullah Mehsud signed the deal.[19] Under the agreement, 106 militants were released, the government paid blood money for the dead and damage to property, and foreigners were allowed to live freely in South Waziristan, provided that they register with the authorities and surrender their weapons. Taking advantage of this agreement, militants began to target local Maliks and assassinate anyone believed to be working with the government.[20] The established form of government in the tribal areas soon collapsed and militants began to firmly assert their control.

The agreement lasted no more than seven weeks, and military operations began in earnest once again on June 11, 2004.[21] As an additional 7,000 troops moved in, violence increased. A direct attack policy was used against enemy forces that fought using guerrilla warfare strategies. Jets targeted Shakai and security forces closed down local businesses as collective punishment for harboring militants fighting against the government.[22] Militants, supported by local tribesmen, began attacking security posts. The involvement of local tribesmen was evidenced by the fact that the attackers often wore uniforms of local forces.[23]

The typical response of the military was to carry out retaliatory strikes using fighter jets and helicopter gunships, both of which further aided the militants. These operations were counterproductive at best. Indiscriminate use of force only pushed local tribesmen into the arms of the militants and ensured that the local populous turned against the Pakistani military.

On June 17, 2004, a drone strike took out one of the three militant signatories of the Shakai Agreement. Nek Muhammad, renowned by the locals as a Pashtun warrior, became a mythical hero the moment he was killed. His grave became a shrine and reads: “He lived and died like a true Pashtun.”[24] The death of Nek Muhammad allowed another renowned militant, Baitullah Mehsud, to rise to power and he began the process of uniting disparate militant groups under one umbrella. Military officials who viewed him as one of their own welcomed his rise. A senior military official said: “… he [Baitullah Mehsud] was more moderate at that time and had not yet developed a radical agenda.”[25]

Meanwhile the continuing rise in attacks carried out by militants led to another campaign. While the previous operations focused on the Wazir-dominated areas of South Waziristan, operations in early 2005 began targeting Baitullah Mehsud’s stronghold. While the geographical area of operations had changed, the policy remained the same: direct attack versus guerrilla warfare.

A force of about 4,000 militants managed to hold its own against the military, leading to the signing of another peace deal in February 2004.[26] Under the terms of the Sararogha Peace Deal, the military retreated and the Frontier Corps was restricted to five forts in the area.[27] Lieutenant General Safdar Hussain was once again the architect of this deal, and argued that “Baitullah is not a rebel but a patriotic citizen and a soldier of this country.”[28] Soon after signing this deal, Baitullah embarked on a mission to consolidate his power, culminating in the assassination of a former federal minister and senator Faridullah Khan on May 29, 2005.

By going against both the Wazirs and the Mehsuds in quick succession, the military had brought the historically feuding tribes closer together and isolated itself in the tribal areas. Over time, this would create a united tribal insurgency which imposed very high costs on Pakistan. The policy of conventional military operations followed by total surrender to militants under so-called peace deals alienated the local population, which began seeing the military as the source of the problem. With each agreement, militants were able to tighten their grip on power by killing tribal elders, Maliks, and political agents. Unable to physically dislodge the enemy through use of force, the military found itself politically isolated in both the tribal areas, as well as in the capital, where popular support for the conflict began to erode.

Musharraf and his top advisors, however, were unwilling or unable to comprehend the true nature of the threat. While Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain had already signed two disastrous deals, Musharraf decided to appoint General Orakzai as governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.[29] On September 5, 2006, another peace deal, the Waziristan Accord, was signed. This time another militant commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur was the signatory. Troops pulled back from checkpoints into the barracks, captured militants were released, and compensation was paid for the dead. Once again, the military was quick to give up the gains for which the blood of both civilians and soldiers was spilled.

The insurgency reared its head in the heart of Islamabad in the summer of 2007 as the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) complex became a battleground. Abdullah Ghazi, a prominent jihadist during the Afghan jihad, had used the mosque as his operating base for years. Close to both the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and bin Laden, Abdullah Ghazi firmly believed in global jihad.[30] His two sons, Abdul Rashid and Abdul Aziz became leaders of the mosque after their father’s death. Events after 9/11 and Musharraf’s U-turn against the Taliban made them anti-military. In 2004, the brothers issued a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the fight against the military in Waziristan a jihad.[31]

This simmering conflict came to boil in January 2007 when female students of the madrassa occupied a children’s library and the clerics issued a charter for establishing Islamic rule in Pakistan. By July, students belonging to the Lal Masjid began to forcibly shut down music and video stores in Islamabad and force local citizens to dress in an Islamic manner.

As in the past, the government was initially dismissive of the threat. The initial response was to conduct talks with Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid. Masood Azhar of JeM and other leaders of banned militant organizations met with Abdul Rashid.[32] Even the Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan participated in the talks, but no one was able to convince the brothers to stand down.[33]

The failure of the talks led Musharraf to order a brutal assault and on July 10, 2007, Operation Silence was launched against the complex. 93 people, including several soldiers, died during the operation. Although Abdul Aziz escaped wearing a burqa, his brother was killed in the assault.[34] 70 percent of the students at Lal Masjid belonged to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, and the Pashtun custom of badal (revenge) led to a dramatic spike in violence.

Operation Silence was a watershed moment in Pakistan’s fight against militants, as militants all over the country vowed to take revenge. Bin Laden issued a statement after the assault: “We in the al Qaeda organization call on God to witness that we will retaliate for the blood of…Abdul Rashid and those with him against Musharraf and those who help him, and for all the pure and innocent blood.”[35]

On July 12, about 20,000 tribesmen, joined by militants from the area, demonstrated in Bajaur against the military operation on Lal Masjid. Five days later, an attack on an army convoy in North Waziristan killed 24 soldiers. Such was the blowback from the operation that the entire country was drenched in blood; the first year after the operation saw a record 88 bombings, 1,188 killed, and 3,209 wounded.[36]

A violent storm had engulfed Pakistan and Musharraf, a strongman for years, now faced crises on multiple fronts. His inability to recognize the threat in its early stages, coupled with his reliance on advisors who pushed for “peace deals” meant that the situation was out of control by the end of 2007.

In this first phase of the insurgency, the political vulnerability of Musharraf’s government was fully exposed. The government had dismissed the militants as a minor threat and ignored the threat in its initial stages. Now his opponents were lambasting him as an American puppet and blaming him for turning the Pakistan military into a mercenary force that was killing its own civilians.

When the superior military forces did move in, the military relied on direct attack strategies while the insurgents engaged in guerrilla warfare. This interaction favored the insurgents, and by 2007 insurgents in Pakistan were firmly in control. What further compounded the problem for the military was the fact that its use of excessive firepower alienated the local population. Angered by the brutal use of force, tribesmen joined the insurgency by the hundreds, seeking badal (revenge) for their dead. Those that were still not convinced to join the insurgency were coerced after the military continued to cede space by signing one peace deal after another.

From The Edge of the Abyss

On December 3, 2007, General Musharraf, after being the most powerful man in Pakistan for almost nine years, finally handed over command of the Pakistan military to General Ashfaq Kayani. A total of 39 suicide attacks across the country had killed over 350 people, and the Taliban had cemented their control over FATA.[37] On December 27, 2007, militants conducted their biggest assassination to date, killing former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who had recently returned to the country from exile vowing to the take the fight to the militants.[38] Strategies used by the military in earlier years had failed, the armed forces were suffering from low morale, and the political situation in Islamabad was tenuous at best.

While Pakistan was grappling with crises on multiple fronts, militancy in the country was growing by leaps and bounds. Mullah Fazlullah, popularly known as “Radio Mullah” for his fiery sermons, had declared jihad against the government on July 12, 2007, after the Pakistani government raided the Lal Masjid complex. Over the next year and a half, Mullah Fazlullah would kill over 1,500 people and establish complete control over Swat, a scenic valley known as the Switzerland of Pakistan.[39]

In November 2007 Operation Rah-e-Haq (Straight Path) was launched in Swat to counter the rise of militants. Recognizing that they were unable to fight the military forces, the militants used a classic guerrilla warfare approach and retreated into the mountains. The military did not those areas that were militant strongholds.[40] The direct attack policy had failed yet again and by the end of the year, 3,000 militants had driven out 12,000 security force personnel, blown up over 100 girls’ schools, and displaced almost half a million residents in Swat.[41]

While Fazlullah was cementing his control over Swat, the militants in FATA had recognized that they would be able to further challenge the writ of the state by uniting under one umbrella. On December 14, 2007, militants from FATA’s seven tribal agencies announced the formation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).[42] The TTP announced that it wanted to enforce Sharia law, unite against NATO and the Pakistan military, abolish checkpoints in FATA, end military operations in Swat and tribal agencies, make no more peace deals with the government, and seek the release of Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz.[43] Members of the organization agreed to increase cooperation in intelligence-sharing, eliminate spies in their respective areas, develop a united funding structure, and build new court and policing mechanisms.[44]

This new umbrella group was quick in developing its reputation, as the first ten weeks of 2008 saw 17 suicide bombings that killed over 300 people.[45] While General Kayani was trying to come up with a new policy to counter the TTP, the insurgency caused massive destruction. In September 2008, the Marriott hotel in Islamabad was flattened, killing 53 people and injuring over 250.[46] In October 2008, the TTP sent a chilling message to tribal elders by attacking a jirga in FATA, killing 85 and wounding 200.[47]

Successive peace deals and negotiations had allowed militants to decimate local tribal structures and use the political vulnerability of the state to its advantage. By the middle of 2009, Mullah Fazlullah and the TTP set off alarm bells inside and outside Pakistan as militants continued to assert control in areas closer to Islamabad.

By now the perception in Pakistan had changed and the state began to view militants as a serious threat to its interests. On the back of a parliamentary resolution backing military action, Operation Rah-e-Rast was launched against militants in Swat. This marked a shift in how the Pakistan military conducted operations. The policy of direct attack had given way to barbarism.

On May 7, 2009, forced evacuation of the population from Swat began as artillery fire, gunships, and fighter jets pounded militant strongholds.[48] In a sign that the military was taking this threat very seriously, over 50,000 troops moved in, including two full divisions from the border with India.[49] The full scale of the operation was only launched after civilians were forcibly displaced from their homes and this allowed the military to dominate militant groups.

In previous instances support for military operations was lacking. However, this time around a well-rounded public relations effort in conjunction with the government was launched to build up support for the operation and the military moved into Swat only after Parliament passed a resolution supporting the military.

The operation created almost three million internally displaced persons (IDPs) while the military conducted its operations.[50] By June, the entire valley was cleared, with 2,000 militants and 300 soldiers dead.[51] Mullah Fazlullah and other key leaders, however, escaped the operation and went into hiding in other areas. While the military finally seemed to have learned counterinsurgency operations, it had to maintain a presence in Swat to ensure that space was not ceded to militants again. Two years after the culmination of the operation, 25,000 troops were still stationed in Swat and the military was leading efforts to build up police and other security forces in a bid to transfer control to the civilian government.

Whether the attack was coordinated between the ISI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is unknown, but on August 5, 2009 a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud.[52] By August 25, Hakeemullah Mehsud had taken over the reins of the TTP and vowed to avenge for the killing of Baitullah. By November 2009, violent attacks hit their peak and included some high-profile attacks that created the impetus for the military to move against the TTP in South Waziristan.

On October 10, 2009, armed militants wearing military fatigues entered the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan military in Rawalpindi and took 39 people hostage. The attack was masterfully planned and the attackers divided into two groups to ensure that they would not be captured or killed with ease. The militants demanded the release of over 100 prisoners. At 5 am the next day, Special Services Commandos (SSG) entered the GHQ and cleared the building during an operation that lasted for hours. A total of 19 people died and only one of the attackers was captured alive.[53]

Such an audacious strike at the heart of Pakistan’s security establishment mandated retaliation. The government and the military used popular anger against this attack to rally popular support for another military operation.

On October 17, 2009, Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) was launched and 45 thousand troops backed by gunships and fighter jets entered South Waziristan.[54] Estimates suggested that about 1,500 foreign militants and a total of almost 10,000 TTP fighters were in the agency.[55] The goal of the operation was to clear out South Waziristan before winter set in. In an unprecedented act of cooperation, the CIA and the Pakistani military engaged in real-time intelligence sharing.[56]

The Pakistan military utilized a similar policy to the one it had utilized against militants in Swat, surrounding the agency, forcibly evacuating the local population, softening up targets through artillery and aerial strikes, and then moving into militant strongholds.

By the end of the first week the town of Kotkai, Hakeemullah Mehsud’s hometown had fallen. Sararogha, Baitullah Mehsud’s former stronghold and where he had signed his first peace agreement in 2005, fell on November 3.[57] Official reports released in December stated that the operation had killed 589 militants, destroyed 22 tunnel networks, and recovered numerous arms and ammunitions from militant complexes.[58]

In a repeat of the operation in Swat, however, key leadership escaped the assault and eventually settled into other agencies where the military presence was weak. The announcement of the operation four months in advance was cited as the reason why the military had encountered little resistance and failed to kill or capture key commanders.[59] Despite being dislodged from their bases in South Waziristan, militants were able to mount retaliatory strikes. On November 17, 2009, the TTP took the fight into Pakistan’s heartland, flattening the regional headquarters of the ISI in Lahore.[60] In Peshawar, 10 bomb strikes killed almost 250 people by the end of November.[61]

The policy of the operation was to clear, control, and rebuild the territory over time.[62] Once the military became the dominant force in and around key towns, operations to clear up militant remnants in far-flung areas were launched. The military also conducted psychological operations prior to entering the agency and distributed leaflets in key towns to weaken the resolve of the militants.[63] While entire towns were flattened during the fighting, the military had developed a policy that sought to begin rebuilding and repatriation operations after the winter was over.[64] The culmination of Operation Rah-e-Nijat ended what had been a taxing eight years for the Pakistan military. From 2002 to 2010, 2,273 soldiers had died, 6,512 were injured, and 73 ISI officers, key to providing human intelligence in FATA, were dead.[65]

The military was beginning to take counterinsurgency seriously and had developed its unique counterinsurgency doctrine. General Kayani, who had once snubbed the need for counterinsurgency training in the military, had agreed to rotate all army units through a six week COIN training program. U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) helped Pakistan build a 700 man strong Frontier Corps Commando Force, and British and American trainers were retraining Frontier Corps units in FATA.[66]

This second stage of the counterinsurgency campaign waged by the Pakistan military relied increasingly on barbarism. Meanwhile, the insurgency was relying on guerrilla warfare, and as hypothesized earlier, this interaction yielded success for the military.


Dismissive of the threat of militancy in 2002, Pakistan had relied on a direct attack policy in the early phases of the counterinsurgency campaign. The lax attitude of the Musharraf regime meant that the government pursued peace deals that strengthened the nascent militant networks. Being a conventional military force trained to fight a conventional war with India, the Pakistan military was slow to learn counterinsurgency.

The military operation in Swat was the first time that the policy interaction favored the Pakistan military. On the heels of this success, the operation in South Waziristan was launched, which further destroyed militant networks. By this time, it seemed that senior officials in the military had recognized that militant networks could no longer be controlled and that they posed an existential threat to the country. It would take years, however, before the launch of another military operation, Operation Zarb-e-Azb (Blow of the Prophet’s Sword). Whether the policy interaction dynamic will continue to favor the Pakistani military remains to be seen.

Uzair M. Younus is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His field of study is International Security and Southwest Asia. Born and raised in Pakistan, Uzair focusing on understanding the security threats Pakistan and its neighbors face and proposing strategies that can ensure sustainable stability and development in the region.

[1]O’Neill, Insurgency & Terrorism, 1.
[2]Ibid., 13.
[3]The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, 2.
[4]Record, Beating Goliath, 8.
[5]Mack, “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars.”
[6]Arreguín-Toft,“How the Weak Win Wars A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict,” 99.
[7]Ibid., 100.
[8] Ibid., 105.
[9]Ibid., 107.
[10]Ibid., 26.
[11]Abbas, The Taliban Revival, 96.
[12]Ibid., 103.
[13]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 32.
[14]Ibid., 65.
[15]Ibid., 63.
[16]Gul, The Most Dangerous Place, 22.
[17]Abbas, The Taliban Revival, 106.
[18]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 69.
[19]Abbas, The Taliban Revival, 108.
[20]Gul, The Most Dangerous Place, 33.
[21]Abbas, The Taliban Revival, 110.
[22]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 73.
[23]Gul, The Most Dangerous Place, 26.
[24]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 73.
[25]Ibid., 76.
[26]Bergen and Tiedemann, Talibanistan, 160.
[27]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 79.
[28]Abbas, The Taliban Revival, 112.
[29]Ibid., 85.
[30]Ibid., 112.
[31]Ibid., 113.
[32]Abbas, The Taliban Revival, 125.
[34]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 117.
[35]Ibid., 119.
[36]Ibid., 120.
[37]Abbas, “Increasing Talibanization in Pakistan’s Seven Tribal Agencies.”
[38]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 140.
[39]Ibid., 151.
[40]Gul, The Most Dangerous Place, 115.
[41]Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 141.
[42]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 139.
[43]Abbas, The Taliban Revival, 152.
[44]Ibid., 153.
[45]Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 42.
[46]Ibid., 44.
[48]Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 123.
[49]Nawaz, “Pakistan’s Summer of Chaos.”
[50]Nawaz, “Pakistan’s Summer of Chaos.”
[51]Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 143.
[52]Gul, The Most Dangerous Place, 123.
[53]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 166.
[54]Ibid., 174.
[55]Yusufzai, “Assessing the Progress of Pakistan’s South Waziristan Offensive,” 9.
[56]Barnes and Miller, “U.S. Aiding Pakistani Military Offensive.”
[57]Yusufzai, “Assessing the Progress of Pakistan’s South Waziristan Offensive,” 9.
[59]Shah, “Big Pakistan Offensive Has Failed to Nab Any Taliban Leaders.”
[60]Hussain, The Scorpion’s Tail, 178.
[61]Rodriguez, “Pakistan Taliban Regrouping Outside Waziristan.”
[62]Bukhari, “New Strategies in Pakistan’s Counter-Insurgency Operation in South Waziristan,” 5.
[63]Bergen and Tiedemann, Talibanistan, 215.
[64]Kagan, Jan, and Szrom, “The War in Waziristan: Operation Rah-E-Nijat – Phase 1 Analysis,” 27.
[65]Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 150.
[66]Ibid., 147.


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