Pakistani Counterinsurgency in the FATA: Repeating Past Mistakes
Although since 2009 the Pakistani military has partially shifted from its conventional force posture to a modern counterinsurgency (COIN) approach in its conflict with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), coercive tactics are still employed today through mass arrests, extrajudicial killings, and onerous travel restrictions. As a result of their initial tactics and current human rights abuses, the military succeeded in routing TTP strongholds but failed to address the insurgency’s root-grievances, alienating the population and ensuring post-conflict regional insecurity.
For nearly two decades, the Pakistani military has struggled to wage effective COIN against the TTP in the FATA. At one time, the group claimed over 45,000 militants operating in the FATA and in the neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Until 2009, Pakistan’s response to the TTP followed an “enemy-centric” approach, emphasizing the overwhelming and indiscriminate use of force against insurgents and the local, sympathetic population. The operations destroyed homes and infrastructure, in the process displacing hundreds of thousands in the tribal belt.
TTP recruitment, ostensibly predicated on shared Sunni-Pashtun bonds, is fueled by the allure of “money, power, and respect” in an historically impoverished region. Underinvestment in the economic and political infrastructure of the region bolsters local animosity toward the central government and encourages support for groups like the TTP which promise greater development.
Similarities to British and French campaigns in the early 20th century lend historical precedent to flaws in Pakistan’s conventionally oriented military tactics and enemy-centric approach. Going forward, counterinsurgency forces must more fully embrace a lighter footprint military posture, enter into negotiations from positions of strength, and empower the FATA through economic investment and political representation if they hope to bring an end to one of the state’s longest running, deadliest conflicts.
Pakistani COIN over the Years
Failure to adapt their conventional military posture and over-eagerness to enter into negotiations with the TTP amid military setbacks hobbled the Pakistani government’s capacity to wage effective COIN from 2004-2009. Pressured by the U.S. to take a more active counter-terror role following the invasion of Afghanistan (2001-2), Pakistan began to move against Afghan militants who had taken refuge in the FATA. Political and popular support for these operations, however, was low. Domestic insecurity in the FATA had long been viewed as a secondary threat to the specter of Indian aggression in Kashmir; maintaining a robust conventional border posture - rather than retraining their troops for COIN operations - remained the principle concern of the military.
Operations Al Mizan (2002-6), Zalzala (2008), Sher Dil, Rah-e-Raq, and Rah-e-Rast (2007-9) reflected this reality: drawing upon conventional troop infusions and area bombings to damage TTP and civilian infrastructure without distinction. The human and financial toll from these operations on the local population served as a powerful recruitment tool for the insurgency. As local resentment grew amid accumulating battlefield losses, the government entered into a series of peace negotiations with the insurgency which lent legitimacy to their cause early in the conflict. The Shakai Agreement (2004) promised insurgent autonomy in the tribal regions and compensation for insurgents without disarmament. The deal’s conclusion at a Madrasa cemented the image of a prostrate government negotiating from a position of impotence.
Although recent government measures have attempted to alleviate some of the root economic and political grievances of the insurgency, chronic underinvestment and selective political reforms have left much to be desired. Multiple ambitious development initiatives – among them the formation of the Sustainable Development Plan (2007), FATA Task Force and FATA Development Authority – have paved the way for improvements in local education, health services and transportation infrastructure. Such efforts, however, are hindered in their implementation by the allocation of insufficient resources. Nearly two million displaced locals have returned from poorly maintained refugee camps to “destroyed homes and livelihoods,” highlighting the government’s inability - or unwillingness - to rebuild the communities they destroyed.
Efforts made to address longstanding political grievances have also shown lackluster results. The gradual abolition of the Frontier Crimes Regulations – a series of colonial-era laws which denied FATA residents certain fundamental legal rights – and the May 2018 merger of the FATA with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province have erased many of the institutional inequities facing locals. In the process of incorporating the FATA more fully into the national system, however, the government further empowered tribal elders (maliks) whose federal appointments make them the “beneficiar[ies] of FATA’s status quo.” The government’s support for the maliks and failure to recognize the demands of the popular, progressive Pashtun Tahafuz Movement make promises of change appear hollow.
Both British conventional military approaches to combatting Malayan insurgents (1948-1960) and French political and economic inducements to end the insurrection in Algeria (1958) highlight the historic failings of Pakistani COIN. A long and violent conflict of the immediate post-WWII era, the Malayan campaign involved the British Army’s application of a conventional warfare approach in the dense Southeast Asian jungle, culminating in the defeat of the Malayan National Liberation Army. The campaign, while successful in defeating the insurgency, was marred by initial misapplications of force and strategic blunders. Jungle sweeps were easily detected by guerilla fighters and air superiority was rendered ineffective beyond enabling parachute division deployments. These factors contributed to allowing an “organizationally weak, strategically incompetent” insurgency to “prolong their uprising for 12 years before they finally capitulated.” The British (later the Pakistani) military’s conventional - some might say attritional - approach to COIN delayed the defeat of the insurgent, wasting resources and devastating the local population in the process.
The French government, in an attempt to win back the hearts and minds of her own alienated Algerian populace, sought to address popular grievances through an ambitious five-year infrastructure development initiative: Plan de Constantine (1958). Although the proposal aimed to improve economic conditions (housing and education) and reform longstanding political issues (Muslim representation in administrative posts and suffrage), it only emboldened insurgents – just as the Shakai Agreement did in Pakistan - who saw such government concessions as proof of their operational success and legitimacy. The enormous cost of the program also made its full implementation unrealistic considering the “already depleted [state of the] French treasury” at the time, the product of years of wartime expenditure.
While the idiosyncrasies of different insurgencies – separated geographically and temporally - make direct COIN comparisons challenging, common failings point to important practical lessons. “True systematic large-scale operations,” according to former French intelligence officer David Galula, “have at best no more effect than a fly swatter.” Effective COIN requires unique training and force posturing: highly-mobile infantry, armored cavalry, low-flying armored patrol aircraft, and developed intelligence networks. Pakistan’s tactical success following the adoption of these changes in 2009 serve as a testament to their efficacy. Operation Rah-e-Nijat (2009) in South Waziristan was preceded by a local civilian evacuation, months-long blockade of insurgent supply routes, precision airstrikes, and sound intelligence. The operation resulted in few civilian casualties and the dismantling of TTP infrastructure in the region.
Equally important is securing the support of the population – the lifeblood of any insurgency - by addressing root-grievances. Promises of political inclusion and economic development must be substantiated with actionable developments, commensurate in resources to those devoted to the military eradication of the insurgent. Insurgencies are fundamentally political movements which seek to use military means to further socio-economic aims; a COIN approach which allocates most of its resources to defeating the insurgent without addressing root grievances treats the symptom of the conflict rather than the underlying condition.
Political and economic reforms alone, however, will prove ineffective without concurrent military success. Negotiations conducted from a place of weakness only embolden the insurgent and convince them that their tactics are working. Deft applications of military force and aggressive reforms intended to tackle the popular grievances which fuel the conflict are prerequisites for any successful COIN campaign.
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Bulloch, Gavin. “Military Doctrine and Counterinsurgency: A British Perspective.” Parameters, (Summer 1996): 4-16.
Canuel, H. “French Counterinsurgency in Algeria: Forgotten Lessons from a Misunderstood Conflict.” Small Wars Journal, 2010.
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Qazi, Shehzad H. “Rebels of the Frontier: Origins, Organization, and Recruitment of the Pakistani Taliban.” Small Wars & Insurgencies 22, no. 4 (October 2011): 574-602.
 Shehzad H. Qazi, “Rebels of the Frontier: Origins, Organization, and Recruitment of the Pakistani Taliban,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 22, no. 4 (October 2011): 574-602.
 “Shaping a New Peace in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas,” International Crisis Group, August 20, 2018.
 Shahzad Akhtar, “Decline of Insurgency in Pakistan’s FATA: A Counterinsurgency Perspective,” Asian Survey 59, no. 4 (2019): 693–716.
 Fair and Jones.
 Akhtar ; International Crisis Group.
 Andrew Mumford, “Puncturing the Counterinsurgency Myth: Britain and Irregular Warfare in the Past, Present, and Future,” U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, September 2011.
 Gavin Bulloch, “Military Doctrine and Counterinsurgency: A British Perspective,” Parameters, (Summer 1996): 4-16.
 H. Canuel, “French Counterinsurgency in Algeria: Forgotten Lessons from a Misunderstood Conflict,” Small Wars Journal, 2010.
 David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 1964): 51.
 Ibid: 65.