Winning Hearts and Minds

This asymmetric war is being waged at different levels in FATA and NWFP. Unlike a conventional war where success and failure is measured in term of enemy area captured, the success or failure here is measured in term of the number of people supporting the militants or the government. This war is thus not about control over land area but winning the support of a larger number of people than the opposing side. In other word this is a conflict for the hearts and minds. Failure or success in this area is crucial- the central point for focusing if Pakistan wants to emerge out of this conflict successfully will be governance.

                The militants in Waziristan, Kohat, Mohmand, Swat and Bajaur have tried to retain control over their strong holds by launching a reign of terror based on assassination and defeating the morale of the security forces as well as to provide a system of justice and security.

                The approach adopted by them has been to whittle away at the security services by capturing or killing them and by adroit propaganda amongst the population that the militants were the soldiers of Islam while government forces were fighting in support of a non Muslim power. This propaganda has been effective in obtaining the goodwill of Pakistanis for the militants overall objectives. However, a majority also decry the militant’s recourse to violence. For the last few years the militants adopted a clever strategy by exploiting the weakness within the Pakistani system. If you examine the circumstances preceding the many agreements, between the militants and government forces, four things become apparent.

Firstly, that such agreements normally occur when the military, after initial difficulties begins to regain supremacy but has yet not attained it. The agreement thus interrupts a trend line which is heading towards success. Secondly, in return for releasing government captives, the militants obtain the release of many of their rank and file who were arrested in the area of operation or on charges of sabotage in other parts of Pakistan. Militants also force the security forces to withdraw from dominant positions which had been won after much bloodshed and sacrifice. Thirdly, many of the agreements are reached after a good deal of money is transferred to militants as facilitating fees or as compensation for loss of lives and property. Fourthly, which is important to understand is that for first convincing the government to attain peace and secondly to weigh decisions in favor of militants, great reliance is placed on the tribal MNAs and Senators who act as the first as a pressure group within the assemblies and later as members of peace jirga negotiating between government and the militants.

This political group thus can be classified as those with leanings toward the militants. It cannot be otherwise since they live in areas under the militant’s domination. In support of this contention is the figure of more than 600 tribal Maliks executed by the militants since 2002. However, not a single of the MNA or Senator has been so proscribed. Another attribute of such agreements, is the pre-eminent role which the JUI (F) plays on the floor of the assembly or during subsequent negotiations.

                A few weeks ago the security forces in Bajaur agency came under a severe attack from a well organized group of Arabs and Central Asian fighters. When matters reached a critical level with the imminent capture of Khar the agency headquarter a possibility, the military and the air force retaliated strongly. It resulted in heavy casualties to the militants and lead to their dispersal. An unintended consequence of the fighting was the departure of more than 250,000 residents of Bajaur who are now refugees. Today, the tribesmen are holding jirgas in Salarzai and other places against the militants. They have forced the militants to evacuate their areas since they are accused of bringing pain to the residents of Bajaur. Furthermore, the military action has resulted in the death of more than 800 militants. Regrettably there have also been a number of innocent deaths. Molvi Fakir Mohammad the leader of the militants in Bajaur is either dead or injured and is not traceable. In Swat the community protected the veteran political stalwart Afzal Khan against the militants. In Koza Banda in Swat when Sikander Khan and Qayyum two locals were injured by militants, the community retaliated and killed those responsible for the attack. Similarly, in Buner, Dir, Peshawar, Mardan and other places, the communities have organized themselves to defend against the militants. Thus a situation has arisen where the ascendency of the radicals has seen challenges for the first time by the communities with only marginal government assistance.

                However, when the government is near success the old game of using parliament as a prop to defeat the will of the state is brought into play. Any revision of policy at this stage will be a great blow to the government. At the same time Pakistan is in the midst of a severe political crisis. This has occurred due to a breakdown of the coalition at the time of a Presidential election. The tribal areas have 20 electoral votes in this contest. The tribal MNAs and Senators have said that they would like the military activity stopped in Bajaur as a precondition for casting their votes for the PPP candidate. In short the Presidential contest has become a negotiable item in the path of security operations. The JUI (F) which has more than 30 Electoral College votes has categorically asked for a halt to all military operations.

                What will be the consequences if the military action is stopped? It will not only letdown the military but all those who have accepted the challenge to fight the militants at the community level. We have seen that while the government adheres to cease fires the militants do not.  Under the excuse of cease fire the militants retaliate against those who risked attacking the militants. The government’s ascendancy that now prevails would be lost.

                One is not for war and would wish an end to the killing but if there has to be a cease fire then the militants must surrender their core leaders and weapons and promise to end all violence. Secondly, this narrative clearly suggests that implementation of Pakistan’s security policy after the guidelines have been fixed should not become a part of the political calculus.

                At the start I had mentioned that the final determinant of an insurgency is winning the hearts and minds of the people. If you examine the militant’s narrative it relates to the story of a rich person, bin Laden who gave up his wealth, family and privileges to come and defend the poor who live marginalized lives in a world where they believe their religion is under challenge.

                The valiant bin Laden is seen pitched in battle against those who have greater personal and private interest in retaining power for themselves rather than for the public good. Clearly under these circumstances the battle for the hearts and minds will be in favor of bin Laden than the leadership in Pakistan which is portrayed as self centered in such a narrative. This is indeed a huge challenge but one which is overlooked by the ruling elite. In this battle for the hearts and minds the side which is moral, fair and bases its policies on principles than expediency will win the hearts and minds battle.

                If Pakistan is to have a fighting chance of coming on top of the insurgency it must improve governance and help the poor. Secondly, it must protect its security policies from the vagaries of selfish political actors. A contrary course will spell disaster.

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