The calculus of war (Published in the Dawn on 10th May 2010)

CALCULUS is a mathematical measurement technique that calculates minute changes occurring in a trend. Military planners spend an enormous time working out the details of an operation. However, they get so involved in their own construction of events that they normally fail to answer three fundamental questions about any operation.

      Firstly, what are the likely unintended consequences that may arise? Secondly, what will be the exit timeline and strategy for the operation? Thirdly, where does the proposed operation fit into a clear hold and build strategy? The last mentioned is the main reason for the operation in the first place. It is obvious that events like the recent deaths of more than 75 persons in Tirah through mistaken bombing by the military or the continuous death and displacement of large Pakhtun populations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata are becoming ethnically intolerable and will develop into a political backlash against the federal and the provincial governments. People in the region are asking why similar operations are not started in southern Punjab where the jihadist infrastructure is well entrenched. Quaintly named ops like Rah-i-Raast or Rah-i-Nijaat, undertaken in the first instance to destroy the strength of militants, actually generate unintended consequences that may ultimately weaken the cohesiveness of the Pakistani state.

     At the same time what we see emerging is a humanitarian crisis with an ethnic dimension. When Gen Musharraf short-sightedly sent the military into Fata in 2002, was it surprising to see the emergence of suicide bombers and the use of IED technology in our cities and towns? Did the general not realise that his decision could produce such an outcome? In a sense he empowered the militants and put them on the path of growth. Analysts have found another interesting international dimension of technology transfer in asymmetric warfare. It took the technology of creating the suicide bomber two years to travel from Iraq to Afghanistan. It took the same technology less than one year to reach Pakistan via Afghanistan.

     The economic dimensions of a military operation are even more chilling. Remember that in a developing nation like Pakistan it takes families generations to create livelihoods; they achieve this by entering an agricultural economy’s value chain which is related to crop production, trading, transport or services. Most of a rural family’s savings and surplus is in the shape of livestock or fruit and commercial trees like poplars. When an operation starts in such regions, the first unintended consequence is the destruction of the value chain that was built over generations. Trees, crops and livestock are destroyed and a majority of the population has to flee the area as IDPs. Savings disappear overnight and the majority of affectees become impecunious itinerants drifting from place to place living a life of destitution. How long would it take a trained radical to convert such discontent into hatred against the state and the military? I am sure not very long.

      In the case of Swat the loss to livelihoods alone is conservatively estimated to be more than Rs40bn. The government placates the population and the intellectuals by promising that rivers of milk and honey would soon be provided to the destitute through reconstruction and rebuilding. Some even speak of a Marshall Plan of the sort provided to European countries for their reconstruction after the Second World War. How impractical and fruitless. The Second World War destroyed industrial and infrastructure assets in some European countries. However, these nations retained the primary ingredients for the rebirth of an economy: educated and skilled manpower as well as their experience of building institutions and living by the rule of law. The Marshall Plan succeeded because of institutions and trained manpower and not simply because money was made available. (I am embarrassed to even ask what will really be accomplished in Pakistan other than restarting primitive capital formation.) If that be the case, why did we go in with so much force and engage in so much death and destruction?

      One message comes out quite clearly: don’t deploy the military unless that is the last option because even if you succeed in breaking the back of the militants belonging to the class of 2010, what about the others that come after them? We must be prepared to take steps to address the drivers of conflict on a long-term basis and on top of the list should be improvement in governance. Another important finding from areas that have remained for some period under the militants is that their presence did not have a negative impact on long-term economic growth. Life went on normally for the majority of the people. Families went on making a living except the elites who suffered a downturn in their fortunes. Is there a lesson here? Probably not, as this requires more research. It may be the case at the cusp of the trend but the question is, how will the long-term trend pan out?

     The lessons are very clear. Military operations must be short with the possible unintended consequences weighted. Secondly, the operation must have a clear exit strategy based on hold and build elements that are budgeted before an operation begins. Otherwise we will continue to remain in constant warfare.