Pakistani Military on the Wrong Border

Commentary | July 01, 2011

EWI’s Brad Brasseur writes that by diverting troops to the Indian border, Pakistan could not stop the rise of militancy in the Afghan border regions.

For years, instability and militancy in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have threatened not only Pakistan’s internal security, but also stability in Afghanistan. The situation in Pakistan’s tribal territories has become a growing concern, with coalition troop withdrawal approaching and transition of security to Afghan forces slowly gaining momentum. Current Pakistani military efforts to combat militancy in the FATA have been very weak, as indicated in early June in South Waziristan, where 150 militants seemingly effortlessly attacked a Pakistani security check post.

Pakistan must step up its military efforts and improve security in FATA. As this article argues, the strength of militancy in the tribal belt is largely due to insufficient Pakistani troop presence there, due to the deployment of Pakistani troops on the India border at the expense of sufficient troop strength at its western border. As so often is the case in Pakistan’s history, an important Pakistani interest is being held hostage by the country’s difficult relationship with India. The India-Pakistan rivalry is diverting Pakistan’s military resources, undermining the country’s stability and its chances for economic development.

The latest chapter in Pakistan’s troop deployment began with the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which deteriorated India-Pakistan relations just as they had begun to show very shy first signs of détente after the departure of President Pervez Musharraf. The Mumbai attacks were conducted by Lashkar-e-Taiba agents with close connections to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The resulting outrage in India and internationally led the Pakistani government to fear that the Indian government would retaliate with a ground attack across the border. These fears prompted the Pakistani government to move about 20,000 ground troops fighting militants in the tribal areas to the Indian border. With these troops gone, extremist groups gained freedom to maneuver, expanding their influence and ability to wage attacks on both sides of the Durand Line.

In April 2010, almost one-and-a-half years after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan finally began moving about 10,000 troops back to the Afghan border. While this may have signaled the Pakistan government’s commitment and desperate need to solve the domestic insurgent threat, the violence of the past months indicates that it may be too little too late for success in FATA.

Impact of Pakistani Military Operations in FATA

In his April 2011 bi-annual report on Afghanistan, President Barack Obama highlighted the ineffectiveness of Pakistan’s military in FATA. The report stated that the 147,000 Pakistani troops involved have been unsuccessful fighting the tribal belt militants and that the Pakistani government needs to commit more resources to FATA.

A closer look at the impact of recent Pakistani military operations in the region, particularly North Waziristan, demonstrates the price Pakistan has paid for diverting its resources to the Indian border.
Over the past few years, the military cleared some tribal agencies of militants in FATA only to lose the territory shortly after, due to the lack of troop strength.

In early 2010, the Pakistani military claimed they had cleared Mohmand Agency in FATA. These claims were undermined by Taliban-led attacks in the agency as early as July 2010, which killed over 100 civilians. The Taliban once again controlled the Mohmand agency in 2011, which forced the Pakistan military to again conduct major operations there in February 2011. These operations displaced 25,000 people.

In June 2011, the Pakistani military claimed that Orakzai Agency was clear of extremist militants after hundreds were killed. However, the history of military claims in Mohmand Agency raises doubts that this claim is true. Orakzai Agency had only recently become home to insurgent group – groups that fled there when the Pakistan military launched operations against militants in South Waziristan.

The conclusion is clear: even if the Pakistani Military clears a tribal agency of extremists groups, it is merely a matter of time until the militants regain power in a neighboring agency. There are simply not enough troops to secure the entire FATA region. The movement of insurgent groups in FATA from one agency to another proves that the Pakistani military is unable to maintain any security in the seven tribal territories as a whole. This demonstrates that the Pakistani military needs to a holistic approach to the tribal territories and to increase overall military strength there. This demonstrates that the Pakistani military needs to use a holistic approach to the tribal territories and to increase overall military strength there.

Lack of Financial Resources for FATA Operations

The Pakistani government’s concern over India’s intentions has not only diverted troops to their shared border – it has also tied up major financial resources related to that troop deployment. In 2009, Islamabad continued to ignore warnings from the World Bank that the millions of dollars being spent on maintaining troops on the border threatened Islamabad’s economic capability. In this context, it is worthwhile pointing out that troop expenses and additional services that the Pakistani military gives to the families of soldiers deployed along the Indo-Pakistani border has directly drained financing for military operations in FATA. The World Bank also noted that an improved relationship with New Delhi would boost economic prosperity.

Recent developments have confirmed that the World Bank’s warnings were accurate.  In January 2011, as the Pakistan military was preparing for military operations in the insurgent hotbed of North Waziristan, the Federal Finance Ministry stated that Pakistan’s struggling economy could not handle any more substantial military operations. This further delayed the crucial military operations in North Waziristan, one of the most dangerous and unstable regions in Pakistan. Instead, the money meant for operations in North Waziristan went to stationing Pakistani troops and resources on the Indian border.

In March 2011, the Pakistani military deployed around 20,000 troops to North Waziristan in preparation for military engagement. Ironically, the number of troops was the exact same amount of troops moved from the tribal territories to the Indian border in 2008 after the Mumbai attacks. Even so, Islamabad leaders continued their claims that they would not make a decision on the operations, due to lack of resources. It is not surprising that the Obama administration’s bi-annual report on Afghanistan in April 2011 concluded that Pakistan’s economic situation poses the country’s greatest short-term threat to its stability.

Overall Effect of Troop Redeployment

Pakistan’s inability to clear FATA of insurgents has only led to increased speculation over the ISI’s involvement with the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan. Although it is difficult to determine the exact extent that Pakistan’s troop redeployment had on the Pakistani government’s ability to take control of FATA, it is clear that the move crippled the country’s ability to combat the extremist insurgent groups on their western frontier.

Moving forward, it will be very important that leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan come to terms with a role for India in Afghanistan that takes into account the legitimate strategic interest of both countries. Such an understanding will first and foremost have to be found between Afghan and Pakistani leaders. If achieved, this may also lead to more detente in the troubled relationship between Pakistan and India.