Counterterrorism: Appeasement Will Not Work

Counterterrorism: Appeasement Will Not Work
In one of his fables, Aesop tells us that a gnat woke up one day in the savannah. It was a bright, sunny day. He felt good and boastful and said to himself, “This is a great day to do some stinging.” He spotted a lion, king of the beasts, and buzzed around him. The lion got annoyed. “What are you doing?” The cheeky gnat replied, “You may be king of the beasts but you don’t frighten me.” “I can destroy you with one swipe of my paw,” said the lion. “No, you can’t,” said the gnat and kept buzzing around the lion. The lion kept trying to swat the gnat but the gnat would elude him.

The annoying gnat then lodged himself in the lion’s nose and kept stinging him. Try as the lion might, he couldn’t dislodge the infuriating insect. Finally, he said, “Okay, I am not the king, you are.” Hearing that the gnat flew away, gleeful that he had defeated the mighty lion. “I deserve a home fit for a king,” the gnat said to himself. He sees a web draped over a bush. “Perfect place for me to rest.” That was his undoing. The moment the gnat got into the web, the spider laughed and said, “Ha, you are trapped!”

“How dare you. I am king of the beasts. Even the lion conceded that,” the gnat said to the spider. “No, you are not. You are a trapped little gnat and you can’t go anywhere unless I let you,” said the spider. The gnat kept trying to fly away but couldn’t. He finally conceded and said to the spider, “Please let me go. I won’t be boastful and I won’t annoy anyone.”

With the spike in terrorist attacks, there’s a lesson here for us.

But before I get to that, a very brief review of counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism military operations (CMO) literature is in order. Most literature is about COIN environments. But the term is often fungible and applicable to our context. In fact, when the former Federally Administered Tribal Agencies were fully or largely controlled by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and we had to launch small- and large-scale military operations, those were, technically, COIN ops. We called them CMOs for legal-political reasons to deny the TTP any legitimacy that often underpins insurgency.

There was also a connection between control of territory by the TTP in the northwest and terrorist attacks in the heartland of Pakistan. It made sense to refer to operations as CMOs. Back then neither the police nor the army knew how to counter a threat where the zones of war and peace were (and are) enmeshed — i.e., there is no defined battle space in such irregular conflicts and the adversary can strike anywhere, anytime.

Equally true, and vital, is the fact that if, as in our case, a terrorist group or franchise is allowed to take control of territory, we get into a classic COIN problem: the strength of the COIN/CMO force must be assessed by the extent of support from the population (this is a motif running through the works of John Nagl, David Galula, David Kilcullen, van Creveld et al). The greater the use of force, the higher the potential for collateral damage and alienation and displacement of people and further support for the insurgent/terrorist.

From the casualty perspective, 2009 stood out as the worst year with 11317 fatalities involving 2154 civilians, 1012 security forces personnel and 7884 terrorists. The highest number of attacks were recorded in 2012 at 2347, killing 2713 civilians (the highest count since the year 2000). Thereafter, we kept seeing a drop in the number of attacks — and casualties — until 2019 (136) before seeing a spike in the number of attacks in 2020 (193), 2021 (267) and 2022, until December 24, (354).

Over the past year-and-half there have been warning signals from people living in former FATA, now the tribal districts, areas of Upper Swat and Lower Dir, as also Tank, Lakki Marwat and Dera Ismail Khan. These signals dovetailed with increasing frequency of attacks that, initially, looked like isolated incidents.

The enabling environment in Afghanistan following the precipitous US withdrawal and the fall of Kabul to the Afghan Taliban, is one reason for what is happening. The other is the previous government’s acceptance of an offer from the TTP, with sanctuaries in Afghanistan, to open a dialogue with that terrorist group.

I have previously written about that process so I shan’t get into the details again. Suffice to say here that the TTP was buying time while the Afghan Taliban were pretending to act as mediators to ward off pressure from Pakistan to deal with the TTP. The important point is that the Afghan Taliban told us that they could not deal directly with the TTP and that Pakistan should work out some settlement with them. Their message to the TTP was the same, though the TTP leaders and cadres continued to move about freely in Afghanistan.

The process was destined to fail. Negotiations or talks work when the adversary’s ambition is limited. In that case a settlement is possible (medieval European wars are a good example of that). But if the adversary’s appetite is insatiable, appeasement can become a disaster (Adolf Hitler is a case in point). The TTP, unlike the Baloch terrorist groups, does not want to secede from Pakistan; it wants to ideologically and physically conquer this land. Whether it can do so is a different issue altogether and irrelevant to our present purpose.

The process also led to some TTP cadres returning to Pakistan. There were also reports of Pakistan releasing some captured TTP leaders. People of tribal districts began sounding alarm bells about armed men roaming in their areas. Expectedly, before long, those men would begin to threaten the local populations in a near-repeat of how this irregular conflict began in 2001/02: killings, kidnappings, extortion from businessmen, attacks on police personnel and security forces.

Friday’s near-successful suicide attempt in Islamabad — conflicting accounts of how it happened, notwithstanding — is an indication, again, of the threat moving to the heartland from the periphery. Another factor is the frequency of attacks over wide geographies. That, again, is reminiscent of the worst years of the war we fought.

While foreign armies can leave, an army tackling CT ops in its own territory cannot and evidently has to be more mindful of dislocation, alienation and collateral damage while ensuring that it wins. Corollary: having been there, having borne excruciating pain, and having done it, it makes no sense for the state to allow the situation to slide back to where and how it all began.

But let’s get back to Aesop’s fable. The state (Lion) can indeed swat the annoying terrorist groups (Gnat) because it enjoys asymmetry of power against the insect. But the insect, because it can fly and elude, creates its own asymmetry against the lion’s strength: it denies the beast the concentration of force. The spider doesn’t have the force to swat the gnat, but it has the web and it can trap the gnat.

The mimetic aspect of institutional isomorphism tells us that over the past two decades the Pakistani military has learnt from other militaries fighting next door and also from its own experiences; the normative aspect denotes internalisation of those experiences and practices. But, as DiMaggio and Powell argued in a 1983 paper, institutional isomorphism while making “organisations more similar” may not “necessarily [make] them more efficient”. They called it the “iron cage”.

This is the crux of Akali Omeni’s — a Nigerian academic teaching at Leicester University — argument with reference to Nigerian military’s faltering operations against Boko Haram. As he argues, “Change moreover, where it occurred, was institutionally isomorphic and not as far removed from the military’s own origins as the intervening decades may have suggested.”

When the terrorist groups are concentrated in an area, as was the case in FATA, the lion can use his heavy paw, painful though it may be in terms of destruction and dislocations. But once the territory has been cleansed, the approach has to shift to the spider’s web. Information-centric theories focus on information (actionable intelligence) using HUMINT and SIGINT. Given the elusive nature of terrorist threat, that’s a constant process. There can be no let up.

Gnats cannot be eliminated altogether. This is not a conflict with a certified termination point. But the effort should be to prevent them from lodging themselves in the lion’s nose. Constant vigil and improving intelligence capabilities are the means to trapping and eliminating them. The region we live in — with Afghanistan sliding back into expected regression — will continue to produce the gnats. We have to ensure that most of them get swatted before the lion is forced into using the heavy paw.

The writer is interested in foreign and security policies. He tweets @ejazhaider.

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.