Proactive Counterterrorism Operations Require a Proper Policy

Proactive Counterterrorism Operations Require a Proper Policy
Terror attacks have spiked. According to some reports, the first half of this year has seen 277 attacks, which have killed 391 and injured 660. This month, especially the coming two days (9th/10th Muharram), will likely pose a challenge. That said, it’s the trajectory that is important. So, how does one tackle this problem?

Following two separate attacks in Zhob and Sui in Balochistan, Pakistan Army high command had overtly accused the Afghan Interim Government (AIG) of harbouring and facilitating the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The first statement came from Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) two days after the attacks: “[The] Armed Forces of Pakistan have serious concerns on the safe havens and liberty of action available to TTP in Afghanistan.” The statement also referred to the Doha Agreement and called on the AIG to ensure that Afghanistan’s soil is not used for terror attacks against any country.

Another statement followed three days later: “The sanctuaries and liberty of action available to the terrorists of proscribed TTP and other groups…in a neighbouring country and [the] availability of latest weapons to the terrorists were noted [by the Corps Commanders conference] as major reasons impacting [the] security of Pakistan.”

By some accounts, there’s growing anger among the army leadership at these attacks, and the argument that the war must be taken to the enemy, if required, is gaining traction. While AIG denies its territory is used for attacks in Pakistan, the July 24 thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team at the UNSC is very clear about the symbiosis between the TTP and the AIG.
Having liberated territories from the TTP at a high cost, counterterrorism operations need to find the right combination of offensive and defensive actions

My views on proactive ops are a matter of record. Having liberated territories from the TTP at a high cost, counterterrorism operations need to find the right combination of offensive and defensive actions. This has become more urgent following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, which now provides friendly space to the TTP. Anger among the army leadership is a good thing if it results in the resolve to tackle the problem in a sustained manner, but bad if it results in heady retaliatory action.

Let’s get to some points.

One, counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations are not easy even for the best-trained and equipped militaries. Most militaries have fared badly in COIN ops and only relatively better in CT ops. There’s a reason. Terrorist groups rarely offer a clearly-identifiable and targetable target. Unlike conventional war, where intelligence can provide information on fixed (even mobile) enemy targets, terror groups don’t offer such concentrations for neutralising operations.

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Two, while losing territory to such groups is a bad development — we went through that phase — paradoxically, it is easier to plan a cleansing operation in such territories: terrorist groups can decide either to stay and give battle to a superior force or give short battles and withdraw. If they don’t leave the area, they can be boxed in and neutralised through ground and aerial firepower and, where required, small arms to small arms engagements.

Three, once they disperse, it becomes very difficult to use the hammer against them. Four, when they withdraw to a foreign territory where they find sanctuaries and freedom of movement, neutralising them becomes even more problematic.

Five, porous borders and help from local elements within their country — ideologically and otherwise aligned people that stay below the radar — mean they can travel largely unhindered from sanctuary to transit stops to areas of operations.

Six, the corollary: you can’t strike them unless you can find them. They will do everything not to be found. This is the dialectic between intelligence and counterintelligence operations. One intelligence craft pitted against another. In other words, effective CT ops are entirely about precise and accurate intelligence work that defeats the groups’ counterintelligence. The use of force, i.e., strike platforms and their choice, are important but secondary.

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If it’s still unclear, let me reiterate: action against elusive targets is extremely difficult even on home ground; to locate, operate and neutralise such targets on foreign soil requires a very high level of human and technical intelligence both for detecting and neutralising them. Additionally, it runs the risk, especially if an op goes south, of a diplomatic fallout and more such retaliatory attacks.
The essential point is to understand the complexity of the task, to decide what ops are worth the risk on foreign soil, or whether to neutralise them at the point of origin

But nor is inaction an option. The essential point is to understand the complexity of the task, to decide what ops are worth the risk on foreign soil, whether it is better to develop the intel on foreign soil and wait to strike when the targets reach home ground or whether to neutralise them at the point of origin. All of this and much else will be decided by the planners depending on a number of factors and variables. The decisions will also often differ on a case-to-case basis.

The most problematic is leadership decapitation. The leadership of terror groups operating from foreign soil will stay dispersed in that country. Proactive ops are, for the most part, about taking out the leaders. Does it work?

The jury is still out on this. Scholars like Jenna Jordan believe that neutralising high-value targets is not a panacea. She also examines when decapitation works and when it does not. Other experts have noted that the effectiveness would depend on the organisational structure. There are also second- and third-order consequences of leadership decapitation.
The problem of presence and remaining concealed from external surveillance is the band that intelligence agencies have to target

That said, documents retrieved from Bin Laden’s compound and Nelly Lahoud’s book based on those show that neutralising leadership does create problems. And not just first-tier leaders but also operational commanders and planners. However, and this however is important, a decision to decapitate leadership must understand two things: one-off strikes don’t cut it. It has to be a sustained campaign that collects heads consistently because it’s the cumulative impact that begins to degrade the leadership and also manages, to a large extent, to disrupt operations; two, use of force is just one option and must be complemented by other non-kinetic strategies.

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Leaders of terrorist groups also face the problem of a trade-off. Retaining internal efficiency — keeping the organisation up and running — requires presence. Presence runs the risk of exposure. The problem of presence and remaining concealed from external surveillance is the band that intelligence agencies have to target.

In the case of the TTP, any comprehensive CT policy has to check certain boxes. One, the imperative of developing high levels of intelligence, humint and technical. Two, the ability to track, identify, surveil and ultimately take out the leaders should mean not only top-tier leaders but also second-, and possibly third-tier planners and supervisors. Three, the campaign must be sustained and build pressure for a cumulative effect. Four, the benefit of any such operation must be weighed against the cost, especially if such an op is to be carried out inside Afghanistan. Five, it should be clearly signalled to the AIG that Pakistan will continue to work for bilateral interests, but the TTP is a terrorism problem that has to be dealt with. Six, populations in Pakistan’s tribal districts must be coopted and empowered to deal with local sympathisers and those who manage to infiltrate.

Seven, friendly governments must be approached and integrated into such a policy — these would include Iran and Gulf States like Qatar and the UAE, China and the United States. Force has to be wedded to diplomacy.

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Finally, a word about weapons. The use of artillery and fighter jets against terror groups, especially when they are not concentrated, is a bad option. Similarly, special forces ops deep inside foreign territory are very risky. Combat drones and loitering and direct attack munitions are the best options, as are assassinations in the more traditional manner.

Point two about weapons. Lots of recent reports have talked about these groups using very sophisticated weapons. Yes and no. They are using infantry weapons. The difference is that they have picked up better sniper rifles, sighting systems and night-vision devices left behind by the withdrawing US-NATO forces. Google red-dot sights, Eotech, Dual Beam Aiming Laser (which allows for IR and laser illuminator), scopes, and you will find that the Pakistani market also offers them. They make distance sniping more effective, for sure, but these weapons are not, or should not be the deciding factor.

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