One of the major questions facing Pakistan, and intriguing the world, is whether it will be able to overcome the Al-Qaeda-led insurgency soon. The question merits a cursory look at the history of insurgencies of the last half century or so before one ventures an answer to this.
It took Sri Lanka 27 years to defeat Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Indian Army has been engaged in internal counter-insurgency operations since the 1950s, currently battling about a dozen insurgencies, including those in areas such Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, and Operation “Sadhbhavana” in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Philippines, spread over about 7,100 islands and inhabited by more than one hundred tribal groups which speak seventy different languages, continues to reel under the Moro Muslim Insurgency in the south.
In fact, the Philippines has a history of insurgencies that began with the “Huk” rebellion, which took off in the late 1940s and faded in the 1950s, and later some of its elements merged into the communist rebellion.
Vietnamese nationalist insurgents fought the United States for over a decade (1964-75). The Americans called it an insurgency, whereas the Vietnamese took pride in this war to liberate their homeland from foreign occupation. A superior outside force had to bite the dust and leave just because it could no longer justify the fighting to its citizens back home.
The Soviet Russians failed to hold on to Afghanistan after invading and occupying it in 1979. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the insurgent Mujahedeen and raising pro-Moscow cadres in Kabul, the Soviets finally gave in to the Mujahideen guerrillas (backed by the US and other major players) and pulled out in February 1989, humiliated.
Similarly, the French fought Islamic insurgents for eight years in Algeria (1954-62) to retain control. But the insurgents kept the pressure up, forcing the 400,000 troops to give up and leave Algeria in 1962.
Malayan nationalist insurgents fought the British relentlessly between 1948 and 60. Despite the British forces’ superiority, Britain had to shift the strategy from military to political negotiations, and began in 1952 co-opting Malayans into the system of governance, thereby giving the locals a sense of participation and eventual transfer of power before leaving.
As far the latest insurgencies – Iraq and Afghanistan – the US has yet to extricate itself from a complex situation. The timeline of exit from Iraq seems to be 2012 (albeit with a heavy military US presence in the region).
No timeline has yet been set for exiting Afghanistan. The insurgency there, largely by the offshoot of the Mujahideen who had been supported to the hilt by the United States and its allies in the 1980s, is raging. Coalition casualties are mounting by the day and most of the 41 countries involved in the counter-insurgency are getting restless because of little prospects of success – at least for the time being.
The insurgency that Pakistan faces in Waziristan, and Swat/Malakand, is also a direct consequence of the questionable war being fought against Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban on the other side of the Durand Line. It is a multitude of factors that allowed non-state actors to mount a rebellion on the state; ideological inspiration, cross-border ethnic bondages, conservative social milieu, socio-economic deprivations and extremely poor governance structures that helped religious insurgents take control of certain areas and also challenge the army.
Lack of respect for rule of law and a tedious and expensive justice system, combined with political patronage of criminal gangs, have created conditions that are conducive to ideologically-driven insurgents.
In fact, most national insurgencies — the Huk rebellion or the Moro Muslim insurgency in the Philippines, the Biafra revolt in Nigeria, or the upheaval in India’s northeast – are rooted in dissatisfaction and alienation. They used socio-economic injustices – just as the Taliban have been in Afghanistan and some Pakistani areas – to justify their war against the government.
In India, for instance, the north-eastern states seek greater participation in self-governance, or increased regional autonomy.
The Huk rebellion sprung from farmers’ discontent because of the inherent injustice and oppression in the tenant/landlord system.
The Taliban in FATA, and Swat, in particular, employed the same tool. They drove hundreds of local Maliks, Khans and well-off people from their homes and lands and told the locals to take charge of them. They argued that these lands once belonged to the elders of these poor people, and had been appropriated by the influentials against petty unpaid small loans and liabilities.
Essentially, the insurgents take advantage of existing socio-economic inadequacies and try to fill the gaps created by poor governance and absence of across-the-board rule of law.
The insurgencies against the US in Vietnam, the French in Algeria and the British in Malaya, were essentially driven by a national desire to oust foreign invaders. The same is true of the anti-Russian Mujahideen, though it was raised on the slogan of f Islamic jihad.
Behind the current insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is the Al-Qaeda ideology that sprouted from the Afghan jihad and transcends borders. It becomes even more complex and formidable for Pakistan because of the “past baggage.”
Certain factors, however, suggest that, if handled with wisdom and clarity of purpose, the current insurgency can be gradually put down. Firstly, the “past baggage” favours the state of Pakistan. Most of the groups and people that were used as foreign policy instruments should be amenable to perusal for renouncing violence.
Secondly, the insurgents are not facing an alien enemy. They largely comprise local tribesmen and dissidents from Punjab. So, except for their dislike of Pakistan’s cooperation with the US, they have little to justify their attacks on the Pakistani government agencies.
Thirdly, the return of many IDPs demonstrates that common people are ready to stand by the government in its fight against militants if people’s perception on the invisible mullah-military alliance can be removed through demonstrable and tangible actions against those challenging the state, there is no way the space on the militants will shrink.
Fourthly, if the civilian leadership and the bureaucracy pick up courage and act transparently, there is no reason why a few thousand misguided insurgents can’t be dealt with. All we need is determination, uprightness and a clear vision.