Pakistan has recently announced several notable arrests of high-level Afghan Taliban leaders. The Middle East Institute and the Carnegie Endowment hosted Haider Mullick, a fellow at the Joint Special Operations University and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, for a discussion of the shifts, successes, and failures of Pakistan’s efforts to remove insurgents from its own territory. Mullick also discussed findings from his recent trip to Pakistan and suggested ways to improve the U.S.-Pakistan security partnership. Mullick was joined by the Middle East Institute’s Wendy Chamberlain, the Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis, and Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis.

Countering and Fomenting Insurgencies

In his monograph, Pakistan's Security Paradox: Countering and Fomenting Insurgencies, Mullick observed what he described as a “duplicitous approach” in Pakistan’s insurgency policy:

  • On the one hand, Pakistan has engaged in an effort to counter insurgency (COIN) within its own borders, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
  • On the other hand, Pakistan has been fomenting insurgency (FOIN) across the border in Afghanistan.
  • Mullick argued that this policy needs to be considered as part of a coherent Pakistani national security strategy to protect its territorial, economic, and geopolitical interests.

Mullick argued that Pakistan’s paradoxical COIN/FOIN strategy has undergone several evolutions. Two of these stages hold particular significance for U.S. interests in the region:

  • 2001–2008: Pakistan pursued counterinsurgency campaigns against the Pakistan Taliban, Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and separatists in Balochistan. However, Pakistan decided to “selectively target,” and eventually abet, Afghan Taliban, many of whom fled to FATA after the American invasion
  • 2009: The Taliban violated a peace deal struck by the government in the Swat Valley and brought their forces within 60 miles of Islamabad. Deciding to regain control over the Valley, Pakistan Army and Special Forces pursued a “hybrid COIN strategy.”

Pakistan’s unique brand of counterinsurgency centers on several key objectives:

  • Rebuilding army morale, which had dropped as a result of the government’s previously erratic  approach to COIN.
  • Reconstructing intelligence networks lost prior to 2009.
  • Clearing and interdicting insurgents.
  • Displacing and resettling populations in former insurgent strongholds.

At the same time, Pakistan withdrew support from what it characterized as “out of control” insurgent groups, and redirected resources toward counterinsurgency and nuclear weapons development.

A “Paradigm Shift” or a Modification?

Curtis and Tellis questioned whether Pakistan’s shift in emphasis from FOIN to COIN represented a real “paradigm shift” or whether it was merely a transient refinement. Curtis, in particular, objected to the amoral symmetry that Mullick perceives exists between COIN and FOIN in Pakistan’s national security calculus. Pakistan, Tellis further noted, continues to target militant groups selectively, and several prominent networks remain active in Pakistan. These include the Haqqani network based in northern Waziristan, the Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and the Afghan Taliban. Tellis also emphasized that Pakistan has fomented terrorism in addition to insurgencies and that its efforts with regard to the former have historically been far more effective. To date, there appears to be little change with respect to Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India..   

Mullick argued that there has been a “visible, tangible shift” in Pakistan’s approach at least with respect to insurgent groups. “This is a different kind of Pakistan,” he stated, one which had experienced a clear need for a change in policy when Taliban fighters were found within 60 miles of the capital.

Thinking Long-term

Mullick urged U.S. policy makers to take a longer-term and less “transactional” approach to Pakistan. Foreign aid, he said, must be “more than visible; it has to be transparent.” Such transparency stands the best chance at countering conspiracy theories prevalent in Pakistan’s media.

Mullick also urged Pakistan watchers in the West to rethink their views of insurgent groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. These groups “are smart,” Mullick warned, and should not be underestimated. Several incidents over the past decade, including an increase in cross-border attacks since 2003, “demonstrates a desire to evolve…to embrace regional and possibly international goals.”