“When planning a military expedition into Pashtun tribal areas, the first thing you must plan is your retreat. All expeditions into this area sooner or later end in retreat under fire.”
So wrote British general, Andrew Skeen, in the early 1900s in his guide to military operations in the Pashtun tribal belt.
While NATO and the US are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, so is the Pakistani army in the tribal lands of North and South Waziristan along the Afghan border. Taking the fight to the Pakistani Taliban is of critical importance to NATO. It's about the only means of denying the Afghan Talibs safe sanctuary to muster their forces and support operations in Afghanistan. So, how is the Pakistani army making out? According to the New York Times, about as well as one might expect:
The only consistent reports of offensive action by the Pakistani Army involve the use of helicopter gunships and artillery to attack militant compounds. Aerial assaults, when carried out without support from “boots on the ground,” serve but one purpose: they help sustain the illusion that the Pakistani government is taking effective action.
The truth is that the soldiers have lost the will to fight. Reports in the Indian press, based on information from the very competent Indian intelligence agencies, describe a Pakistani Army in disarray in the tribal areas. Troops are deserting and often refusing to fight their “Muslim brothers.”
Nothing illustrated this apathy more clearly than the capture of hundreds of troops in August by the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud with nary a shot fired in resistance."
So, what are the options? Throw more money at Islamabad? If money would do the trick it would have worked by now. Stop throwing money at Islamabad? No one's sure how that would turn out. Invade Pakistan? Please, we can't handle the job in Afghanistan. We're already grossly understrength. Where would we find the tens of thousands of soldiers that would be needed to repeat the Victorian British blunders in the Khyber?
That's what we're up against, seemingly insoluble challenges. It's not that the Taliban are better fighters than our troops, they're not. Our soldiers are better, they've got vastly better weapons and support technologies, they have better communications and total air superiority, better mobility. So why can't we just mop the floor with these backward warriors?
The Taliban have a number of advantages we've not been able to neutralize. One of them is in recruiting. Afghanistan is dirt poor but the insurgents have access to narco-bucks from the country's booming opium trade. This allows them to "hire" recruits. However there's another way they get support and that draws on their fiercely-held tribal code of Pashtunwali, particularly Mla Tarr. This requires all members of a man's family capable of carrying a gun to rise up when he's attacked. It's sort of a "kill one, get three free" plan.
The insurgents also have the "home turf" advantage. They have nowhere else to go, nothing else to fight for and, in fact, they're fighting for everything they have, their homeland. For the Pashtun, whether it's the half in Pakistan or the half in Afghanistan, the Taliban are the home team. Even Karzai, the country's president and himself a Pashtun, knows it.
We have the tactical advantage in firepower and technology - useful for fighting a tactical battle. The insurgents have the strategic advantage of time, as much time as it takes to keep wearing us down until we get tired and frustrated enough to leave. Put simply, their strategic advantage trumps our tactical advantage in the long run.
So General Skeen knew a century ago what our leaders have yet to understand. We can kill these people until we can't find any more bullets and then we leave. If the powerful Pakistani army can't control the Pashtun of Waziristan, all we're doing in Afghanistan is blowing smoke.
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