Forgotten lessons of history

On Saturday last, the army launched an operation, code-named Rah-i-Nijat against Mehsud strongholds in South Waziristan. “Both air and ground troops are taking part”, Major General Athar Abbas, Chief of the Inter-Services Public Relation told the journalists. Earlier Army Chief General Kayani briefed the political leadership on the “imperative” of the operation against the Mehsuds. The die is cast. An invisible Rubicon crossed.

With this operation Pakistan is launched on the path to a protracted, inconclusive war in the mountains of Waziristan. The decision to commit our forces to such a war is, in my view, a tragic error. Waziristan may not be Vietnam but it has its own river of history that General Kayani is now stepping into.

Once again, there is a dry wind blowing throughout Waziristan and parched grasses wait the spark. Now that the match is lit, the blaze may spread like wildfire throughout the tribal area. Talking about Waziristan, a Mehsud tribesman told a missionary doctor at Bannu: “When God created the world there were a lot of stones and rocks and other lumber left over which were all dumped down on this frontier”.

In the early 1900s, a crusty British general, Andrew Skeen, wrote a guide to military operation in Waziristan. His first piece of advice: “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”.

The British decision to send troops into the Khaisora valley in November 1936 which transformed Ipi’s agitation into a full scale uprising almost over night and set Waziristan on fire which lasted until after 1947. The British failed to capture Ipi and the campaign had to be called off. The judgment displayed by the British and the poor intelligence upon which they based their decisions were chiefly to blame for the disasters that followed. This was the last major rebellion in Waziristan which stemmed from an abrupt change of policy.

The tribesmen’s unrivalled fighting record, their ability to intervene in Afghan affairs and to involve Afghans in their own affairs, were factors ignored by the British that made Waziristan different from other Frontier areas. This disastrous attempt to “pacify” Waziristan was the last of several major incursions into tribal territory during the hundred years of Britain’s presence in Northwest India. On each occasion the tribes and the mountains won a strategic victory, despite local tactical reverses, and the bulk of the Indian troops were forced to withdraw back into the plains of the Indus valley. The British soon learned that you can annex land but not people.

When the British left, Pakistan had reason to be glad that it had inherited a secure North West Frontier. In September 1947, Mr. Jinnah took a bold decision to reverse the “pacification” policy, withdrew regular troops from Waziristan and entered into new agreements with the tribes. Cunningham, the new governor of NWFP, appointed by Mr Jinnah was a Frontier expert. His disillusion with the “pacification” policy was complete. “I think that we must now face a complete change of policy. Razmak has been occupied by regular troops for nearly 25 years. Wana for a few years less. The occupation of Waziristan has been a failure. It has not achieved peace or any appreciable economic development. It ties up an unreasonably large number of troops, and for the last 10 years there have been frequent major and minor offenses against the troops.” The change in policy produced dramatic results and paid rich dividends.

All this has now changed. Mr Jinnah’s Waziristan policy which had stood the test of time has been reversed. Our troops are back in Waziristan. Some time back, the commander of the US led troops in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Borno, let the cat out of the bag when he said that US and Pakistani forces were working together like “hammer and anvil” to trap Osama and Al Qaeda forces along the border”.

Those who know the Frontier are deeply concerned. The Pakistan government is playing with fire. By reversing Mr Jinnah’s Waziristan policy, at the behest of Americans, it has alienated powerful tribes in Waziristan and unsettled our western border which had remained peaceful for 62 years since the birth of Pakistan.

The nation is beginning to see the rapidly unfurling consequences of General Musharraf’s fateful decision to join the “coalition of the coerced”. America’s dreaded war on terror has indisputably arrived on Pakistan’s soil. Pakistan is slipping into anarchy and stands on the brink of civil war. A perfect storm is looming on the horizon.

We have stumbled into a war that we cannot fight and win for the simple reason that we don’t seem to realize what guerrilla war is like. We are sending conventional troops to do an unconventional job. I can foresee a perilous voyage. The war in Waziristan cannot be won because it is perceived as the white man’s war. It could be won only if perceived by the powerful tribes as Pakistan’s own war. That, unfortunately, is not how they perceive this war. The conflict will, no doubt, be long and protracted. We will suffer more because not even a great power can beat guerrillas. The enemy cannot be seen: he is indigenous to the country. My fear is that we will get bogged down.

War against our own people is too terrible a thing to resort to. Many questions spring to mind. Was the decision to go to war determined by the absence of other viable options? Why was it not debated in parliament? Why deploy military means in pursuit of an indeterminate and primarily political end? Was there a geopolitical imperative to resort to war in Waziristan? Aren’t we Pakistanising the American war on our soil?

We must also recognize the limitations of modern, high technology, military equipment in confronting highly motivated guerrilla movement in a treacherous terrain. We must also recognize that the consequences of large-scale military operations – against our own people – particularly in this age of highly sophisticated and destructive weapons – are inherently difficult to predict and control. Therefore, they must be avoided, excepting only when our nation’s security is clearly and directly threatened. These are the lessons of history. Pray God we learn them. But as George Bernard Shaw said: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

By Roedad Khan

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