Fighting Shadows: Post-war on terror Pakistan - Author Samrez Salik
The aftermath of the September 2001 attacks in the United States made much of the Muslim world vulnerable to the reaction of the vengeful superpower, and Pakistan’s situation was more awkward than most. Having almost unilaterally supported the Taliban emirate that was swept aside in the aftermath, Pakistan was nonetheless loath to countenance the heavy Indian influence that has dominated post-Taliban Kabul’s security organs and lent qualified, fluctuating support to both the United States in their war against Usama bin-Ladin’s network and the Taliban in their war against Kabul. This both brought it under American pressure and put it in the crosshairs of bin-Ladin’s sympathizers, who were partly ensconced in its autonomous northwestern region. Attacks in urban Pakistan and the 2004 military campaign in this region set in motion a long, bloody war from which the country has only begun to recover. These events are described in a recent book by a field commander in this war, Major-General Samrez Salik, who now chairs Pakistan’s National Defence University.
Well-wishers can hold their breath and appreciate that Pakistan appears to be recovering from the brutal war that dominated the decade after 2004. In contrast to the more cohesive Afghan Taliban, whose campaign has more or less been a typical insurgency, the separate coalition of regional militias called the Pakistan “Taliban” came to increasingly rely on pointed violence against civilians, often on sectarian bases; following its 2014 defeat in North Waziristan, the Pakistani Taliban alliance collapsed and many of its veterans would join the Daaish enclave on the Afghan border. To date, Pakistan’s counterinsurgency seems to have been more effective than most, as Salik loses no opportunity to point out. It is therefore unfortunate that his book is not simply self-congratulatory – as is common in literature of this genre – but politicized to an extent that belies even its own purposes.
The crux of the matter is that since the late 2000s, Pakistan’s increasingly obvious balancing act between the United States and Afghan insurgency, coupled with its infamous mixture of intrusive military and Islamist politics, combined to make it an easy scapegoat for much of the Afghan war’s failure, both in Kabul, Washington, and other capitals as well as among liberal Pakistani dissidents. In the past decade, the Afghan Taliban were often portrayed not simply as Islamabad’s collaborators but cradle-to-grave proxies, spawned in broadly vilified madrasas as a uniquely extreme, uniquely malignant, and uniquely foreign-backed product of an exclusively malignant and much-caricatured Pakistani “strategic depth”: the far greater foreign sponsorship of other Afghan factions, many themselves former Pakistani beneficiaries in the 1980s, was outright ignored. This logic was not only self-serving on the part of Pakistan’s critics, but questionable owing as it did to the “war on terror” logic that perceived militancy solely as a product of ideological extremism, not political circumstance. Unfortunately for his readers, Salik does not challenge the “war on terror” logic, but simply adjusts it in such a way as to salvage Pakistan’s image as not the malignant centrepiece of radical Islam, but rather its innocent and agency-free victim.
This is most obvious in his treatment of the pre-2001 Afghan war, which rests exclusively on broad brushes – such as the laughable claim that the neglected Afghan mujahideen turned into terrorists – or factual errors. Abdullah Azzam, for instance, did not co-found Usama bin-Ladin’s Qaida organization but was a direct competitor; Qaida did not merge into the Taliban or become its “veritable arm” – quite the contrary; and the Taliban emir Umar Mujahid did not cement family ties to bin-Ladin. These are rumours that were replete in the early 2000s, but there has been enormous research to contradict them. What is even more surprising is that this champion of Pakistan’s reputation reprints some of the same fallacies used by Pakistan’s critics: it is true that Pakistan overwhelmingly backed the Afghan factional leader Gulbadin Hikmatyar before 1992, but contrary to much reportage – that Salik, who should know better as a serving officer, repeats – this support dried off rapidly after Hikmatyar rejected the Pakistani-brokered Peshawar Accord. That Salik relies so heavily on unreliable information reflects an overreliance on second-hand material published immediately after 2001, when rumours and misinformation was still rife.
Nonetheless Afghanistan is not the main topic of the book, and what is more pertinent here is the subsequent conflict in Pakistan. On occasion Salik’s work is interesting simply for what it reveals about the Pakistani military’s calculations: he repeats the view popular in Pakistan that the United States saw 2001 as an opportunity for its “nefarious designs to of defanging the only Muslim nuclear-powered country”, a view expounded in more detail in Hasan Sadiq’s revealingly titled The End of the Great Game: Was Pakistan the Real US Target? There is some interesting self-reflection, though Salik’s attempts to present Pakistan as an exclusively innocent and maligned actor do his readers no favours. It is for instance true, as he notes, that military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s controversial alliance with the United States was partly aimed at forestalling an Indian-prodded diplomatic isolation towards Pakistan – yet the obvious link between this decision and the subsequent events is never made explicit, nor the fact that Musharraf’s effort ultimately failed in spite of some short-term reprieve as the United States did favour India over Pakistan by the point of his ouster from power.
Salik’s book is at its best and most useful when describing the subsequent operations in the northwest. As he points out, early army campaigns were decidedly stop-start and largely bungled, alternating between abandoned peace agreements and heavy-handed assaults disproportionate to their intended aims. Not till the late 2000s – incidentally when Salik took over an artillery brigade at the Waziristan frontline – did Pakistan hammer out a coherent strategy. His description of events in this period is both vivid and well thought out, easily the book’s best section. Even as he hails this development, however, Salik points out that “the terrorists were still not only alive but retained the ability to strike back and even re-grow.”
Why and how? We are not informed, because to explain this would require a fuller and more nuanced explanation of political dynamics than the major-general is unable or unwilling to give. The insurgents may well, as he describes them, be terrorists – as noted above, their campaigns were increasingly targeted at civilians often with a murderous sectarianism – but that is hardly the full story. The links that certain elements of what was a very multifaceted insurgency, notably Muhammad Nazir from South Waziristan, had with the army itself are left nearly ignored. Also ignored are the effects of American airstrikes that did periodically eliminate leading insurgent commanders – such as Mahsud commanders Ubaidullah Baitullah, Jamshaid Hakeemullah, and Qari Waliur-Rahman – but wrought havoc in the borderlands, often with tacit approval by the state. If nothing else, such an analysis of the insurgency could have added analytical value to the counterinsurgency’s story: for example, the successful 2014 campaign was directly preceded by a split in the insurgency when the Mahsud commander Khalid Sajna broke away over a leadership dispute.
None of this is explored, because the book’s apparent aim is to lionize the Pakistani army in a dichotomy that requires a blanket description of its opponents as homogenous terrorists, both loathed by yet able to recuperate among the borderland Pashtuns. This is perhaps in part brought on by the military regime’s own myriad negotiation attempts in the mid-2000s, whose failure hardened the army’s views dramatically and demanded an official hawkishness towards an insurgency that, as has been well-documented, many soldiers had been hitherto reluctant to fight. When it did come to the fighting, there can be no denying that the army fought hard. In describing an army of “lions led by lions”, Salik points out the high ratio of senior officers slain in the battlefield, and rightly echoes the high number of Pakistani lives lost since 2001.
Yet in the same breath the “war on terrorism” that exacerbated, if not precipitated, these events is left intact. In what is effectively a public-relations section enumerating the various reconstruction and reintegration efforts in the northwest, Salik tellingly hails the army for having rescued a less-than-grateful West from terrorists that were poised to strike it. This may have been true of certain foreign fighters in the region; to ascribe it to the insurgency at large is a stretch. And here lies the question that should have been asked back in Musharraf’s regime, when the equivalents of divisions were sent on stop-start missions into the borderlands to hunt down what were at most a few hundred foreigners. To ask this question would require some introspection along lines that Salik is clearly unwilling to ponder: it is one thing to criticize the United States for ingratitude and subterfuge, quite another to question the more tempting prospect of becoming its counterterrorism partner.
“Pakistan,” Salik begins a final chapter unambiguously entitled “Resilient Pakistan”, “Thy name is resilience.” That Pakistan has shown resilience and toughness is both evident and often underappreciated, even if some of its problems were self-exacerbated. And, whatever other criticisms may be made, the fact that the army managed to defeat an insurgency, whose worst elements preceded the sort of brutality that Daaish was to practice elsewhere, is cause for celebration. That story deserves better than a morale-boosting morality tale that only shows tantalizing glimpses of its author’s analytical potential.