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Thinking out loud about what a “Taliban victory” in Pakistan looks like

Thinking out loud about what a “Taliban victory” in Pakistan looks like

I’m using this post mostly to think out loud about something I have been thinking about for a few months, so please bear with me if some of it is dumb. Mostly I’m trying to think through the tension between two narratives that seem reflexively acceptable:

  1. The TTP is a loose coalition of fighters with varying degrees of attachment to the central organization taking on a modern, bureaucratic state with a half-million man army and literature festivals (the Anatol Lieven argument).
  2. Despite the isolated and occasional success, the Pakistani state has shown little willingness and ability to wage this war successfully.

The first leads to a background-level sanguinity which assures that, in the end, when push comes to shove, the “Taliban can’t win”. The second wonders how on earth they could lose. So I’m trying to think through this.

Please let me emphasize at the outset that I’m not saying Pakistan is a “failed state” (I don’t know what that term means) or everything’s over and we’re all going to die. All I’m saying is that there’s a lot of things I could never have even contemplated that not only happened but have become regular occurrences in Pakistan in the last decade (especially the last five years). As such, maybe we/I should think fewer things are “unthinkable”. I mean, is a “Taliban victory” really unthinkable anymore?

Suppose we agree that said victory is not unthinkable: shouldn’t we at least have some sort of baseline, admittedly and assuredly imperfect, of what that victory looks like? Maybe they’ve already won? Maybe they can never win? Maybe something in between? We can only know if we have some measuring stick of victory and defeat.

Here are a couple of concrete ways to set up such a baseline.

1. Comparison with other civil wars across time and space

In terms of intensity, this war has had three distinct phases. The first was 2002-2006, the “feeling out” period (in retrospect). During this period neither the state nor the insurgent pursued an especially coercive strategy (relatively, that is). Terrorism in major urban centers was rare but, even from early on, displayed a fairly advanced level of sophistication when carried out (Mush’s assassination attempts). The state too was ill-prepared to use its military, owing to (a) a generation’s complete lack of familiarity with modern counterinsurgency (not that the previous generation’s record was particularly good in this respect), and (b) the widely pervasive belief that it could be business as usual (re: buying local tribes off and “peace deals”). Violence was not a major part of the national narrative for the most part.

Then came the 2007-09 period, a serious escalation of violence, probably catalyzed by a mixture of Lal Masjid (summer 07) and the prospect of a US-brokered Mush/BB rapprochement. And as far as capabilities go, the national-alliance-ification of the Taliban (spring/summer of 2006) meant a greater reach. So casualties went really high.

Then came 2009-present. The state has gotten (slightly) better but so have the TTP. The result has been a disturbingly violent “truce” where the political status quo stays changes little from month to month but lots of people die to maintain it.

Here’s the bottom line: the country has been in a state of civil war for about a decade, the bulk of which has been extraordinarily violent. Given this fact, I went through the PRIO armed conflict dataset and tried to find conflicts that featured at least ten consecutive years of “intense” conflict (defined as more than 1000 deaths/yr, a standard Pakistan has blown out of the water since 2007).

Obviously these datasets are never perfect but at least we can find a rough benchmark to compare. Those filters reveal 21 such wars since 1945, out of 187 civil wars overall. That is, only about 10% of civil wars combine length and intensity of violence similar to the levels seen in the Pakistan vs TTP war. Here they are:

  1. Burma vs CPB, 1952-1993
  2. Burma vs KNU, 1953-1996
  3. Lebanon vs LAA/LNM, 1962-1980
  4. Laos vs Pathet Lao, 1963-1977
  5. Burma vs SURA/SSNLO/SSA, 1963-1975
  6. Ethiopia vs EPRDF, 1964-1995
  7. Burma vs KIO, 1965-1974
  8. Ethiopia vs EPLF, 1965-1995
  9. Indonesia vs OPM, 1969-1986
  10. Syria vs Muslim Brotherhood, 1970-1986
  11. Zimbabwe/Rhodesia vs PF, 1970-1983
  12. Chad/Congo vs CDR/Libya, 1970-1991
  13. South Africa vs SWAPO, 1970-1992
  14. Iran vs MEK, 1976-1987
  15. Ethiopia vs ELF/EPLF, 1979-1994
  16. Sri Lanka vs LTTE, 1979-2013
  17. Angola/Cuba vs FNLA/UNITA/DR Congo, 1979-1995
  18. Afghanistan/Russia vs mujahideen, 1982-2004
  19. Afghanistan/US/NATO vs UIFSA, 2001-present
  20. Liberia vs LURD/MODEL, 1984-2007
  21. Philippines vs CPP, 1986-1995

Many of these wars, however, were separatist, which tend to have different dynamics than ideological wars (what PRIO codes as being fought over “government” as opposed to “territory”). Can you imagine how different this war would be if we could just give the TTP a patch of land and be done with it? (This is precisely what the likes of Imran Khan have gotten wrong since day one; if only the Taliban were nationalists, everyone’s lives would’ve been much easier). So if we restrict ourselves just to ideological wars (coded by PRIO, that is), we’re left with the following 13:

  1. Burma vs CPB, 1952-1993
  2. Lebanon vs LAA/LNM, 1962-1980
  3. Laos vs Pathet Lao, 1963-1977
  4. Ethiopia vs EPRDF, 1964-1995
  5. Syria vs Muslim Brotherhood, 1970-1986
  6. Zimbabwe/Rhodesia vs PF, 1970-1983
  7. Chad/Congo vs CDR/Libya, 1970-1991
  8. Iran vs MEK, 1976-1987
  9. Angola/Cuba vs FNLA/UNITA/DR Congo, 1979-1995
  10. Afghanistan/Russia vs mujahideen, 1982-2004
  11. Liberia vs LURD/MODEL, 1984-2007
  12. Philippines vs CPP, 1986-1995
  13. Afghanistan/US/NATO vs UIFSA, 2001-present

I don’t know the first thing about any of these civil wars but I’d venture to suggest few of them featured insurgent organizations quite as good at their job as the TTP. There is not a single target they cannot hit, either people or places. How many other organizations can say that? On the other hand, the Pakistani state also seems better equipped (from a capabilities standpoint) to fight a war than many of those states listed. On the other other hand, I don’t know how many of those states prosecuting those wars failed to identify the enemy for so long. So it’s unclear how much past wars can help guide us (also note how many of these civil wars were in the Cold War era). But few of those states have super happy endings, that much we can say, even if the state prevailed.

2. Different ways of “sharing” authority

Many civil wars aren’t “resolved” but instead display a degree of shared authority between states and insurgents. We can think of three dimensions along which authority can be shared:

  1. Geographic spread, i.e. Karachi vs Punjab vs KP
  2. Breadth of issues, i.e. water vs courts vs tax collection
  3. Depth of influence, i.e. controlling leadership vs on-the-ground people

Normally when people talk about the Taliban “winning,” the thing that works against them is that they are an awesome fighting force but a completely unknown governing force. Some rebel groups can become governors but usually those types have centralized leadership and pretty good organizational control/discipline up and down the food chain; I am not sure we can think of the Taliban this way. Already we are seeing some level of fractionalization within the organization (though that, in and of itself, seems to have little effect on their ability to wage violence). This lack of know-how leads people to dismiss the idea of, say, the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan.

However, I am not sure we should be so quick to dismiss such an idea. Even if we concede the Taliban’s aforementioned weaknesses in governing a large country (they could not even manage 40% of Afghanistan), the last  few years have shown there is little geographic limit to TTP violence, and considering violence is their sole mode of influence, number 1 above gets taken off the table. The TTP’s lack of experience/expertise is likely to hurt them on number 2; they will still need to plug into existing structures of governance for a wide variety of things (electricity/power, for example). The same goes for number 3, and probably to a much greater extent: the way the TTP does business, it is much easier to control what the Interior Minister says than what a traders’ union representative says. Nevertheless, they may not need to govern “all the way down” if they are smart about sitting atop of bureaucracies that already exist.

How such a “half victory” would sit with the military is an unknown and important question, perhaps it would sting their sense of Pakistaniat, or perhaps they’d be happy they no longer have to fight an enemy they’d rather not be fighting anyway, all things considered. And would GHQ really protest if, say, in 2017 the TTP enjoyed complete autonomy in the border areas — loosely defined, at this rate Attock will be the border areas soon — and the political-legal system in the rest of the country was revamped to reflect Sharia law and a one-party state? I am honestly not sure of the answer to that question.

The overall purpose of this post is to point out that the time for “the time for…” op-eds and speeches is, in my opinion, in the past. Analysts and observers should at least begin considering what a Taliban victory looks like, functionally speaking.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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