In Waiting To Strike Taliban, Pakistan Committed Strategic Blunder

For over six weeks, the Pakistan military has been locked in armed struggle against the Taliban and their local affiliates in the North West of Pakistan. The decision to use force was prompted by territorial advances made by the Taliban, advances that went beyond what was granted to them in "peace" deals made between them and the Pakistani leadership. When the Taliban overstepped their bounds, both literally and metaphorically, it led to greater public support for aggressive action, and gave the civilian leadership badly needed political cover to order the latest military operation against the militants.

The operation has two primary aims. First, it is aimed at turning back gains made by the Taliban in the "settled" areas of Pakistan, such as the Malakand division. Second, it is meant to destabilize and eradicate the Taliban threat at large by striking at its infrastructure and its leadership in the Waziristan agencies, which has effectively become the Taliban's base of operations in Pakistan. Put differently, the Pakistani military is first striking at those areas which have been peripheral for the Taliban and central to the state, and then at those areas which constitute the territorial heart of the Taliban movement, closer to the Afghan border in FATA.

The military operation, while necessary to turn back the Taliban, has not been costless. It has led to over two million people being displaced from their homes, people who have now become refugees in their own land. Those who chose to stay behind - and I use the word "chose" very loosely - are themselves in terrible shape, described by the International Committee of the Red Cross as being "short of everything."

In addition to the humanitarian concerns, such displacement and suffering raises the specter of a strategic setback too: throughout military history, aggrieved local populations can and have been a powerful source of men and material in guerrilla campaigns all over the world. Mao's famous line on what it takes to defeat insurgents - drain the sea of the local population so as to target the guerrillas, or the metaphorical fish - could, in effect, be turned on its head by the military action; Pakistan may well be pumping the sea with more water instead of draining it.

It is difficult to know whether this operation will succeed, for a number of reasons. First, the metrics of success, such as the removal of the Taliban as a viable politico-military movement from Pakistani soil, are inherently medium- and long-term measures.

Second, even within the short-term, it is hard to know exactly what is going on in the areas in question - the only source of information, given the fact that journalists have regularly been barred from visiting the areas where the fighting is taking place, is the Pakistani military itself. Grading oneself is an exercise fraught with danger at the best of times, but when it concerns an institution that has historically been opaque in its dealings with elements both within and without the Pakistani state, it should give further pause to anyone making definitive judgments on the operation.

Third, the public support that is so crucial to the military fighting this war could evaporate just as quickly as it manifested itself, especially if the plight of the refugees is not properly attended to and the Taliban escalate a reprisal campaign of violence and bombings aimed at Pakistani civilians.

If the campaign against the Taliban does fail, however, the Pakistani establishment would have no one to blame but itself. For many months, a vocal minority - primarily composed of Pakistani liberals - warned the state to not continually grant territorial and policy concessions to the Taliban. The reasoning for this was simple: the Taliban were unlikely to be satisfied if their initial demands were met. Unlike armed insurrections like those in northern Sri Lanka or in East Timor, the Taliban would in all likelihood push on for more once they were granted what they first asked for.

Given that fact, the Pakistani leadership essentially faced a choice: turn back the Taliban early in the game, when they were boxed in a smaller tract of land and enjoyed political control in fewer areas of Pakistan, or grant concessions, and hope that the Taliban would be satisfied. The problem with adopting the latter approach was that it made the job of turning them back at some later time significantly harder, since it is much easier to defend territory than to overturn it.

By waiting until the Taliban were already entrenched in the Swat and Buner districts of the Malakand division to take action, this is exactly what has happened. Indeed, the refugee crisis can be traced to the decision to wait-and-see, because it necessarily entailed a greater use of force than would have been the case had the leadership nipped the problem in the bud. Pakistan's leadership essentially made its job more difficult than it needed to be.
In their defense, however, the Pakistani military seems to have learned the lessons from both its prior engagements with the Taliban, which usually resulting in little or no gain at appreciable cost, as well as from its American allies in Iraq and their emphasis on "clear, hold and build" tactics in fighting a guerilla war. In addition, the military seems to have secured an unlikely partner in the local populations of a number of villages which the Taliban have overrun; there have been reports of villagers taking matters into their own hands and killing Taliban members in their midst.

Moreover, the Taliban seem to be getting more desperate - they recently assassinated Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, a cleric who was opposed to the Taliban and supported military action against them. His killing betrayed the Taliban's self-perceptions of decreasing popularity, and a need to strike at important opinion-makers. In short, there are small but encouraging signs that the systemic factors that have underpinned Taliban success in the last three years - a countenancing public, a pliant leadership, a supine military, and support from local populations - are being dismantled, often due to the Taliban themselves.

While these trends are all well and good, it does not take away from the fact that the Pakistani establishment committed a strategic blunder by not tackling the Taliban before they morphed into a significant threat. It is undoubtedly true that military action would have been more unpalatable to the public if had been undertaken before the Taliban showed their true colors to the average Pakistani. However, such a position ignores the fact that the intensity and level of military action required earlier would have paled in comparison to the full-blown offensive now underway. This does not mean, however, that the Pakistani military is destined to lose the war against the Taliban, far from it. But it does mean that a decisive victory, if it is to be achieved, would be done so at considerably higher cost, in terms of casualties, money, and the displacement of innocent civilians.

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