October Issue 2015
Cover Story: War Without End?
On Friday, September 18, 14 terrorists in two separate groups entered Badaber, a Pakistan Air Force camp that has long been used as residential quarters for PAF personnel. The fire-fight and clearing operation lasted for about seven hours. All the terrorists were taken out but not before they had killed 29 people, most of them unarmed PAF personnel offering morning prayers in the mosque.
The camp is not a base, as was mistakenly identified in earlier media reports. It does not house any major equipment or platforms. In fact, for all practical purposes, it was, and relatively speaking still is, a soft target. The objective of the attack was to kill as many PAF personnel as could be managed. The camp lies in an area that is potentially troubled and has seen multiple Taliban attacks in the past.
So, what is a PAF facility doing in such an area? That takes us back to the mid-fifties, 10 years after the end of World War II, with the Cold War hotting up. The United States, like its adversary, the USSR, was looking for allies and proxies. Wars, cold or hot, rely on information and intelligence. The US Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency were looking for radio listening stations in then West Pakistan to monitor Soviet transmissions. Surveys brought them to Badaber, a sleepy village less than seven km south of Peshawar on the Peshawar-Kohat Road.
Permission was granted by then-President Ayub Khan in 1958 and construction began on the site. The facility was given to the Americans on a 10-year lease. The place was to house the 6937th Communications Unit. It was fully commissioned in July 1959. At the height of its operations, the facility accommodated some 1,000 US personnel. It was also the communications centre for the U2 spy planes taking off from Peshawar Air Base. Those flights were largely discontinued when, in May 1960, a Soviet missile took out a U2 piloted by Capt. Gary Powers. Powers was captured by the Soviets.
Khrushchev is reported to have encircled Peshawar on the map and threatened to make a strike. That sent Pakistan into trepidation mode. However, Badaber continued to work as a listening station for some time but the operational output, as also the number of US personnel, thinned until the place was finally decommissioned in July 1969. In February 1970, it was fully handed over to the PAF.
Part of the facility was also used for training Afghan and other foreign fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and, according to some accounts, it was also used as an internment/interrogation centre for Soviet prisoners during that war.
That’s how Badaber, an unknown village, appeared on the world map.
Since 2007, the Peshawar-Kohat Road that runs almost parallel in the east to Khyber Agency’s Bara tehsil, a very troubled and troubling tribal area, Badaber town, further south Mattani and also the Kohat tunnel that goes through the Kotal hills, has seen multiple attacks and suicide bombings. In one such attack in October 2012, a raiding Taliban party killed and beheaded SP (Rural) Peshawar, Khurshid Khan. Just months before that, a suicide bombing killed SP (Rural) Kalam. Earlier, in August 2008, a PAF bus carrying personnel from Badaber camp to the Peshawar army base was attacked.
The patch of the Peshawar-Kohat Road between Mattani and Dara Adamkhel was always tricky. Much before the Taliban appeared on the scene, this area was infamous for highway robberies and kidnappings. Gangs would target vehicles at night and then disappear into the tribal area of Khyber Agency. The police either blocked the road at night for travelling or it arranged for convoys with police/khasadar force escorts. With the Taliban’s arrival, the gangs disappeared but the threat took a completely new dimension.
That said, until the end of 2006 and early 2007, day travel on the road offered no hazards. This writer frequently travelled to Kohat and Dara Adamkhel in the years 2004-06 without encountering any Taliban threat, even as operations had begun by then in the South Waziristan Agency.
Today, despite multiple small and large-scale Frontier Corps and military operations in Khyber Agency, the area remains unsafe, though the situation has relatively improved from the time when Taliban groups had taken control of the Kohat Tunnel, cutting off road travel for a while between Peshawar and Kohat.
Since the beginning of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan and simultaneous operations in the Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency, terrorist groups have been deprived of their bases and remote sanctuaries. Yet, this is not the end of this war because physical dominance is just one end of the strategic triangle in this war.
It’s important to understand this point. Questions have, once again, been raised about the effectiveness of the operations. The general thrust is that if the operations are effective, why and how can terrorist groups still mount attacks. This is a legitimate question for a war-wearied people but, operationally speaking, betrays a lack of understanding of the nature of this conflict.
A good way of understanding the difference between conventional, inter-state war and this conflict is the US war in Iraq. When the US military began its offensive, the Iraqi military folded before the multi-pronged air-ground offensive in a matter of weeks. The aerial campaign took out vital infrastructure and command and control centres, the ground forces defeated the Iraqi army and advanced steadily and captured territory and nodal points until they reached and entered Baghdad, the capital.
This is the essence of military-to-military contest of arms. It is an easy one with defined lines, axes of advance and identification of objectives. An army wins; an army loses. Or, as sometimes happens, the conflict exhausts both sides and ends in a ceasefire with no clear winner and loser.
On May 1, 2003, aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, then-US President, George Bush, delivered the “Mission Accomplished” speech, declaring victory and announcing an end to major combat operations in Iraq. He was right. He was also horribly wrong.
The conventional war was won by the US, for sure. But then came the low-intensity conflict or irregular war, what has also come to be known as “war among the people.” This is a conflict in which armies will be facing “formless opponents” who will not be “located in a single place that can be easily defined for battle” and they will be “of and amongst the people.” Bonaparte faced the same problem during the Peninsular War when he turned on Spain, until then his ally in the occupation of Portugal. He destroyed the administration and yet, after years of stalemate, ultimately lost the war against the people, the guerrillas who haunted his army. In a way, the same thing happened to him during his invasion of Russia. The Russians kept burning villages and retreated deeper and deeper into Russia until Bonaparte’s exhausted half-million-strong army, desperate for supply and rations reached a nearly-deserted Moscow which was almost burnt to the ground by Russian Patriots. With almost zero rations, and the onset of winter, Bonaparte had to retreat from Moscow. The return journey was harrowing with the Cossacks appearing, attacking his columns and disappearing repeatedly. By the time Bonaparte got to Paris, nearly 400,000 of his army had been wasted by the Russian irregular tactics.
The minutiae of irregular war are too many and intricate and one can’t go into those details in this space. But the important point to note is the fact that ‘war’ in such a conflict is not located in a defined place. There is no front and no rear. The enemy is elusive and amorphous. He is among the people. He is one of them. And in Pakistan’s case, part of the society, a part that is decidedly out of joint with the state.
The great Prussian soldier and war theorist, Carl van Clausewitz, talked of the enemy’s centre of gravity (CoG). That concept has befuddled many strategists subsequently. What exactly does the concept mean? Is the CoG about an enemy’s strength or his weakness? Is it about finding the strength and turning it into the enemy’s weakness? Is it a static or a dynamic concept – i.e., does the CoG remain the same all the time or does it continue to shift? Is it capabilities-based or effects-based? Or, as this writer believes, given the nature of irregular conflict, it is the ‘thing’ that holds all else together rather than about concentration of forces or infrastructure that can be taken out to degrade the enemy’s capability and by doing so break his will to fight.
If it is the ‘thing’ that holds the rest together, is it an idea in the case of groups that can be disparate and could even operate on their own and yet be bound by a single idea? Al-Qaeda had a different model. It was a shadowy organisation. The Taliban were less shadowy. They even believed in capturing and holding territory. The IS in Iraq and Syria is a group that is brazenly in the open. It uses social media, boasting of winning adherents and recruits and has even declared a Khilafat. It has now begun attracting groups in other countries. There may be no financial and operational linkages. But there are ideological links. It can be likened to the Uber cab model. You have a car, you want to run it as a cab, you become part of the Uber worldwide network. It doesn’t cost Uber anything, yet it is a win-win for both parties.
In short, while armies can fight and act operationally, this is an adversary which requires tackling at a higher level. So far, militaries haven’t really won against it. All it needs do is to not lose. This has become a whack-a-mole game. Militaries keep using the mallet to whack the moles but they continue to pop up faster than you can whack them. In the end, the player with the mallet loses.
Yet, inaction is not an option. What is required is to understand the nature of this conflict and that understanding demands that we don’t shoehorn it into a traditional concept of war and its associated definitions of victory and defeat. The Age of Innocence, if there were one at any point, is over, dead and interred. Welcome to the era of perpetual conflict with its multi-tiered, multi-faceted nonlinear wars.
A Timeline of Insecurity
November 8: A suicide bomber blew himself up at an army-training centre at Dargai in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing 42 and injuring 39 recruits of the Punjab Regiment Centre and their instructor.
November 24: Two suicide bombers simultaneously targeted military personnel and installations at two different places in Rawalpindi, claiming over 32 lives and wounding 55 others. In the first attack, the suicide bomber hit the staff bus of the ISI while entering its main office. The other attack took place near the GHQ when another suicide bomber blew up his car after he was intercepted at a check post.
December 10: Eight people, including five schoolchildren, were injured when a suicide bomber exploded his car targeting a Pakistan Aeronautical Complex bus carrying air force employees’ children at a military base at Kamra.
December 17: At least 12 army recruits were killed and two wounded in a suicide attack near the Army Public College in the heart of the Kohat cantonment area.
March 4: Eight persons were killed and 24 others sustained injuries when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the parking area of the Pakistan Navy War College in Lahore.
March 11: At least 30 people were killed and more than 200 sustained injuries in suicide blasts at the FIA headquarters and an advertising agency office in Lahore.
March 30: Eight police recruits and a civilian were killed when a group of 10 terrorists attacked the Police Training Centre in Manawan near Lahore with guns and grenades.
May 27: Suicide bombers detonated a vehicle near the offices of the capital city police officer and the ISI in Lahore, killing at least 27 persons and injuring 326 others.
August 27: A suicide bomber blew himself up as security force personnel were breaking their fast, killing at least 22 soldiers and injuring 10 others at Torkham in the Khyber Agency of FATA.
October 10: Six army personnel, including a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel, were killed and five others seriously injured when militants clad in army uniform attacked the GHQ.
October 15: At least 19 persons, including 14 special forces personnel, were killed and 41 others sustained injuries in three separate terrorist attacks in Lahore at the FIA building on the Temple Road, the Manawan Police Training Centre and the Elite Police Academy.
November 13: At least 13 people – 10 military personnel and three civilians – were killed and 60 injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of the regional headquarters of the ISI in Peshawar.
December 8: A group of three Taliban militants attacked the ISI office in Multan, killing at least 12 people and injuring several others.
November 11: At least 20 persons, including FC officials and policemen, were killed and over 100 injured when an explosive-laden truck blew up inside the head office of the CID in Karachi.
February 10: A suicide blast at an army recruitment centre in Mardan District killed 31 and injured 42 others.
May 13: 90 people, including 73 paramilitary forces and 17 civilians, were killed when twin suicide bombers attacked an FC training centre in the Shabqadar tehsil in Charsadda District.
May 22: Ten SF personnel and nine injured in an attack by the TTP at PNS Mehran in Karachi.
July 9: Eight security personnel were killed at an army camp near WazirabadTown near Sargodha.
August 16: Two security officials were killed in an attack on the Minhas PAF base in Attock.
November 8: At least three Rangers personnel were killed and 14 others injured in a suicide attack outside the Sachal Rangers Headquarters in Karachi.
December 15: The PAF base inside the Peshawar airport was attacked by militants, with seven people being killed.
July 24: An attack on an ISI office in Sukkur led to the killing of seven people.
August 14: Eleven security personnel were injured in a gun battle with militants near the Khalid Aviation Airbase and Samungli Airbase in Quetta.
September 6: One navy personnel was killed and six others injured in an attempt by militants to target a naval dockyard in Karachi.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
Ejaz Haider is a senior journalist and Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV. He also anchors his own show.