The Special Forces Plan for Pakistan: Mistaking the Anbar Narrative

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 11 months ago

While the campaign in Iraq continues and the Afghanistan campaign continues to suffer from a lack of adequate force projection, Pakistan remains fertile soil for making jihadists. Concerning the going-forward U.S. strategy for addressing the problem, the New York Times is the recipient of leaked preliminary strategy plans for counterinsurgency in Pakistan.

A new and classified American military proposal outlines an intensified effort to enlist tribal leaders in the frontier areas of Pakistan in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as part of a broader effort to bolster Pakistani forces against an expanding militancy, American military officials said.

If adopted, the proposal would join elements of a shift in strategy that would also be likely to expand the presence of American military trainers in Pakistan, directly finance a separate tribal paramilitary force that until now has proved largely ineffective and pay militias that agreed to fight Al Qaeda and foreign extremists, officials said. The United States now has only about 50 troops in Pakistan, a Pentagon spokesman said, a force that could grow by dozens under the new approach.

The proposal is modeled in part on a similar effort by American forces in Anbar Province in Iraq that has been hailed as a great success in fighting foreign insurgents there. But it raises the question of whether such partnerships, to be forged in this case by Pakistani troops backed by the United States, can be made without a significant American military presence in Pakistan. And it is unclear whether enough support can be found among the tribes, some of which are working with Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

Altogether, the broader strategic move toward more local support is being accelerated because of concern about instability in Pakistan and the weakness of the Pakistani government, as well as fears that extremists with havens in the tribal areas could escalate their attacks on allied troops in Afghanistan. Just in recent weeks, Islamic militants sympathetic to Al Qaeda and the Taliban have already extended their reach beyond the frontier areas into more settled areas, most notably the mountainous region of Swat …

The tribal proposal, a strategy paper prepared by staff members of the United States Special Operations Command, has been circulated to counterterrorism experts but has not yet been formally approved by the commandand headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Some other elements of the campaign have been approved in principle by the Americans and Pakistanis and await financing, like $350 million over several years to help train and equip the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that has about 85,000 members and is recruited from border tribes … Historically, American Special Forces have gone into foreign countries to work with local militaries to improve the security of those countries in ways that help American interests. Under this new approach, the number of advisers would increase, officials said.

There are several analyses of this approach, the two most significant being from John Robb at Global Guerrillas, and Bill Roggio writing for Weekly Standard. First, of the proposed strategy in Pakistan, John Robb customarily notes three problems facing the proposal (without giving any solutions), but then observes:

The use of a plethora of militias to fight a global open source insurgency from Nigeria to Mexico to Iraq to Pakistan is effective within a grand strategy of delay (it holds disorder at bay while allowing globalization to work). Most beneficially, it eliminates the need for nation-building, massive conventional troop deployments, and other forms of excess. Some questions remain: can the US manage something this complex or this messy? Will the rest of the US military/contractors sit idle (and as a result fall victim to budget cuts) while light weight special operations forces (and their allied private military corporations) take center stage?

Note here that Robb points to ‘globalization’ being allowed to work as a solution to the global open source insurgency, while earlier he has pointed to globalization as a catalyst for insurgencies: “9-11 is a great example of how the underlying dynamics of globalization make a radical acceleration in conflict possible. Small groups can now produce results from actions that far exceed anything in history. However, this isn’t restricted to Islamic terrorists. Warfare is evolving is across the board at a rapid rate. I see it everywhere from Brazil to Columbia to Nigeria and Iraq.”

How globalization can be both the catalyst and solution for insurgencies Robb doesn’t say, but his prose gives the impression of well-studied ethereal thoughts full of sound and fury but without concrete application. A review of Robb’s literature leaves the feeling that no solution to any problem in any counterinsurgency campaign can ever be solved and all solutions lead inevitably to failure, or worse, making the insurgency more potent. More telling in his rebuttal to the Pakistan plan is what he doesn’t give as a reason for his opposition to it, i.e., that the Anbar experience was a failure. It wasn’t too long ago that one could find talk of defeat, retreat and redeployment out of Iraq from Robb. It seems that even Robb has now taken note of the successes in Anbar.

Next, Bill Roggio is clearer concerning his opposition to the proposed Pakistan strategy.

The conflicts in Iraq’s Anbar province and Pakistan’s tribal areas are fundamentally different, and while both provinces are dominated by a strong tribal culture, al Qaeda’s draws support in each for different reasons. In Anbar, the tribes and insurgent groups aligned themselves with al Qaeda in Iraq largely because they viewed al Qaeda as an ally in the fight against American occupation. However, they turned on the terror group once it became clear that al Qaeda threatened their very existence. In Pakistan, the Pashtun tribes have by and large openly supported the Taliban and al Qaeda since the groups first formed. The Taliban, with the help of the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence agency, was born in the Pashtun tribal belts, and al Qaeda fighters and its senior commanders are welcomed among the Taliban supporting tribes there … Also, the counterinsurgency campaign proposed for Pakistan is not at all similar to that executed in Anbar province. In Anbar, the tribes organized to fight al Qaeda only after they realized the error they had made in aligning with them. And the tribes openly fought al Qaeda of their own accord before seeking help from the U.S. Marine and Army units in Ramadi. Only later would U.S. troops play a significant role by nurturing the tribal movement, known as the Anbar Awakening, which ultimately formed the core of local resistance to al Qaeda. The U.S. military provided funding, helped organize local tribal security forces, encouraged the Iraqi government and military to allow Sunni tribesmen to join the army and police, and had the tribal security forces integrated into the military by reorganizing the units into Provincial Security Forces.

Roggio concludes with his prescription for success in Pakistan, and a warning concerning failure based on what it took for the Anbar “awakening” to succeed.

The Awakening was only able to survive the al Qaeda onslaught with the direct support of the U.S. Marines and soldiers based in Anbar. U.S. forces provided protection for the group’s leaders, as well as air support, financing, and communications and other equipment to bolster its efforts … arming anti-al Qaeda and anti-Taliban tribes and bolstering the Frontier Corps without solid support from both the Pakistani and the American military would be a death sentence for any tribe foolish enough to join the fight.

We hold to a slight to moderately different narrative of the Anbar campaign than Roggio does. It is tempting to see the Anbar awakening outside of the context of the U.S. kinetic operations that caused and encouraged it, but this approach is incomplete. Much has been made, for instance, of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha and his leadership of the coalition of tribes, but it is lesser known and publicized that before this significant tribal leader was turned against al Qaeda and towards the U.S., a unit was specifically designated to conduct kinetic operations to shut down his smuggling lines into Syria, that unit having operated with significant success. Another good example of the pretext for the awakening being U.S. force projection and kinetic operations comes from Marine Staff Sgt. John Costa.

When Marine Staff Sgt. John Costa arrived in Ramadi, Iraq, in August 2006, U.S. troops walked the city streets in daylight at their peril. “The place was one of the worst cities in Iraq, if not the worst. You could not conduct foot-borne operations during the day,” said Costa, who served as a chief scout with the Scout Sniper Platoon, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. “It would be a like a group of insurgents trying to walk down the main street in Camp Lejeune at 8 in the morning,” he said, referring to the Marine Corps base in North Carolina. “They’re not going to get far” …

“There were multiple buildings that are like five-, six-, seven-, eight-story apartment buildings — huge, and totally empty,” he said. You’d walk into a house and everything’s there: There’s food in the fridge; there’s clothes in the dresser. The people just moved.”

The staff sergeant soon realized why residents had abandoned their homes. Insurgents in Ramadi, a majority Sunni Muslim city, were violently attacking local citizens. In the midst of intense fighting, they extorted shop owners’ profits. They hiked prices at gas stations and skimmed sales revenues …

Costa also dedicated a portion of his time to cracking the insurgents’ methods of communication.

“Generally there was a guy putting up gang signs, which could either send a rocket-propelled grenade through your window or some other attack your way,” said Costa, who began to realize the significance of unarmed people on Ramadi’s streets providing information via visual cues.

You’re watching something on the street like that happening, and you’re like, “What the hell is that guy doing,” he recalled. “And then the next thing you know, insurgents start coming out of the woodwork.”

“Signalers — the eyes and ears of insurgent leaders — informed the insurgent strategists who commanded armed fighters by using hand and arm gestures.” You could see the signaler commanding troops,” Costa recalled. “He just doesn’t have a weapon.”

To curb insurgents’ ability to communicate, Costa decided on a revolutionary move: He and his unit would dismantle the enemy’s communication lines by neutralizing the threat from signalers. Sparing no time, he set a tone in Ramadi that signalers would be dealt with no differently from their weapon-wielding insurgent comrades.

“We called it in that we heard guys were signaling, and the battalion would advise from there,” he said, recalling the first day of the new strategy. “We locked that road down pretty well that day.”

In ensuing weeks, coalition forces coordinated efforts to dismember the insurgent signal patterns entrenched in Ramadi. This helped tamp down violence and create political breathing room, which in turn allowed the forging of key alliances between local tribal sheiks and coalition operators. The subsequent progress was later dubbed the “Anbar Awakening,” a societal purging of extremism by Anbaris that ushered in a level of stability unprecedented since U.S. operations in Iraq began.

This account from Ramadi should be coupled with the recent example of Operation Alljah from Fallujah. The insurgency and foreign fighters (Chechens, Africans, Western Chinese and others) had congregated in Fallujah in the spring of 2007. They were not only in complete control of Fallujah, but were using it to launch terrorist operations into Baghdad. The previous command had declared Fallujah “unwinnable.” Into this debacle came 2nd, Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, initiating heavy kinetic operations from the outset to find and capture or kill the insurgents. Later, gated communities, biometrics, and concerned citizens neighborhood watch programs were implemented to restrict the access of the insurgents to the population. Governance was accomplished via a return to a concept implemented during the Saddam era: the Muktars, or area leaders/representatives. Tribal sheikhs were all but irrelevant in the most recent Fallujah operations. The Anbar narrative is complex and varied, and includes much more than a tribal leader “flipping.”

Nibras Kazimi, no insignificant observer and analyst of Iraqi culture and politics, has commented of the tribal awakening in Anbar that “tribes are a barometer of power; they swarm around whoever has the upper hand.” It is a hard lesson to learn for the military complex and the public alike regarding the U.S. special forces: they cannot win her wars. They are specialized, have received training in specialty billets, and can be tasked do things that other troops cannot (such as communicate with indigenous peoples with their language training). But in operations in the Anbar province involving Marine snipers, most snipers have been escorted to and from their post by squad-sized and sometimes platoon-sized infantry patrols. Nothing lays metal down range like Marine infantry, and no amount of specialized training can accommodate for the lack of this force projection.

Roggio’s analysis of the differences in tribal beliefs and life in Anbar versus Pakistan serves as a warning against relying too heavily on the tribes as help against a global militancy that has its origins high in the rugged mountains of Pakistan. The tribes in Pakistan are much more fundamentalist than in Anbar. In Anbar, it is not uncommon to find the internet, television, games in the streets and children and adults alike watching soccer. In Pakistan these things are banned in many places. Sheikh Sattar, widely regarded as father of the awakening in Anbar as we discussed earlier, was a chain smoker and would likely have his hands cut off in Pakistan in order to stop his smoking. In Iraq, use of strong Turkish tobacco is the order of the day.

But the problem goes deeper than this. If the Pakistani tribes are convinced that the U.S. is the stronger horse in the region, they might be persuaded to assist the U.S. or even declare themselves allies. But Rumsfeld’s bold new paradigm involved war by special forces and proxy fighters. Airmen guiding JDAMs to target using satellite uplinks, money paid to previously unknown tribal elders, and special forces operators chasing high value targets – these were the elements of the initial phases of the Afghanistan campaign. Yet al Qaeda command escaped, NATO remains involved in counterinsurgency years after toppling the Taliban regime, and the British are proposing negotiations with “moderate” Taliban and withdrawal from some areas.

There is little reason to believe that tribes who are otherwise at least moderately sympathetic to al Qaeda would be persuaded to evict them from the region when the U.S. has shown no will thus far to complete even the Afghanistan campaign, much less enter into one in Pakistan. If nothing else has been learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom Phases II and III, the small footprint model is a losing strategy in this region of the world and fighting this sort of counterinsurgency. Force projection is not merely a catch-phrase. It is the cornerstone upon which counterinsurgency of this kind is built. Along with the Commandant, we have recommended that the United States Marines be deployed to Afghanistan. Regardless of the disposition of this proposal, dispatching “dozens” of special forces operators to Pakistan to court the tribes means the deaths of dozens of special forces operators. It will accomplish nothing, and means the delay of the inevitable showdown with al Qaeda and the Taliban in which force projection will win the day.

We have pointed out that U.S. interests are not served by the continued deployment of troops in Germany, but Gates has called a halt to the reduction of troops in Europe. Hard decisions must be made, and both the strategy and force size in Afghanistan must be revisited. Afghanistan is the starting line for the race to address problems in Pakistan. It is time for the Rumsfeld model to come to an end.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Featured,Pakistan,The Anbar Narrative and was published November 26th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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