Pak-Afghan Border and Asymmetric Warfare – Hot Pursuit, Boots on the Ground, and Drone Attacks


The controversial tactics of unmanned drones, hot pursuit, and boots on the ground have continued to bedevil the relations of US, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tactics used by the coalition forces have not only acted as leverages in getting better cooperation from the Pakistan Army, but are also examples of how to counter the asymmetric warfare being waged by the extremists. Over the weekend, Apache helicopters crossed over in to upper Kurram twice to carry out raids against insurgents, who had earlier conducted an attack on an outpost near Khost. A similar helicopter raid was reported on Sunday against Al Shabab in Somalia. This article studies the politics and complications around these new tactics, which have evolved to deal with extremists that operate across borders.



politics Unmanned Drones

PoliTact has recently examined the resurge of drone attacks in Pakistan, and earlier the politics surrounding these highly contentious military actions. From all accounts, there exists a tacit agreement between the US and Pakistan which allows these attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) attacks at this point have become more or less point joint operations, although, they were quite unilateral initially.

The drone attacks are a result of the inability and frustration of US and NATO forces to act in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), due to challenges of international law and US image in the Islamic world.  At the same time, the tactics are also a consequence of Pakistan failing to control the tribal areas and the extremists that have operated from these sanctuaries.

The drones also reveal the underlying premise of the US strategy that unless and until extremist sanctuaries are eliminated with in FATA, insurgency in Afghanistan could not be brought under control. This assumption is the same as the one propagated by Karzai government and India. However, this is in contrast to Pakistan’s original view, which stresses that as long as Afghanistan remains unstable, it would be extremely difficult for Pakistan to control the militants on its territory.

Troops on the Ground

This option is considered more dangerous than the drones by both Pakistan and the US because of the consequences involved. Drones are unmanned so even if a mishap occurs, the potential risks are minimal. However, ‘boots on the ground’ carry significant penalty for Pakistan. It reinforces the weakness of the Pakistan government and the perception that it’s being used against its own people, and not for defending them against foreign intruders. This negative impression could be  extremely useful for the extremists when they conduct their recruitment drives.

Ever since Pakistan joined the war against terror its decision appears to be based on the logic of, ‘if you cannot stop them then might as well join them’. The minds of Pakistan’s American trained generals understand particularly well the enormous practical disequilibrium between the military prowess of US and Pakistan. However, it also demonstrates an approach based on an inherent weakness, and is quite unacceptable to the bravado of average unsophisticated Pakistani citizen.

Hot Pursuit

Both ‘drones’ and ‘boots on the ground’ are thus techniques to deal with the inability of Pakistan, Afghan, and the coalition forces to stop the insurgents from crossing over in to Afghanistan, to launch attacks there, and then retreat to their sanctuaries in tribal areas.

This presents a twofold problem for the security forces in Afghanistan. First, what to do once they are attacked in Afghan territory? Usually when coalition forces initiate a hot pursuit, the extremists slip over in to FATA. Moreover, a difference of opinion has existed between US and NATO/ISAF forces on how they consider their mandate in Afghanistan. NATO and ISAF forces have wanted to restrict their activities to Afghanistan alone, as per UN mandate, while US has taken the lead on most of the overt and covert activities in Pakistan.

According to media reports, U.S. rules of engagement permit ground forces to go a little over six miles into Pakistan territory when in hot pursuit, and when forces are targeted or fired on by the enemy. Additionally, U.S. rules allow aircraft to go 10 miles into Pakistan air space.

The second question is how to deal with the planners and strategists working from FATA where the writ of Pakistani government is minimal.

The New York Times had reported in May that General Petraeus signed a secret order in late 2009, increasing covert operations to counter militants and other threats across the region. The order authorizes Special Operations forces to operate in both allied and hostile nations in the Mideast, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa. This order, in fact, represents modified ‘boots on the ground’ option.

US has worked with both Pakistan and Afghanistan to beef up the training and capabilities of their counter-terrorism commandos, reducing the need for direct intervention and use of its own troops. As reported in Bob Woodward’s new book ‘Obama’s Wars,’ CIA has operated a 3,000 strong Afghan counter-terrorist pursuit teams for long-range reconnaissance and surveillance missions since 2002, and which operates in the border areas of Pakistan as well.

These tactics in short represent a workaround to the challenges posed by the international law and the nation state system. Islamic extremists neither believe in the present world order nor abides by its rules. Therefore countering the extremist required unconventional means. However, these unconventional means also appear to weaken the nations-state system.

An additional factor that complicates these tactics is the idiom that ‘all is fair in love and war’. In the age of Internet, people have come to believe the stated intents and positions of international players to be true. The real intent and policies of global players are the most highly guarded secrets and are not meant for public consumption. Publicly disclosing the nations real intent, strength and vulnerabilities would be tantamount to surrendering. Nonetheless, when the statements and actions of stakeholders repeatedly don’t match, it creates many conspiracy theories as well as mistrust amongst allies.

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