As the Obama Administration debates a new strategy in Afghanistan, most analysts agree a comprehensive “Af-Pak” strategy is necessary. Insurgent groups increasingly enjoy the sanctuary and direct their operations from lawless northern Pakistan.
Indeed, General Stanley McChrystal, NATO commander in Afghanistan, recently leaked analysis that argued forcefully for reducing Pakistan’s presence as a source of sanctuary. In one sense, McChrystal’s report suggested nothing new; it is a recurring feature of successful counterinsurgency operations (COIN)—from the Philippines to Malaya—to disrupt and reduce external sources of support for insurgents. For all the talk of “winning hearts and minds,” COIN still requires political and military components; winning popular support is only possible by first providing security through force. But the security effort will falter in the absence of border control as fresh insurgents continue to flood the country. If the security effort fails, the entire COIN strategy fails, no matter how many schools are built or clinics opened.
The complexity inherent in sealing the 1,600 mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan will probably help doom any new COIN effort in Afghanistan. The Quetta Shura Taliban, a group of insurgents operating out of Pakistan, is vivid proof of this. The problem of defeating the Quetta Shura is not unique; the same is true for the fight against other insurgent groups in Pakistan.
Trying to defeat the Afghan Taliban is a no-win situation. Sending American or NATO forces into in Pakistan would represent an implicit challenge to the Pakistani government’s legitimacy and is likely to provoke a nationalist backlash.
Baluchistan, a province in western Pakistan where the Quetta Shura is based, is also off-limits to the Pakistani military because ethnic Baluchis have fiercely resisted central government intrusion. Limited drone strikes are at best a futile exercise in “whack-a-mole,” and at worst capable of undermining Pakistani support for NATO because of collateral damage. NATO is left fighting an insurgency it can damage but not defeat.
What is the Quetta Shura? The group has its origins following the U.S. and Northern Alliance offensive against the Taliban in November 2001. The Taliban’s remnants coalesced around Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. While Kandahar was taken in early December, much of the top leadership escaped into Pakistan. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former de facto ruler of Afghanistan, quickly reconstituted an insurgent force now basing itself in the Baluchistan city of Quetta.
Jeffrey Dressler, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, attributes much of the responsibility for insurgent violence in Helmand province to the Quetta Shura. In his exhaustive study of the Helmand insurgency, Dressler writes the “[Quetta Shura] consists of indigenous fighting units, facilitators, and foreign fighters. QST (Quetta Shura Taliban) commanders plan and lead offensive and defensive operations against coalition and Afghan forces, whereas facilitators manage logistical ele¬ments.” Senior leadership based in Quetta “provides direction, guidance, and sometimes is¬sues direct orders to the senior commanders in Helmand,” Dressler continues.
The United States and Pakistan have largely ignored this Taliban group. Despite the Pakistan’s recent operations in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the New York Times reported the military’s efforts focused “on the Taliban who are targeting the Pakistani government, but not those who are running operations in Afghanistan.” U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson caused something of a stir when she said, “Our intelligence on Quetta is vastly less. We have no people there, no cross-border operations, no Predators.” Nor will drones operate in Baluchistan any time soon hinted Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani last September.
How will the United States, NATO, and Pakistan stop the Quetta Shura without resorting to the least bad option of drone strikes? If the security situation in Helmand deteriorates, NATO could conceivably send limited ground forces into Baluchistan to attack Mullah Omar’s command-and-control and base camps. After all, if President Obama truly believes Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” such an option is plausible. Yet, expanding the NATO ground war into Pakistan only undermines its government’s legitimacy. Many Pakistanis were outraged over a recently proposed U.S. aid package (worth over $7 billion), complaining that its terms represented an insult to Pakistani sovereignty. It is difficult to imagine the nationalist backlash that would occur if NATO forces step foot on Pakistani soil.
Given Pakistan’s military success in the Swat Valley and, more recently, South Waziristan, is it possible they could reproduce those results in Baluchistan? The army is cautious because any intervention could strengthen the ethnic Baluchi separatist movement in Pakistan’s largest province. The government wants to avoid instability in Baluchistan, an area that is rich in hydrocarbons. Pakistan, with Chinese assistance, is currently building a deepwater port in Gwadar. The government hopes to increase investment and development in the province, exploiting its bountiful resources. With a fierce tribal culture, a growing separatist insurgency, and a vast potential wealth under the ground—Baluchistan is a major problem for the Pakistani government. Taking action against the Quetta Shura is a challenge.
The Quetta Shura clearly demonstrates the shortcomings of NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan. Other insurgent groups have begun to catch on to the advantages of basing operations in Pakistan. Can NATO reverse history and defeat an insurgency having major external support? Before deploying thousands more troops to protect the population, the United States needs to find an answer to the Quetta question.