After a drop in casualty rates in the ongoing counterterrorism operations, this year has again witnessed a spike. The frequency of attacks has increased as have the numbers of security forces personnel (including police and paramilitary troops) killed and injured by terrorist groups ambushing patrol parties and other vehicular movement.
The Inter-Services Public Relations press notifications have become a near-daily occurrence. Here, I give two examples of those notifications that also show what modi operandi the groups are using to target security forces personnel:
“Terrorists fire-raid security forces post in District Kech, Balochistan. Troops responded promptly. During fire exchange, Sepoy X embraced shahadat. Area search in progress to hunt down perpetrators of the incident.”
“Security forces along with police conducted cordon and search operation late last night. During operation, an IED exploded in Dabrai, Bajaur District. Resultantly, 2 FC soldiers… and 2 police constables… embraced shahadat. Area clearance being carried out to eliminate any terrorists found in the area.”
There are many other examples but these should suffice. In fact, the press notifications raise a number of questions with reference to how operations are being conducted. According to data compiled by South Asian Terrorism Portal, in 2021 until October (the ongoing month), there have been 207 incidents resulting in the killing of 177 civilians, 158 security personnel (this includes police/paramilitary) and 185 terrorists. By all benchmarks, this is a very high casualty rate for friendly forces.
But before I get to why we should take this very seriously and how we can bring the casualty rate down, let me go back to 2010. During a briefing by General Ashfaq Perez Kayani, which was preceded by a presentation by a Brigadier, a slide presented figures on the sacrifices of our soldiers and with a lot of pride showed that our officer-to-jawan kill ratio is 1:8 — i.e., for every eight soldiers in combat, we are losing one officer. The explanation: our officers lead from the front.
The statistics left me deeply disturbed. As I said to Gen Kayani and several other officers, far from taking pride in the courage of our men, I’d very concerned about why we are losing so many young officers and men. When someone enlists, he knows that when the time comes he must be ready to kill, or get killed. There is no clean battle. Incoming fire has a nasty habit of finding its target. Yet, that’s precisely what professional armies train for, developing the capability to inflict maximum damage on the enemy while minimising own losses in men and material.
This is the essence of what US General George Patton is reported to have said: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Patton was, of course, talking about a different time and a different war. Even so, his message remains constant for all types of war, including the irregular war we are still fighting, with no defined front and no rear, no clear zones of war and peace.
The enemy in this war is difficult to identify. He relies on kinship and ideological bonds, rarely offers a concentrated target, thereby blunting the advantage of a superior force, and can move from the sanctuary to the preparation area to the operational area with relative ease, both in terms of time and space. He has the element of surprise on his side. He can hunker down and wait for the opportunity. He can snipe at targets, use IEDs, raid isolated posts, and mount terror attacks in the cities. In effect, break the norms of fighting in order to gain an asymmetric advantage. The violence he generates is not great but consistent and incremental and creates a psychological effect to erode the resolve, if not of the army, then that of the civilian population.
Pakistan won this war at a great price. Along the way security forces learnt from their mistakes. It was long-drawn and painful but it worked. Pakistan won where, across the border to the west in Afghanistan, a large coalition of the most modern militaries failed. But it seems that we have let our guard down. Many officers and men who fought those battles and survived have retired. Is the institutional memory of lessons learnt being lost?
Pakistan has known and recorded the evolving situation for nearly two years now: disparate TTP groups reorganising and banding together; four Baloch terrorist organisations coming together to mount coordinated attacks; Islamic State-Khorasan cadres targeting security forces and Shia Pakistanis. Pakistan has also known, going by the dossiers made public by the government, that many of these elements are being supported and funded by India’s intelligence agencies. According to stories in the Indian media in 2017, the National Security Council Secretariat, headed by Ajit Doval, received a staggering 311% increase in funds. Some analysts have argued that this could be “to tackle issues at the intersection of cybersecurity and nuclear weapon delivery systems”, but that seems to be a stretch going by the traditional role of the National Security Council Secretariat.
Be that as it may, Pakistan has to be prepared, by its own reckoning, against Indian designs to foment trouble in its tribal districts as well as Balochistan. Simply referring to this as India’s perfidy will not do.
So, what should Pakistan do?
First, the operations and the losses must immediately be studied. Are we faltering on the training required for fighting this kind of war; is the enemy doing something different from what it was doing before and for which security forces developed countermeasures? What kind of organisational innovations are needed to tackle the evolving situation? Are the security forces employing new technologies to improve their intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities? The army has a lot of experience now in tackling IEDs; are those techniques being fully employed? Is there enough field and strategic intelligence on terrain, enemy resources, lines of communication, recruitment methods, training camps, concentration areas?
These questions are important. But even more important is whether military and other leaders are concerned about mounting casualty rate. Clearly, to address the issue would first require a deep concern about the safety and effectiveness of troops and policemen.
Pakistan has come a long way from the time it began fighting this war. It is decidedly in a much better position now than it was when this war began. As I noted above, lessons have been learnt and incorporated into training and manuals. The army also has better equipment, including drones both combat and surveillance. Are troops deployed in sensitive, vulnerable areas and points being provided the advantage of real-time ISR? There’s also a fence now. The ISPR calls some of these attacks fire raids: are these ambushes, long-distance sniping, shooting? Do patrol parties or other vehicular movement have the benefit of ISR? if not, why not? Are these attacks happening from the Afghanistan soil or do we have terrorists hiding in the population east of the border?
In this kind of war, as in any kind of war, intelligence is crucial. Is there effective coordination among intelligence agencies on the one hand and the fighting troops and agencies on the other?
There are many questions but very few answers. My own sense from having seen many operations is that the groups are not doing anything different. The Taliban, both in Afghanistan and here, have relied on ambushes, hit-and-run tactics, suicide bombings, IEDs. Where they can amass more men and firepower, they also go for flanking, encirclement and direct-fire engagement (what ISPR calls fire raids). Officers who have participated in previous operations also know that groups use generally the same spots and lines of communication for such attacks. It should not be too hard to prevent such attacks. The concerned officials must make clear how they are dealing with the situation and what data they are gathering. Putting out statistics and calling the fallen shaheeds doesn’t really cut and certainly doesn’t tell us what’s going on. It’s time to get some answers.