By Zoha Waseem
Published: September 8, 2015
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The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

Eliminate militant wings of political parties. Eliminate targeted killings, kidnappings for ransom and extortion. Eliminate terrorists’ networks and support bases. Cut down sources of terrorist financing. Take back Lyari from a gang war dating back to the 1960s.

These have been the primary objectives behind the ongoing Karachi operation — multiple, at least on paper, having evolved over the last 24 months.

As the internal security operation in Karachi marks its second anniversary this September, there is a general perception that the city is returning to ‘normalcy’. But the illusion of security is no measure of the success of internal security operations (ISOPs). In fact, that may be a short-sighted way of studying ISOPs. In the same vein, the quest for ‘bringing the Karachi operation to its logical conclusion’ is vague, impractical and idealistic. There is a need to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘logical conclusions’ and instead ask, how can we think of strategy (of which ISOPs are components, or battles, if you will) during what is known as fifth generation warfare.

Putting warfare in the context of five generations reveals the evolution of warfare in the modern era, and how the methods of conducting war have changed. To sum up rather quickly, first generation warfare pitted armies against armies (Napoleonic Wars); second generation warfare was about fighting in the trenches with the support of firepower (the First World War); third generation warfare focused on manoeuvre, utilising improved technology and a combination of sea, air, and ground assaults (the Second World War), and began moving away from the traditional battlefields. Fourth generation warfare relies upon prolonged, asymmetrical wars in which an adversary’s superior conventional powers are countered by insurgency tactics in cities, villages, mountains and open fields, to defeat an opponent’s political will through low intensity conflicts (the Soviet Union against the Afghan Taliban; the US in Vietnam).

Since the onset of the global war on terror, we appear to be entering into fifth generation warfare (5GW), seen as ‘unrestricted warfare’, in which, to put it crudely, all bets are off: military or no military, the fight becomes less about armies or organised groups, but loose networks and individuals against individuals, employing tactics of targeted killings, suicide attacks and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. In large and densely populated urban areas, socio-political networks, both physically elaborate and technologically advanced, further add to the complexities of 5GW and conduct of contemporary warfare, making it longer and geographically more widespread than previous generations of warfare. For a military or paramilitary force to engage in ISOPs in 5GW thus demands a long-term commitment.

Given the complex nature of ISOPs and 5GW, we see tactical manoeuvrings in cities (raids, preventive detentions, extensive surveillance measures and military urbanism), as seen in Karachi over the last few years. But a crucial element of warfare appears to be absent from the debate: strategy, which comes from the Greek word strategia that is the office of the general (strategos).

For argument’s sake, let’s set aside two notions: first, that war has a decisive or logical conclusion or a clear, singular objective and, second, that strategy is about rational choices. Rationality is relative and the rational choice theory is too weak a theory to empirically understand decision-making during contemporary warfare. What Lawrence Freedman’s mammoth work Strategy: A History teaches us is that strategy is about finding coping mechanisms, a way to keep muddling on, surviving, and devising your course according to the changing nature of the threats at hand.

At a talk at King’s College London last year, Freedman said, “The approach that I’m arguing is based on getting away from the idea of a plan with a definitive end and thinking more about strategy as a response to a changing environment which is throwing up new problems that require you to think through what you can do to get yourself in a better position, at which point you’ll be thinking again about how to get to an even better position.”

Bringing an internal security operation to ‘its logical conclusion’ is thus hardly a strategy. It is at best an objective, like the ones identified above. And objectives change as you come across various hurdles and even a ‘master strategist’ cannot always take into account when, where and how things will go wrong — and they do.

Strategy, thus, should also take into account that it must continue evolving (alongside tactics and objectives) with whosoever succeeds or replaces the current strategos. And if the strategy is to ‘get to a better place’, then a few other objectives need to be prioritised simultaneously to the ones already being pursued. These must include, but are in no way restricted to public security sector reforms, especially catering to a restructuring of the Karachi Police that is supported by adequate and up-do-date legal frameworks. Secondly, counter-narratives, a critical element of strategy, must be drafted and carefully disseminated that prioritise nation-building over state-building. And, if an added objective now is to move towards targeting corruption in the political and security apparatus in Sindh, to get relevant stakeholders to fall in line, then all parties concerned should focus on cleaning up their houses. And here, the strategos must set an example and clean up its own too, if there is any credibility to repeated claims of this house’s alleged involvement in appropriating resources.

Alas, as Freedman writes, “While [strategy] is undoubtedly a good thing to have … it is also a hard thing to get right.”

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2015.