Counterinsurgency and Development in FATA: Lessons from US Experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan

Photo: Pakistani soldiers (

By: Hijab Shah, Columnist

The Pakistani armed forces claim to have entered the decisive phase in their counterinsurgency operations against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).[1] If Operation Zarb-e-Azb is indeed as close to success as the military says, a window of opportunity has opened for the Pakistani government to plan for post-conflict stabilization in the restive region; as the military phase of counterinsurgency draws down, the government will have the opportunity step in and establish its legitimacy and authority in the tribal areas by means of a development strategy.

A robust plan to develop the infrastructure and augment the economy of the tribal areas could dramatically improve the quality of life of the local population, thus increasing satisfaction with the government, and augmenting its legitimacy and authority. How Islamabad decides to execute the plan, however, is critical to the success of the venture in FATA. Lessons from the US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan could be instructive for the Pakistani government in this regard; understanding the mistakes replicating the successes of the United States over the past decade will help the Pakistani government prepare more intelligently and resourcefully for post-military operation development in FATA.

Development as a tool of counterinsurgency policy

 The main objective of counterinsurgency is to reassert government sovereignty and legitimacy in an area within its borders where a group has secured control of territory. In order to work towards this goal, the government must “reestablish institutions and local security forces,” and focus on “rebuilding infrastructure and basic services,” all in efforts to “[establish] local governance and the rule of law.”[2]

Development is a useful tool in the pursuit of these counterinsurgency objectives. According to the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT) in Afghanistan, “Development consists of picking winners and distributing scarce resources, and requires technical capacity, resource allocation systems and accountability to be effective.”[3] These aspects of development not only fulfill the goals of economic growth, but provide a measure of governing authority as well — they allow for the government to establish a rapport with the locals, “address[ing] the key source(s) of instability” within the populace, and leading to the goal of perceived and actual authority over the area and people in question.[4]

The Pakistani government needs to be very intentional in its efforts to secure legitimacy in FATA by way of development. As the CAAT notes, “Governance and development can no longer be considered separate lines of operation,” and as the country’s armed forces enter the final phase of their military efforts, development must be next on the government’s agenda.

What went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The United States was ill prepared for the post-military phase of its campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and despite later efforts to mitigate that lack of preparation by entrepreneurial bureaucrats in government, more failures than successes were seen in the past decade.

In Iraq, the state industry was brought to a standstill after the fall of Saddam Hussein despite being fairly functional, due to a phenomenon known as “shock therapy” — shutting down all state-run operations and allowing the free market to organically reboot local industry. Instead of upgrading local capabilities and assisting with training efforts to allow the Iraqi economy to self-sustain, the US government sourced products and materials from abroad from regional partners, or gave major infrastructure projects to US conglomerates like Halliburton and Bechtel; either way, the local population did not benefit from job-creation or trickle-down of profits.[5]

The Afghan economy, on the other hand, became dangerously dependent upon foreign assistance. By 2009, more than 60 per cent of GDP was attributed directly to foreign aid, while the remaining 30 per cent was linked to narcotics, and a mere 10 percent to lawful, sustainable domestic economic activity.[6] The aid agencies like USAID that did have a ground presence in Afghanistan did not have the technical know-how or the security and ease of access to be able to create sustainable avenues for local economic development. Similar to Iraq, major infrastructure projects were launched which the Afghans could not themselves sustain, and which thus became cash-cows for foreign conglomerates. Additionally, the mineral mining sector, a potential source of great wealth and job-creation for the local population, remains at a standstill since 2007. A combination of security concerns, lack of sufficient infrastructure, and demands by the Chinese government — which holds the mining rights to important mineral-rich sites in Afghanistan — is holding a significant source of revenue and prosperity in Afghanistan hostage.[7]

There was a push for bringing in private investors and international corporations to both Iraq and Afghanistan by US government agencies like the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO). In both cases, however, the results were less than satisfactory. Time was already against the TFBSO as the security and economy of both countries was already in fairly bad shape by the time they got off the ground. Although the TFBSO was able to garner limited investment in the two countries, a lack of resources and government support meant that the agency was unable to create the level of local empowerment and positive economic change that it set out to do in the two countries.[8]

Executing development in FATA on counterinsurgency principles

The Pakistani government would do well to take the lessons from the US post-conflict and ongoing-conflict experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and apply them to the effort in FATA. A development plan that furthers the counterinsurgency goal of establishing government legitimacy and sovereignty must be followed for any hope of success in the region. The following are recommendations for executing a thoughtful and intelligent development plan in the tribal areas at the conclusion of the military phase of the counterinsurgency operations:

  1. Empower the local community

One of the most important decisions that the Pakistani government can make would be to involve the local community as stakeholders in the economic and governance progress within FATA. The people of a conflict-ridden area will need all the help they can get in pulling themselves out of hardship, and a government that pledges to help that community will undoubtedly earn the local respect and recognition that it so desperately needs in order to fulfill its counterinsurgency objectives. Economic development projects “should have a clear impact on a population group and not just an individual,” as “having clear community impact increases the likelihood of community ownership and contribution as well as countering the image of a self-interested predatory state.”[9] Community involvement also “helps identify the true priorities of the community,” and can thus help direct the government’s efforts towards even further improvement.[10]

  1. Start small

Although much of the region is in dire need of major infrastructure overhaul, and the provision of energy and fuel, the Pakistani government should start out with small, manageable projects that augment employment rates and provide a boost — however small — to the local economy present in FATA. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US made the mistake of starting with major projects that could not be indigenously sustained, and in fact created animosity within the local population as foreign companies and workers benefited from the work created. Pakistan should not repeat that mistake, and instead focus on “projects with fewer inputs … over more technically or logistically challenging alternatives,” so that the community is the one both sourcing and reaping the economic benefits of development within the tribal areas. Once “the community becomes as an advertisement for the benefits of cooperation,” other communities are likely to follow suit, increasing the government’s legitimacy and getting closer to the objectives of the counterinsurgency.

  1. Pick the right partners for contracting and procurement

Once the local FATA communities have been empowered by small-scale, locally run projects, Pakistan should turn to larger-scale infrastructure development. Understandably, firms from outside FATA will have to be involved, but the government must select the right partners to do the job. Paul Brinkley, the former head of the TFBSO, noted on his visits to Pakistan that “No matter the affiliation of the political or business leader [he] met in Islamabad, there was clear antipathy” towards the region including FATA.[11] Contracting and procurement for projects in FATA must be done very carefully, identifying partners with visions similar to the governments in their development and with the intention to involve the local population in a significant capacity as they undertake projects. That way, the communities will see prosperity, which will help erase the socioeconomic reasons behind the insurgency potential in the area, and come further into the fold of the Pakistani government’s rule of law.


[1] “Operation Zarb-E-Azb in Final Stages: Army Chief,” August 12, 2015, sec. Pakistan,

[2] “US Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency” (Department of the Army, December 2006),

[3] “Less Boom for the Buck: Projects for COIN Effects and Transition,” CAAT Special Report (Kabul, Afghanistan: Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team – International Security Assistance Force, April 2011).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Brinkley, War Front to Store Front: Americans Rebuilding Trust and Hope in Nations Under Fire, 1 edition (Nashville, TN: Turner Publishing Company, 2014), 61–171.

[6] Ibid., 221.

[7] Frank Jack Daniel and Mirwais Harooni, “Chinese Demands, Rebels and Buddhist Ruins Stall Afghan Copper Dream,” Reuters, April 11, 2015,

[8] Brinkley, War Front to Store Front.

[9] “Less Boom for the Buck.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Brinkley, War Front to Store Front, 301.

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