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Tackling Hybrid Warfare in Pakistan: Prospects for Pakistani Youth

Aisha Saeed

Unconventional techniques have dominated war and conflict in the 21st century.  These unconventional conflicts have challenged previously held notions of wars where outcomes could be determined based on power dynamics alone. Hybrid warfare is one such extension of modern-day warfare.

Of the many definitions given in the literature of war and conflicts, the most coherent, widely agreed-upon “explanation of hybrid warfare came around in the 2000s, by Frank Hoffman who noted that hybrid war “incorporates a range of different modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder”. The concept of hybrid warfare was initially floated by Russian analyst Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov.

But it was not until post-war on terror years, that this terminology of warfare began circulating in Pakistan’s strategic and security setup. After having defeated the initial onslaught of terrorism mainly through conventional tactical operations, the country came under a wave of unconventional attacks that continue to happen to date.

This led to a scramble in understanding the reasons behind the attacks that could not be deterred by security operations and required quick defensive measures to protect the state. Currently, the country is still exposed to hybrid threats on various fronts, targeting government narrative, projects, important individuals, and the military. The blend of proxy and information warfare along with the use of hybrid war is what makes the security threats to the country more complex and ever challenging.

To tackle the challenges posed by this blend of warfare, it is important to understand the regional complexities and the need to remain below the nuclear threshold of conflict. Pakistan has been experiencing the backlash of US military actions in Afghanistan. The use of proxy elements, involvement of state and non-actors in anti-Pakistan narratives, the previous and expected influx of more refugees, and targeting the fence being built by Pakistan are hybrid challenges Pakistan has been attempting to handle.

The power vacuum in Afghanistan is rapidly being filled by the Taliban as district after district falls under their control. Pakistan also faced pressure from the US to grant military bases for future use and recon.  Pakistan remains vigilant of Indian intentions in Afghanistan and in particular their approach to the Taliban.

Pakistan’s relation with India remains at an all-time low, more due to the direct involvement of RAW in recent attacks. In June, Pakistani security forces accounted for over the loss of 30 personnel in various attacks throughout Balochistan – the hotspot of hybrid warfare activities funded by Indian and Afghan elements.  CPEC has been on the target of these elements from day one. Since the installations cannot be targeted directly, smaller projects and officials are targeted to disrupt the project.

The attack on Quetta’s only luxury hotel, where reportedly the Chinese Ambassador was residing during his visit was also a strong signal by the enemies. Although Iran is not often considered when Pakistan’s hybrid threats are analyzed, it remains an open front due to the proxies of the Middle East and India.  Internationally, Pakistan remains on the FATF’s grey list and the GPS plus status was also put under review.

Internal stability is important to counter hybrid challenges. Pakistan’s political landscape enables hybrid attacks on the country. With opposition parties openly advocating for a change of government, fueling anti-state narratives, and sharing classified information on the media during their rules exposes inner fault lines. This also facilitates the disinformation campaigns run against Pakistan.

The media’s role in hybrid warfare is disputed but mostly discussed as it provides the means for irregular tactics. The media’s polarization over issues such as local politics and regional affairs provides narrative support that can be used against Pakistan. The ethnic and sectarian divide in the country has also long been used against Pakistan.

While effective countermeasures have been placed by the government and the military, certain loopholes remain. Pakistan did not expect such a hasty withdrawal by the US and allied troops from Afghanistan; hence Pakistan failed to derive its post-US withdrawal Afghan policy. The refugee influx was expected as the human security situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban is not foresighted to get any better. If Pakistan refuses and turns back or relocates refugees, it may damage Pakistan’s humanitarian impression.

If Pakistan takes in refugees, security threats to Pakistan from anti-Pakistan groups and disperse throughout the country.  Disinformation campaigns by India to refute Pakistan’s allegations will also need to be countered timely. But the ability to secure the country’s environment on these levels remains a responsibility of the state and its institutions.

One aspect of hybrid warfare that is not commonly discussed is its ability to appeal to the younger population of any country. A person could be involuntarily towing a hybrid agenda.  With access to media and in particular social media, it has become easier for state and non-state actors to involve the youth in such type of a conflict.

The overall low media literacy standard in the country is the reason why launching hybrid warfare against Pakistan was easier.  Hence, to counter any arguments presented on the social spaces, the youth must be able to separate myth and propaganda from facts and ground realities.

Subjects such as International Relations, Conflict, and or introduction to basics of warfare should be introduced in academia so the youth can develop an early understanding and differentiate between when certain incidents can be used against the state and its narrative to what remains the reality on the ground. Individual interest should be developed to explore these concepts as it is necessary to operate in this age of information. Protection of individuals that come forwards with on-ground information against anti-state activities that could lead to terror incidents should be ensured and encouraged.

Threats to Pakistan by hybrid warfare are as real as any conventional war. To ensure that one stays away from becoming a party in enemies’ hybrid attacks, the support of the youth in whatever capacity they can contribute is required by the state and more so by the security agencies. While one can be critical of certain policies of the state, defending the state against the enemies’ narratives and agendas should be a priority for the youth.

Aisha Saeed is an independent media and foreign policy analyst. She tweets @MsAishaK

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