Pakistan’s Frontier Corps and the War against Terrorism – Part Two

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 16

Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) was ushered onto the global stage by two tumultuous events: firstly, the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and secondly, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001.

The massive influx of over 3.5 million Afghan refugees in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan radically altered the demographics of Pakistan’s tribal areas. Due to their cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and tribal affiliation with the inhabitants of the tribal areas, most of the Afghan refugees opted to seek refuge in Pakistan’s borderlands. Since the number of refugees exceeded the native population of the tribal belt, they ended up constituting a majority of the population in areas such as Kurram Agency and the Chagai district of Balochistan.

The Frontier Corps and the Afghan Mujahideen

Having to contend with the presence of the Soviets next door made the Pakistan military realize how inadequately they had equipped and trained the FC. This realization, along with the availability of a large number of Afghans in Pakistan tribal areas, made this area the hub of the military struggle against the Soviets. Enormous amounts of U.S. military aid and weapons flowed into the area with the Saudis bankrolling a virtual mushrooming of religious seminaries or “madrassas,” which sprang up everywhere. This was to be the genesis of the Taliban phenomenon. Lacking any presence in the area, the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence service (ISI) co-opted elements of the FC to establish links with the mujahideen. Since most of the FC’s manpower was drawn from local tribesmen having roots in the tribes inhabiting Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), this conduit worked well for the ISI in orchestrating the resistance against the Soviets. One negative result of the involvement of the FC in training and equipping the mujahideen was that the FC troops established strong links with the militants that persist to this day. A significant number of the local tribal youth who subsequently enlisted for service with the FC have also had exposure to education in the religious seminaries, and these individuals tend to have a soft spot for the extremist militants that have made FATA their home for well over two decades. In January 2008 testimony to a U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, Christine C. Fair said that the Corps is “inadequately trained and equipped and has been ill-prepared for counter-insurgency operations in FATA.” Fair also said that the Corps “was used to train the Taliban in the 1990s and many are suspected of having ties to that organization.” [1]

Consequent to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban as the major force in that country, the FC quickly reverted back to its traditional roles of providing border security and carrying out anti-smuggling operations, but the ease with which the mujahideen had earlier crossed the Pakistan-Afghanistan border permitted them to continue travelling freely between the two countries. Surprisingly, given the involvement of the FC in the struggle to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan, the force continued to suffer from serious equipment and training deficiencies. To quite an extent, it is correct to state that the FC was not only poorly trained but also poorly equipped even in comparison with the Taliban.

Impact of the American Invasion of Afghanistan

The second epochal event that served to bring the FC to prominence was the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The Coalition assault on the Taliban once again led to a mass exodus of refugees towards Pakistan from Afghanistan. This was also precipitated by the massive bombing in the area near Tora Bora and served to instill fear in the hearts of FATA tribesmen living in the area. Although support for the Pakistan Government’s decision to aid the campaign against terrorism increased among the tribesmen, the porosity and inaccessibility of the border did allow sizeable al-Qaeda elements to flee from Afghanistan towards FATA. While some of these elements settled in the tribal areas, others managed to spread out into other parts of Pakistan, went underground, or both.

The period following the Coalition invasion saw several operations being conducted jointly by the Pakistan Army and Coalition troops. These operations can be divided into two broad phases from the Pakistani perspective. In the first phase, Pakistan was required to seal its borders against any attempts by al-Qaeda or Taliban remnants to cross over into FATA, while in the second phase, the requirement was to root out those undesirable elements who had either managed to cross over or those who were already ensconced within their shelters inside FATA.

Military operations in FATA commenced after it became known that some Taliban elements were planning to seek refuge in FATA and had been provided with logistical support by the Ahmedzai Wazirs living in South Waziristan Agency. These tribals were essentially motivated by greed, fear of al-Qaeda retribution, or misplaced sympathy with the cause of these militant elements. This operation was codenamed “Al-Meezan” and saw the FC once again being moved to forward positions along the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Subsequently, when Coalition operations against the Tora Bora enclave commenced, it was felt that the paramilitary forces needed to be beefed up. This led to the regular Pakistan Army’s first ever entrance into the tribal areas. Needless to say, the lack of infrastructure in the region necessitated a resort to helicopters and even animal transport to reach some of the otherwise inaccessible areas. ‘Operation Al-Meezan’ entailed apprehending fleeing terrorists and reaching the suspected hideouts of undesirable elements in remote areas. Most importantly, all these operations had to be conducted in a manner that sought consensus with the natives and their pacification, while respecting their sensitivities – both religious and cultural.

For their part, the tribals pledged full support to the Pakistan Army, promised not to give refuge to any terrorist, and also agreed to participate alongside the Pakistan Army in anti-terrorist operations. In return for these pledges, the tribesmen stipulated three conditions from their side; 1) no foreigners would be permitted to enter the tribal areas; 2) no resort would be made to aerial bombing; and 3) the forces entering the tribal belt would not convert their stay into a permanent one. These initial operations met with significant success in that 203 al-Qaeda members were arrested while another ten were killed. On the Pakistani side, the losses were seven killed and nine wounded – mostly FC personnel since the Pakistan Army was operating in the rear with the FC at the forefront.

Military Deployment in FATA

Although the military operations in FATA did not actually cease, the sudden mobilization of Indian forces along Pakistan’s eastern border in 2002 did serve to divert Pakistan’s attention from the north western borders (Daily Times [Lahore], February 9, 2006). This contingency necessitated some of the regular army elements in FATA being moved to the eastern border. This depletion in the presence of the regular army once again left the FC in charge of operations designed to seal the Pakistan – Afghanistan borders.

As soon as the situation on the eastern border eased, the troops were moved back into FATA and the adjoining areas from where they were in a position to launch Operation Al-Meezan-2 in conjunction with Operation Anaconda being mounted by Coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan. These joint operations were aimed at beefing up the military presence in the North and South Waziristan Agencies and necessitated the effective sealing of the border, for which an additional infantry brigade of the Pakistan Army had to be deployed and brought into action.

The growing need for military forces increased the total deployment of the Pakistan Army in the area to over two infantry divisions, comprising over 74,000 combatants distributed over 637 checkpoints throughout the tribal areas. From the Afghanistan side, 12,000 Coalition troops were involved in these operations, bringing the total number of deployed troops to over 86,000 personnel.

This operation led to spectacular successes but at enormous cost, since most of the targeted individuals were inside fortified shelters and had access to an enormous array of modern weapons. While 656 militants were arrested and 302 killed, the Pakistani forces lost 221 dead and 482 injured. In addition to the infantry of the Pakistan Army and the FC, army attack helicopters and fighter-bomber aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) were employed during this operation (Nawa-e-Waqt [Islamabad], September 22, 2003).

From Police Force to Military Organization

As soon as the situation stabilized somewhat, the Pakistan Army once again took the back-seat with the FC assuming greater responsibility, but the training inadequacies, equipment deficiencies, and an endemic state of low motivation and morale led not only to large-scale desertions but also saw several fortified FC positions being easily overrun by the extremist militant elements. There were also instances where FC troops refused to take up arms against their own kith and kin inside FATA.

Incidents such as these have not only hurt the prestige and credibility of the FC as a military force, but have also led to allegations of FC troops being in collusion with extremist militants operating against Coalition troops inside Afghanistan. In the absence of a better alternative, however, the United States and Pakistan are now working on a major modernization program that would see the FC being elevated from the status of a mere police force to a military organization that is adequately trained and suitably equipped for the conduct of major counter-insurgency operations (Dawn [Karachi], December 6, 2006; Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2007). This development plan envisages the U.S. government funding the re-equipment of the FC and also providing military trainers. On the other hand, the Pakistan Government is considering a proposal to improve the terms and conditions of service of the FC personnel in order to bring these in line with those applying to personnel serving in the regular Pakistan Army. The future could possibly see the FC formations being made a formal part of the regular army just as the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil conflict over Kashmir witnessed the erstwhile Northern Light Infantry formations being converted into regular infantry battalions of the Pakistan Army (Dawn, June 13, 2000).

The Future of the Frontier Corps

Notwithstanding the numerous failures that have characterized FC operations against the extremist militants in FATA, many experts continue to believe that the FC has a much better chance than the Pakistani army in securing the tribal areas. In his testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John D. Negroponte highlighted that the Government of Pakistan has launched a program to increase the size of the FC, whose members have unique advantages operating in the tribal areas due to their linguistic and ethnic ties. The United States is supporting this expansion and is helping to train and equip the Frontier Corps to enhance Pakistan’s ability to secure its border and provide security to the indigenous population. [2]

Recent reports indicate that Washington is planning a significant increase in current military assistance to the FC and its efforts to secure the tribal belt includes a proposal by U.S. Special Operations Command to train and arm tribal leaders to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban with a $750 million aid package for the border area over the next five years. [3] More importantly, the calls within Washington political circles for closer monitoring of how Pakistan utilizes U.S. aid could possibly lead to this aid reaching the FC rather than it being siphoned off for other purposes either by the Pakistan Government or the Pakistan Army.


The FC has never been so much in the limelight throughout its century-long existence as it is today. Although some analysts view the U.S. plan to convert the FC into a potent counter-insurgency force with skepticism, the fact of the matter is that neither the U.S. nor Pakistan have any other option available than to rely on the FC. What is most important, however, is the fact that any plan to enhance the combat potential of the FC must not be undertaken in isolation from the imperative of socio-economic development of the deprived populace of FATA. While a potent military presence in the region might provide temporary relief, a long-term solution requires that the territories now constituting FATA be fully integrated with the rest of Pakistan rather than continuing to be governed by outdated laws and treated as a semi-autonomous region.


1. C. Christine Fair, “U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Assassination, Instability, and the Future of U.S. Policy,” Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia on January 16, 2008.

2. John D. Negroponte, “Securing The Dangerous Pakistan Tribal Areas,” Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington DC, May 20, 2008

3. Jayshree Bajoria, “Pakistan’s New Generation of Terrorists,” Council on Foreign Relations, Washington DC, February 6, 2008.