Mission Taliban

There are certain immutable laws of military history that repeated attempts at disproving them only end up confirming their veracity. One such law has to do with certain countries being simply intolerant of interventions by foreign powers. Vietnam and Afghanistan come readily to mind; they are the fabled “graveyards of empires”.

India is at the other end of this spectrum; it is, in military sociologist Stanislaw Andreski’s pithy phrase, “the land of subjugations”. No invader in India has not succeeded in establishing his rule on parts or whole of this country.

Vietnam has kept the Chinese empire at bay for a thousand years, and compelled Chairman Deng Xiaoping, “the great helmsman”, to ponder his folly of sending the People’s Liberation Army into Vietnam in 1979 to “teach” this pesky country a “lesson” only to see his forces get mauled. Afghanistan is the other black hole that many outside powers have, at great cost, discovered is best left undisturbed and to its own devices. There is always a huge cost to getting involved in Afghanistan.

It is easy to capture Kabul, immensely more difficult to control the Afghan countryside – a fundamental lesson few invading forces have understood before going in. So when Lieutenant-General John C. McColl of the British Army led the NATO forces into Kabul in January 2002 and fairly easily ran the Taliban regime of the one-eyed Mullah Omar out of town, he must have believed his job was done. General John Keane at the head of the East India Company Army must have felt much the same way as he took Kandahar, reduced Ghazni, and marched to Kabul in the Spring of 1839, and replaced the reigning monarch, Dost Mohammad, with the more pliable Shuja Shah Durrani – a feat repeated by the UN-mandated ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in 2004 with the installation of Hamid Karzai. There might be no annihilation of the departing ISAF like the one suffered at Gandamak in the winter of 1842 by the retreating Company forces, but there’s also no doubt as to who has won this fight, and how it might spur the jihad.

The Chicago summit on Afghanistan ended May 20 with President Barack Obama’s plan to “cut and run” from Afghanistan being endorsed by relieved members of NATO, who have been hankering to get the hell out. This will be the third time in recent history — after Vietnam and Iraq — that the United States, following a forceful intervention, got mired in a hopeless and bloody war, decided that enough was enough, and pulled out with the mission goals unachieved. What this says about America’s staying power and stamina to its strategic allies and potential partners in Asia contemplating a belligerent China, is not hard to guess.

But the NATO plan to transfer the fighting to the newly raised 325,000 soldiers strong-Afghan National Army (ANA) and police, and to decamp by 2014, is absurd. The US has spent some $20 billion all told on ISAF operations over a decade, and no military technology has been spared — not drones, not the latest sensors that can detect movement and direct precision-guided munitions to the spot in real time — to obtain results. But nothing quite worked, and Americans lost to a motley collection of religious brigands with only their faith, Kalashnikovs and Improvised Explosive Devices to rely on. Now the nascent ANA is supposed to finish the job ISAF started with nothing like the battlefield tech-support and infrastructure the foreign armies benefited from, and with only a bare-bones presence of American Special Forces to buck up the Karzai government’s spirits. And all this is to be accomplished on an annual NATO dole of $4.2 billion for a country with a diminished GDP of $17 billion. Fat chance!

The response, in the event, to contemplating any kind of Indian military role in Afghanistan would instinctively be “Good god, no”! Think again. India has not had the foresight to protect itself by securing a defense perimeter at a distance from the homeland, and has time and again found the enemy at the gate. Moreover, it has been a habitual free-rider on security usually provided by the United States. Every American official passing through Delhi in the last several years has dutifully heard Indian pleas to not distinguish between the good and the bad Taliban, for ISAF not to leave Afghanistan precipitately, and for Washington to stay militarily committed to the Karzai government. Well, the Western troops are going home and a friendly Afghanistan is in peril. Ideally, the best thing would have been for the Indian and Pakistani governments to agree to send a joint South Asian peace-keeping force to that country. That isn’t feasible, or is it? Surely, MEA can send out feelers to Islamabad.

On its own, India should, of course, quickly ramp up its “training, mentoring and instructing” efforts. But it is in India’s interest to do more. The Indian government had almost dispatched an Infantry Division to Iraq in 2003 to please Washington. Surely, the Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed on October 4, 2011 hints at much larger Indian stakes in Afghanistan and an Indian military role in that country. With their vast counter-insurgency experience, Indian army contingents can leverage the high comfort levels the Afghan people will naturally have in dealing with them. They will be able to conduct their business with empathy while retaining Afghan goodwill. Deploying a static Indian military presence, say, in the Hajigak region where Indian companies have mining concessions and will need protection, seems a reasonable first step. It will free up ANA for fighting elsewhere. The more kinetic element could be Indian Special Forces deployed to fight in support of ANA and alongside the American Rangers and SEALs in the toughest terrain against currently the most formidable guerrilla adversary – the battle-hardened Taliban cadres. Para-commandos are the sharp edge of expeditionary forces that India needs to stress and to bulk up for the future. No better place for them to sharpen their fighting skills than in a difficult country related to us intimately by history.

Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow at the National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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