( US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad with Pakistan COAS Gen. QJ Bajwa)
In the aftermath of the 9th Round of talks in Doha with the US the chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar announced that a deal for the withdrawal of some 13,000 American troops from Afghanistan was at hand. After 18 years of hard fighting the US has had enough and is calling it quits. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the 8,600-personnel strong military contingent that President Donald Trump said would stay on, were there to ensure that “Afghanistan is not a sanctuary” for the assorted Islamic terrorists and freelancers from all over who are expected to seek safe haven in a Taliban-run Afghanistan.
Dunford’s claim, on the other hand, that the residual US force will also try and “bring peace and stability to Afghanistan” is nothing more than a fig leaf for America’s cut and run operation, because what a force of 100,000 US soldiers plus couldn’t do, 8,600 troops certainly won’t be able to. After spending over a trillion dollars in Afghanistan and sustaining 2,400 deaths and ten times as many casualties since 2001 the US is a beaten power eager to rush back home to lick its wounds.
It is the small Intelligence-heavy US presence that’s supposed to provide Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government with the psychological, if not material, assistance and reassurance to conduct general elections later this year at a time when there’s no certainty of the Taliban permitting any of it, whatever Baradar may have committed to the Afghan-origin US Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, tasked with putting together a passable deal. During the negotiations, Baradar and Company were, in any case, aware that Khalilzad had no extended time frame to work with considering Trump’s looming 2020 re-election campaign, and hence they could dictate terms. Trump being Trump, he has hinted that, depending on how successful a Taliban-headed coalition government is in keeping the Islamic extremists out of their country, US troops could be redeployed in Afghanistan. This is the usual hot air ejected by a defeated party scampering from the scene, even though the US has, over two decades, built a huge military infrastructure comprising 700 small and big bases and facilities, and can, in theory, use them for armed interventions in the future.
Not that any US President is ever likely for any reason to initiate another military adventure in Afghanistan. But why is Washington’s insistence that the Taliban in Kabul not allow al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and similar radical terrorist outfits to shelter in Afghanistan, important for India? Because, in the wake of the regularization of the status of Jammu & Kashmir within the Indian Union, Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Intelligence has no option other than try and lure these experienced IS and Qaeda fighters sporting the Iraq and Syria battle honours with cash and stoke their jihadist impulses to fight the kafir Indian state in Kashmir. ISI cannot get out of their heads the enormous success it has had using such means to trounce the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan and now the US-led International Security Assistance Force, which record it hopes to embellish in J&K.
The ISI will prosecute its IS-Qaeda strategy because Pakistan is now bereft of other options. After all, how much effect will Imran’s recommended mode of protest — Pakistanis standing in silence in public places and wherever for half an hour after Friday’s jumma prayers to express their solidarity with Kashmiris supposedly under the Indian yoke, have, really? Imran’s harrumphing threateningly about nuclear war, the cigar-chomping blunderbuss of a railways minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad predicting onset of war by November (he didn’t say which year!) and General Qamar Bajwa’s visiting with formations of the Pakistan army’s strike corps (on Aug 28) and praising them for their splendid fighting posture in the face of Delhi playing it cool and responding with dismissive statements, has done two things. It has shown up the Pakistani leadership as a bunch of reckless dolts, while hiding the basic fact that Pakistan has no money to finance even minor hostilities and its military is in no position to wage any kind of war because its stock of spare parts and ammo won’t last more than a week at intense rates of expenditure. (This should not console Indians much, because our armed services’ counterpart stores are down to a fortnight’s worth of fighting — the comparative situation that exactly resembles what obtained during the 1965 conflict!)
Sans options what are GHQ, Rawalpindi, and Islamabad to do? There’s one thing they can do. They can order a change in tactics. The Valley boys and Mirpuri mussalman youth, previously trained and supported by ISI under the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba aegis, will be asked to pelt stones, place IEDs, and carry out similar actions, to keep Indian units busy and preoccupied, but leave the hard fighting to the murderous IS-Qaeda gangs channeled to J&K from Afghanistan. Such a strategy will serve many interests. It’ll help the Taliban regime to be on the right side of the US, Pakistan to escape the tightening UN Financial Action Task Force noose by pointing out that the troublemakers are from Afghanistan, and to keep the larger sunni cause of Islamizing Kashmir as the first step to realizing the Guzhwa-e-Hind (a balkanised India) objective — a long term project propelled and funded by Saudi Arabia and rich Gulf states, on track.
Should this be the course ISI follows then it will require some real changes in the way Indian forces have so far tackled the insurgency/secessionist problem in J&K. The Rashtriya Rifles (RR) on the frontlines, and the Indian army generally, will need to be more bloody-minded and ruthless to match these characteristic traits of the IS-Qaeda fighters, who give no quarter and ask for none. The RR may be found wanting. The fact is the best units to take on the battle-hardened Uzbek, Somali, Afghan, Arab terrorists comprising IS and Qaeda cadres are the Special Forces with the three armed services. Fielding them in Kashmir will be a test of their mettle. Their advantage is that they are not expected, or even supposed, to “fight by the book” and can match the terrorist fighting hordes in their cut-throat, irregular, tactics.
But for this SF policy to succeed will require fool-proof intelligence on a sustained basis to identify the origin of the terrorists fighting in any particular section of the operations grid. Because pitting the Indian SF against minor league terrorists and misguided Valley youngsters bursting with adrenalin, would be a waste of time and effort, and would result in the inexcusable — a strong force targeting minnows even as the real threat avoids engagement.
For Indian Special Forces, it will be a boon — an opportunity to take on the terrorist elite and best them, and while doing so sharpen their own considerable skill sets. This surely is better than whiling away their time in small-time incursions of small consequence across the Line of Control (that the Pakistanis say they will now treat as a ceasefire line) whilst being penny-packeted as Northern Army reserve, or in similar useless deployment.