In a punitive mood after the Islamic extremists whom the US had carefully nurtured and who, in the guise of the Al-Qaeda led by a one time CIA operative Osama bin Laden turned on their American masters and spectacularly brought down the trade towers in New York city and nearly finished off the Pentagon as well in Washington on 11 September 2001, the then US President George W Bush launched US forces to take out the medievalist regime of the one-eyed Mullah Omar in Afghanistan.
I had predicted then the Americans would be there for a while, but would be beaten black and blue and bundled out by the Taliban. 20 years later that prediction has come true.
Once again, and as is their wont, the US expeditionary forces showed as much punch as a bunch of pansies, running away from a fight as they had done from Saigon when between the Viet Cong guerillas and the People’s Army of Vietnam under the generalship of the legendary Nguyen Von Giap, US MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) was stomped into mulch, the last of the American troops and consular officials helicoptering out off the roof of the US embassy in end-April 1975.
Military defeat is the most wrenching of national experiences. The Chinese smash down in the 31-day Himalayan War 60 years ago (20 Oct-21 November 1962) so dented the image and reputation of the Indian army, it has still to fully recover from it. The Pakistan army, likewise, remains unreconciled to a sheepish-looking General AAK “Tiger” Niazi surrendering his pistol along with 93,000 troops in East Pakistan to General Jagjit Singh Aurora at the race course in Dhaka on 16 December 1971.
Military defeat cannot be masked. Or covered up. Or denied. The former US President Donald Trump’s sometime National Security Adviser, John Bolton, tried to do all three and, predictably, ended up sounding like a blithering idiot. With the last of the US forces decamping in C-130s in the dead of night, July 1, from the Bagram air base in Kabul, this shameful final act of cowardice and lily liveredness was sought to be explained away by Bolton. He claimed with a straight face on CNN that “We weren’t defeated. You have to be defeated to lose a war. We’ve given up because we’ve lost patience.”
Losing patience, walking away, from a war the US started, are synonyms for the American forces being pounced on and pummelled into submission — a result all the more stark considering the $1,200 Billion US spent in Afghanisan over the past two decades in a failing venture, before finally being run out of a country whose people, unlike Indians in India, have historically not taken kindly to foreigners tresspassing into their country. The humiliation at the hands of a scruffy band of sandal-wearing, Kalashnikov-toting, turbanators will be difficult for the US to live down. One thing is certain though, in the aftermath of their twin military fiascos in Iraq and now Afghanistan, Americans will not be sallying forth on a new military adventure any time soon.
And this is the US and the American military the Narendra Modi government is happy to outsource India’s strategic security against China to?!!
Still, with the Yanks out of Afghanistan and President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan National Forces (ANF) hanging on for dear life at least in Kabul and the other cities, which uptill now have been spared the Taliban rush, New Delhi has to be clear-minded about its aims and surefooted in crafting a policy that will serve India’s national interests in the short, medium and long term.
Kabul is an invaluable prize for the taliban for a reason — the capital with all the embassies and international presence will legitimize its rule; without it, Taliban are only another set of pretenders. Washington has said a violent takeover of Kabul and other cities by the Taliban will lead to the US withholding diplomatic recognition. This is the reason why the loose Taliban High Command has tried to be reassuring about its behaviour once in power this time around — though the actions of its foot soldiers in the areas it has occupied have increased apprehensions about that country being pushed back into the dark ages — with the girl child imperilled, women’s rights suspended, and music and colourful garments attracting Taliban lashes, when not worse.
The pivotal issue is how long and credibly the ANF can keep up its morale and fight the Taliban surge that swept through 85% of the Afghan countryside. The July 16 incident in Dawlatabad in northwestern Balkh province where a 22-strong ANF Special Force element who, after putting up a valiant fight until their ammo ran out, tried to surrender only to have the Taliban, not conversant with Geneva Conventions or other niceties of war, simply line them up and shoot them down in cold blood. This along with the Taliban edicts to women to go into purdah and the men to not smoke or shave, will do one of two things. It could steel the hearts and the nerves of ANA commanders who with their troops are deployed in and around Kabul and in the 34 provincial capitals, into deciding they would rather risk an honourable battle and go down fighting than meet a dog’s death. Or, they may take a chance on the Talibans’ mercy and heed their call to surrender. In either case, the probability of the Ghani government surviving is problematic. Unless, and this is the big if, ANF holds on to Kabul and successfully repels waves of Taliban onslaught. There’s enough ammo and artillery shells with the ANF to do so in the short and medium term. Some eight Indian Air Force C-17 sorties to Kabul in the recent past, each with 40 tons of military supplies, will have increased the ANF stock of ample prepositioned stores the US left behind on its rapid exit out of the country.
The Afghan ambassador in Delhi, Farid Mamundzay, said the Ghani government and the ANF have an advantage in two decisive respects. It has some 400,000 troops and more than adequate military stores of all kinds, as against only 70,000 in the Taliban ranks. And they have air power which the Taliban don’t. Whence his request to India for help in augmenting the ANF’s helicopter force. 35-40 attack hepters, he thinks, would do the trick and he hopes other than India, the US and Russia will respond with transfer of these fighting whirlybirds. There may be a problem with this reading of the situation. The American forces with excess of everything, especially air power, failed to leave much of a mark on the Taliban. How can an ANF armed hepter fleet of 40 some aircraft make any real difference? Besides, what’s to prevent the Taliban from periodically blunting this edge by mounting attacks on city air fields like the one that a fortnight back destroyed two Blackhawk hepters on the ground in Kunduz? Or, intensifying their new tactic of assasinating helicopter pilots with the ANF?
But Ambassador Mamundzay is absolutely right in identifying the US, Russia and India as the three countries that can prevent the Taliban from taking over the country by sustaining an arms supply line. Moreover, under cover of the US forces marshalling its forces in the area, Russia is strengthening its military presence in the adjoining Central Asian states under the aegis of the Collective Security Organization (CSO). The Central Asian governments are worried about a backwash from a Taliban takeover of Kabul and Afghanistan, and how they’d have to deal with Islamic extremism. So should a future Taliban dispensation in Kabul turn rogue, the CSO states would be happy to be part of a corrective action.
Actively courting the ire of the US, Russia and India, could place the taliban in a no-win situation. Taliban targets can be directly reached by US, Russian, and IAF strike aircraft rounding over the Gulf and staging out of their Farkhor base in Tajikistan. This is the reason why I have pleaded for a long time for a fully provisioned IAF forward placement of a Su-30 squadron at Farkhor. Indian, American and Russian air strikes can take a heavy toll on the Taliban morale and its barebones logistics chain set up for them and, for some time, even managed by the Pakistan ISI. It can, for instance, prevent them from concentrating their war materiel and numbers for concerted attacks on major cities, in particular Kabul. This is what US air power essentially achieved.
The trick for the Indian government is to continue playing on both sides. India can promise more development aid and infrastructure construction assistance to the Taliban. Further, Indian intel agencies have had productive contacts over the years with certain factions of the Taliban. Because the Taliban operate in discrete fashion, each faction in effect fighting its own subregional war for supremacy, it is not that difficult to act against some factions inimical to Indian interests without alienating the friendly ones. And because of the transactional nature of relationships with the Taliban, even the not so friendly sections can be won over by money and other considerations. Pakistani media is full of reports and commentaries suggesting the Indian support and subsidy for the Tehreeq-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) means Delhi holds a whiphand and can destabilize Pakistan at any time.
The ideal solution of course is for an inclusive coalition Afghan government that the Taliban have talked around without giving a clear yes or no answer in the various talks held in peace forums from Doha, Istanbul to Moscow. The Taliban obviously believe thay can wait out the Ghani regime and the patience of its external supporters, in the hopes of Kabul and other cities falling into their lap without a fight. In the meanwhile, they have strategically this time, prioritised the taking over of the main roads, check posts and entry points into Afghanistan.
The Taliban have already captured the border posts over the Amu Darya River connecting Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They realized how because these routes remained in enemy hands, certain western and north western provinces became hotbeds of resistance that the Taliban, when they were in government last, were never able to quell. Thus, the Tajik Ahmed Shah Masood ruled the Panjshir Valley and Colonel Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, with his 20,000-strong complement of ethnic fighters, was a spoiler. So, this time, not wanting to repeat the past, the Taliban have first overrun all border areas and main crossing centres with Tajikistan (Sher Khan Bandar, Panj River) , the Badhgis border with Turkmenistan, Islam Qala in the Herat province fronting on Iran, and the Wakhan corridor facing China.
The Durand Line on the Khyber and across the lower length of Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan is Taliban’s own play ground. Islamabad and GHQ, Rawalpindi, are rightfully worried that working in conjunction with the TTP, the Afghan Taliban, after pacifying the rest of their country and taking Kabul, will realize the old Afghan dream of regaining for Afghanistan its traditional border before the British Raj annexed the territory upto the Marghala Hills in Islamabad. That will be an unexpected denouement to the Independent Pakhtunistan problem! With the Baloch insurgent movements, moreover, operating out of southwestern Afghanistan and the secessionist movement in Balochistan on the boil, the emerging situation is fraught with the utmost danger for Pakistan.
This is where strategic good sense needs to inform India’s Afghanistan decisions. Delhi can play the old game of tightening the pincer on Pakistan — Baloch National Movement, Balochistan Liberation Army, et al, on one side and the Afghan Taliban-TTP on the other side. This will fetch small returns.
Or, it should opt to do the wise thing to subserve India’s metastrategic interests — use the back channel with Islamabad to, in return for Pakistan government settling on a Kashmir solution with the LOC as international border — loosened for to- and fro- movement by Kashmiris on either side, incentivizing, motivating and materially supporting the Afghan Taliban and TTP (away from Pakistan) and against Godless Communist China, and towards liberating fellow Muslim Uyghurs of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and helping them throw off the Chinese yoke. The mountainous Wakhan Corrdor as Taliban guerilla war staging area is almost too perfect for this purpose. It is an enterprise that will have wide support of just about every country that wants to pull China down a peg or two and otherwise help that aggressive Communist state to implode, and which category includes, the US, Russia, most European countries and almost all Asian states.
Pakistan is small fry. Please Think and Act Big and real Strategic, Modiji. You can task your NSA Ajit Doval, with this his biggest Game.