The casualties suffered by the British Army in Afghanistan and the subsequent furor in London over insufficient deployment of men and materiel to support the British mission in Afghanistan have led many commentators in the United Kingdom (UK) to question the mission and its objectives.
There is a feeling that the lack of a good definition of success for the British Army in Afghanistan has led to ‘mission-creep’, with some commentators even calling the current mission one with the objective of propping up a corrupt, inefficient, faction-ridden and drug-trading regime and providing security for an election that is apprehended to be ridden with irregularities.
On the other hand Major General Athar Abbas, Director General of Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations admitted to CNN that the Pakistan military is in contact with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and can facilitate a peace dialogue between the Taliban in return for concessions from Washington with respect to India.
Last week again, the Chief of General Staff (CGS) of the Afghan National Army (ANA) General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi was in New Delhi on a four-day visit. The official statement of the Indian Army said:
India shares warm and friendly relations with Afghanistan based on historical ties and traditional linkages. India supports a sovereign, stable, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan and is committed to building strategic partnership in all dimensions to this effect. With this commitment regular exchange of visits at political, diplomatic and military level have taken place in the last few years. During the visit he is likely to interact with senior military and civilian defence hierarchy to discuss various contemporary issues.
Speculation had been rife about the possibility of an Afghan request, especially after the visit of General Mohammadi, for increased Indian Army involvement in Afghanistan, with even General Abbas in his interview with CNN apprehending such an eventuality, saying, “What we see as a concern is an over-involvement of Indians in Afghanistan that becomes a concern – particularly if one is watching the security calculus in that.”
General Abbas said, “The fear is, tomorrow what happens if these Americans move out and they are replaced by Indians as military trainers? That becomes a serious concern. So these kind of apprehensions are there, and they are talked about and they are consulted.”
He said Pakistan has been informing the US-led coalition countries about its concerns. “They have to have a line because if [it] goes beyond them, beyond the line then of course the situation would take an ugly turn,” he warned.
With the British Army under pressure in Afghanistan and the US, already in the process of implementing a surge there with no additional troop deployment planned this year, an Indian Army deployment would not be entirely unwelcome to the US and British forces in Afghanistan. It is also not as if the Indian Army has not thought along these lines. In fact, the 18 Infantry Division (RAPID) of the X Corps of the Indian Army has already been earmarked for this eventuality, should it arise. But there are problems with geopolitics, logistics, finance and Indian Army strength levels. Your correspondent spoke to a senior member of the Indian security establishment in the Indian government to get an idea of the discussion on this issue.
“India would be uncomfortable operating without the UN flag. This is also the reason India did not join the international naval task force against piracy in the Arabian Sea and Red Sea, CTF (Combined Task Force)-150. The MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) too might consider it too adventurous,” says the officer.
“Joining up with a NATO/ISAF or non-NATO/ISAF US mission in Afghanistan would be politically problematic in India,” he explains, adding, “But ideally, if India wants to be recognized as a Great Power, it should be able to shoulder the responsibilities of a Great Power, without needing the umbrella of the UN.”
The brasshat, who prefers anonymity, goes on, “Then you have international reaction. For a Pakistan that has trust issues with India, this would be a strategic encirclement. Pakistan would find it far more difficult to direct terrorism against India with impunity and without fear of punitive measures, its nuclear weapons notwithstanding. Needless to say, Pakistan would be terribly unhappy about the idea of Indian forces on both sides, as has come out in the remarks made by General Abbas.”
According to him, it is open to question whether the US would be able to persuade Pakistan on this issue. “And the pound of flesh demanded by Pakistan from the US for this would be best left to the imagination,” he says. But the initial demand would almost certainly be focused towards India and would probably be one with which India would refuse to acquiesce. “Perhaps – and this is a long shot – an offer of more aid from the US would persuade the Pakistani generals,” he shrugs.
Logistics would be an even bigger problem for India than it is for the US. Even if Pakistan were to agree to the basic idea, it would be extremely unlikely for them to allow the transit of men and materiel through their territory into Afghanistan, the main supply route. It should also be noted that this route is extremely vulnerable to attack by Taliban as has been seen by the numerous attacks on key bridges and US supplies.
“In theory, we could request Iran for a transit route, shipping materiel to Bandar Abbas port in the Persian Gulf and then by road to the Afghan border at Zaranj and on to Delaram and then the Afghan Ring Road. As it is this Zaranj-Delaram road was built by our Border Roads Organization (BRO) for the strategic purpose of establishing a supply route to Afghanistan that was not dependent on Pakistan,” he explains, but points to more hurdles to come.
“Say we get the transit rights. It would take a huge financial outlay to supply our troops. How many troops are we talking about here? As of April this year, the US-led coalition had around 100,000 troops. Of course the surge of 17,000 troops is being implemented now. This is besides almost 100,000 in the ANA and Afghan police. The Soviets had a bit more than a 100,000 troops during the ’80s with the Afghan army matching that number. If the proposal is, as General Abbas apprehends, it would be a long-term mission and could result in us having to send in far more troops than we originally thought of deploying. And then we would also have to keep force levels up back home as well and may have to raise additional divisions.”
In the end, he says, “Sure we’d be only too happy to be there. Not only would this be ideal after 26/11, it would also give us a strategic advantage in dealing with Pakistan. India is generally well-liked in Afghanistan and we have extensive experience in COIN (Counter Insurgency) Ops (Operations) so we could do it if we deploy there. The emphasis needs to be on building up the institutions of the Afghan army and police to maybe four to five times their current strength. Proper training and equipment has to be given to them and they have be to built up into a cohesive force so that they become capable of handling the COIN Ops themselves. Of course, the US-led forces have tried to do that, but with limited success, because of the corruption and factionalism in the Afghan government.”
The US is perceived to be trying to ‘finish the job’ in Afghanistan and leave in 2-5 years time. The British too are under pressure to withdraw from the conflict there. “They could well leave, but Al Qaeda and the Taliban will probably become a bigger threat. The British need to rethink their recent cheering of the Pakistan Army’s defeat of the Taliban in Swat. There is no cause for satisfaction yet. Let’s see what happens after the Afghan presidential elections next month,” says the officer.