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|September 22, 2001||
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
The lessons of Afghanistan
Wounded and humiliated by the Manhattan bombings, the world's most powerful nation has finally decided to act against the scourge of terrorism whose epicenter lies in our very backyard. We must therefore ensure a change in the geostrategic balance of the region in our favour through the activation of the US counter-terrorism agenda. Winding up terrorist training camps in Afghanistan must be concurrent with winding down similar facilities inside Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
Equally, Pakistan, which is jockeying to become a frontline state must be made to recommit its military forces on the Durand Line that it now employs as strategic reserves against India.
The new Great Game has been joined by the only superpower in the world. It comes at a time when the Taleban was on the verge of completing its conquest of Afghanistan after the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the leader of the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance. But the US will have read the troubled history of Afghanistan as well as Rudyard Kipling on the difficulties of tribal and frontier warfare there before deploying US soldiers inside the country.
The US has two immediate targets: to capture Osama bin Laden alive, and the destruction of terrorist camps inside Afghanistan. The dismantling of the Taleban regime may be an additional objective. But all this could change if bin Laden is handed over to the US. The US strategy is to make Pakistan fight the dirty war. It will commit its troops as a last resort for a short and swift commando type operation to pluck bin Laden out and roll back terrorist camps.
A Kosovo-like standoff operation would precede such a strategy. Both Pakistan and the Taleban are trying to make the most of a bad bargain with the US before accepting its terms. Acting in its national interest, Pakistan is willing to dump the Taleban and at the same time, risk the backlash from domestic jehadis whom the military, rightly or wrongly, feel they can control.
India's third strategic front represented by the Northern Alliance is at present lying astride the Pamirs and Hindukush in Afghanistan. India's Afghan policy went askew with its decision to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While geography has limited India's policy options, lack of contiguity confers the advantage of strategic deniability which hasn't been used effectively.
Till recently, India had a one-point agenda: to ensure a pro-India regime in Afghanistan and limit the efflux of the Taleban into J&K. US intervention in this region could result in a realignment of forces and a possible restoration of the Northern Alliance in Kabul which would be to India's advantage.
Till the late 1980s, Pakistan had committed two army corps, one each at Quetta and Peshawar, guarding its western front. On the east, it was hemmed in by India. Afghan officers trained in the USSR and USA, would pore over maps of the northwest frontier, playing war games with their Indian colleagues on restoring the Durand Line along the Indus river.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, all that changed. Pakistan with American backing, sought to fill the vacuum with the creation of the Taleban. Pakistan's former interior minister, Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar, had once proudly told this writer that the Taleban was his baby.
It is now certain that the Taleban's conquest of Afghanistan will remain incomplete and its future uncertain. The surplus jehadis will flood Pakistan and Kashmir bringing greater instability to the region. Pakistan's military forces will, however, continue to be committed in Afghanistan.
With a rag tag force of around 7,000 armed guerillas, Masoud's Northern Alliance was fighting on two fronts: Badakshan and Panjshir. The 50,000-strong army of the Taleban is supported by a regular Pakistan brigade of 5,000 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant General Said ul Zafar, GoC, Peshawar-based 11 Corps, responsible for Afghanistan. His field commanders are Brigadiers Rashid, Shamim and Khanzada, the last two from the ISI. Of these, around 1,200 regulars are leading a force of 10,000 Taleban in the Badakshan theatre of operations. They are backed by 4,000 volunteers from madarsas in Pakistan with another 3,000 in reserve at Chaman.
Lt Gen K Matinuddin of Pakistan in his book, The Taleban Phenomenon, has described Pakistan's backing of the Taleban as the biggest clandestine operation undertaken by his country. He has severely criticized his government's Afghan policy and suggested the formation of a broad-based government. Such an establishment will result in the forfeiture for Pakistan, the much sought strategic depth and for the Taleban, an Islamic regime in Kabul.
It should be India's hope that the US can dismantle the Taleban regime and set up a government of national reconciliation in which the Taleban is marginalized. This will ensure that Pakistan is forced to redeploy the four divisions along the Durand Line facing Afghanistan which it has so far been able to use as strategic reserve against India. This will alter the geostrategic balance in the region in India's favour.
While neutralizing terrorist bases and facilities inside Afghanistan, the US cannot ignore the training camps inside Pakistan and PoK from where jehad is being waged against India. The US is committed to 'draining the swamp' which is going for the roots of terrorism. The US has to be evenhanded. It cannot be seen to be treating terrorism arising from Pakistan as a freedom struggle and that emanating from Afghanistan as terrorism. Indian diplomacy must not allow this opportunity of eradicating terrorism to slip by.
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