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November 10, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

The fall of Badakshan must be prevented at all cost

Finally it is happening. India's proactive Afghan policy is shaping. The Russians, old hands at the Great Game south of the Caucasus, are joining hands with India among others and the USA to work out a strategy to bail out the anti-Taleban alliance represented by the Masoud militia of what is left of the Northern Alliance.

India's third front may be saved from crumbling. This strategic frontier lies astride the Pamirs and the Hindukush in Afghanistan where the Northern Alliance commander, Ahmed Shah Masoud, is battling the Taleban for survival.

Masoud is being kept on drip by Russia, Tajikistan, India, Iran and others but there is no collective strategic vision among them on how to deal with the Taleban.

Many people say India's Afghan policy is in tatters starting from the flawed decision to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Others argue that while geography has limited India's policy options, the lack of contiguity confers the advantage of strategic deniability. Unfortunately, there is no game plan.

Geography and history are so entwined in the land of the Great Game that unless one has a grasp of both, chances of success are zero. How times have changed.

By the mid seventies, 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 Nasirullah Khan Babar, had once proudly told this writer that the Taleban was his baby.

Till recently, India had a one point agenda: to ensure a pro-India regime in Afghanistan and limit the influx of the Taleban into J&K.

With the Taleban now in control of 95 per cent of the territory and Kabul becoming the fount of terrorism, narcotics and jehad, India has to think beyond supporting Masoud and look across the Amu Dariya at the untapped treasures of energy, mineral resources and markets.

The issues range from choosing between Taleban and Masoud, to the kind of help India should provide to ensure political and military stability in Afghanistan.

With fresh sanctions against the Taleban on the anvil, nearly on million Afghans face the threat of starvation with Pakistan bound to be affected by a fresh wave of refugees. Officially Pakistan hosts 1.2 million refugees, though the actual figures is nearly three times.

It is well known that even if the Taleban's conquest of Afghanistan is complete, guerilla warfare will ravage much of the north.

A victory for the Taleban will be seen as victory for Pakistan and those hankering for strategic depth. 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.

India's options have therefore, to be weighed carefully after consulting Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics.

In another two weeks, the snows will settle over the Hindukush mountains signaling the end of the campaigning season. The battlelines are very confused. Masoud has lost much ground in the last two years and been boxed into the Badakshan province, containing the strategic Wakhan corridor, straddling Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. He has lost Taloqan province but recaptured Imam Saheb and Khwaja Ghar.

The fearless commander of the Northern Alliance has to secure his lines of communication to his bases along the Amu Dariya like the river port of Sherkhan Bander, to Tajikistan in the north from Faizabad (the capital of Badakshan province) and to Panjhshir valley north of Kabul from Charikhar and Jabal us Siraj.

With a rag tag force of around 7000 armed guerillas, Masoud is fighting on two fronts: Badakshan and Panjhshir. He has the skills and cunning, if not the wherewithal, to defend Badakshan. The new winter defence line is likely to be approximately 20 km east of Taloqan while his forces further south try to gain ground north of Kabul.

The Taleban is a full fledged conventional force under the command of Lt Gen 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. As many as 5000 soldiers - a brigade - are helping the 50,000 strong army of Taleban. Of these, around 1200 regulars are leading a force of 10,000 Taleban in the Badakshan theatre of operations. They are backed by 4000 volunteers from madarsas in Pakistan with another 3000 in reserve at Chaman.

Like at Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, the Taleban is employing conventional tactics and being supported by tanks and APCs where these are usable. The moment of truth will come next year when Taleban launch their summer offensive to capture Faizabad and link up over the 15,000 foot high Dorah Pass with Chitral in the Northern Areas of Pakistan.

If they succeed in capturing Badakshan, Panjhshir will become untenable and the Northern Alliance will have no organised presence left in Afghanistan.

With Masoud under threat of being squeezed from Taloqan and Chitral, well-wishers of the Northern Alliance need to forge a strategy that will ensure not only his survival but also an increased military capacity to bleed the Pakistan Army inside Afghanistan. Commander Masoud is the best man for this job.

Although there is some networking in the CAR with Russia, no counter Taleban politico-military strategy is visible. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are the three countries which share borders with Afghanistan in the north. Turkmenistan and Taleban enjoy good business relations. Pakistan is keen to start work on a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through western Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, like Tajikistan, being vulnerable to Islamic fundamentalism, is sitting on the fence.

President Karimov has acknowledged Taleban's preeminence but is worried the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan will get Taleban to help set up an Islamic state in Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan. This is not all. There have been shoot-outs in Tajikistan and Kyrghzstan involving fundamentalists.

Russia fears not only the Talebanisation of CAR but also an influx of Muslim volunteers in Chechnya and Dagestan. Its 201 Army division located in Tajikistan is patrolling the southern borders with Afghanistan.

The Taleban has described the Russian presence as threat to Central Asia. In the meantime, diplomatic activity to contain Taleban has gone multidimensional.

At Russia's behest, the Shanghai Five is being expanded to the Shanghai Forum with Indian participation: there is a new regional security pact of Kazakistan, Kyrghzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Armenia and Russia; separate bilateral working groups between Russia-India, Russia-USA, US-India on Afghanistan and counterterrorism and Russia-Pakistan discussions on Afghanistan are operational or in the offing.

While the Taleban wants the Afghanistan seat in the UN, US is demanding Osama Bin Laden, ban on opium production and a liberal human rights record. More UN sanctions on the Taleban which could include closure of land borders are likely even while efforts are on to get the warring factions around the negotiating table. The Taleban however, is most unlikely to accept the formation of a broad-based government after its military seizure of Afghanistan.

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 criticised his government's Afghan policy and suggested the formation of a broad-based government. It seems the UN has managed once again to bring the Taleban around in talking to the Northern Alliance about powersharing.

The first meeting of the Indo-Russian joint working group on Afghanistan later this month could decide the fate of the Northern Alliance. As India needs to create strategic space for itself in Afghanistan it must, in concert with other states, do much more for Masoud than just giving medicines and blankets.

The fall of Badakshan must be prevented at all costs. It is high time India not only salvaged its third front but also raised the costs for Pakistan for its interference in Afghanistan.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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