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December 26, 2001
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
Two very different wars
Though India has been battling against state-sponsored terrorism for the last two decades, the global war against terrorism began in earnest on September 11, 2001, with the military campaign being launched on October 7 in Afghanistan.
The political and military objectives were to remove the Taliban from power and replace them with a broad-based government; capture Osama bin Laden; destroy the Al Qaeda network and other terrorist organisations, and root out narco-terrorism from the region.
The dastardly attacks on Parliament have shifted the centre of gravity in the region from Afghanistan to Pakistan and raised the tension to an unprecedented high. The buildup on both sides can blow up into a limited conflict that will, hopefully, end cross-border terrorism.
Operation Enduring Freedom was designed to be short, swift and surgical, driven by the limited campaigning season, its adverse fallout on Islamic countries, American sensitivity to body bags and minimising collateral damage together with a humanitarian relief programme.
It was outrageous that a puny guerrilla force should have attacked the most powerful country in the world. The US, therefore, wanted to fight this war alone though it has carried along, notionally, the coalition against terror.
There were also other constraints in the design of war. Pakistan, the ideal launch pad, could not be used. Its Inter Services Intelligence was not very helpful either and did not switch off the Taliban's tap completely. The Northern Alliance, the silver bullet of the war, was in disarray, precariously clutching on to the single province of Badakshan. Its charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Masoud, was assassinated just two days before the attacks on America. Further, there was no operational coordination between the disparate groups of the Northern Alliance or among the coalition forces. Most importantly, overall intelligence inputs were unacceptably few and low in quality.
After the 35-day bombing campaign, just when it seemed the war was in danger of losing its way, the Taliban began capitulating with the fall of Mazar-e-Sharief. The objectives achieved so far are the dismantling of the Taliban regime, partial demobilisation of the Taliban, partial destruction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- all this virtually casualty-free for the US. More journalists are known to have been killed on the ground than US soldiers.
On the negative side, the disproportionate and extended reliance on air power created an avoidable humanitarian crisis. The military campaign for the most part remained ahead of the political process that has yielded an interim alternative power structure in Kabul.
There were no phase lines or timetables for operations. No clear strategy was visible either -- hence the recourse to aerial bombing in the hope that another Kosovo would happen and the Taliban would collapse from within. The lack of intelligence was compounded by the lack of any coordination with the Alliance whom the US mistrusted, apparently on the ISI's advice.
In fact, the ISI cast the Northern Alliance as barbaric marauders who were bound to initiate a bloodbath once in Kabul. The myth of the invincibility of the Taliban is also their handiwork. It was not until General Tommy Franks, C-in-C of the Central Command, met General Fahim at Bagram on November 4 that the misgivings were removed and Mazhar-e-Sharief happened. The decision not to go for Kabul before reducing Mazar was sound as it was vital that the first battle be successful. Thereafter the Taliban defences fell like a house of cards.
As it turns out, the Northern Alliance fought well and was ably led and behaved admirably on re-entry into Kabul. Money was a key weapon in winning skirmishes. It is pertinent to mention the US position on the delay in the land battle. Gen Colin Powell has said: "You had a First World air force and a fourth world army on the ground and it took a while to connect the two."
The rout of the Taliban was a surprise for many. They did not give a fight anywhere, not even in their military and spiritual headquarters of Kandahar. Their demise was not so much the result of carpet bombing (though this was one of the factors) as due to the loss of external assistance (Pakistan) and local support and the break-up of their command and leadership structures.
It is obvious now that the people hated the Taliban only next to Pakistan. Kamal Matinuddin, a former general in the Pakistan Army, in his book The Taliban Phenomenon, has noted that the militia was the biggest clandestine operation undertaken by his country. He says it was wrong for Pakistan to seek a puritanical Sunni-Pushtoon government in Kabul as it could never bring stability to a multi-ethnic Afghanistan. Further, the Taliban lacked military expertise and though they did have some well-trained ex-Communists, the majority were semi-trained fighters, good against light opposition.
Against the US-backed Northern Alliance, the Taliban simply caved in. It is estimated that almost 10,000 of their cadres were killed while another 15,000 surrendered in Konduz and Kandahar, leaving approximately 25,000 to fight a guerrilla war or sneak into Pakistan. With both external and internal support cut off, and their leadership on the run, the first option would seem a non-starter.
The chances of a multi-ethnic government bringing stability to the country will depend on the degree of control it is able to establish over the warlords and the mopping up of the Taliban with the help of the proposed multilateral peacekeeping force. Restoring internal and social order and reconstructing a society demolished by the Taliban will be a priority task. The greatest beneficiary of the revival of sanity in Afghanistan will be Pakistan as can be seen from recent developments there.
While considering the impact of the campaign against terror on the security situation in the region, one cannot separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, the two together being the epicentre of terrorism, or the terrorist factory as External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh calls it. The toppling of the Taliban and Pakistan's hand in it, next to the nuclear tests in the region, has to be the most far-reaching strategic development of the decade. It has given a rapidly Talibanising Pakistan one last chance to revert to moderation and modernisation.
Already the military high command has been recast in favour of professionals and a crackdown on religious and fundamentalist groups has begun. The process of de-weaponisation and review of activities of religious institutions like madarssas has also begun. Many who predicted that fundamentalist forces would take over Pakistan have been proved wrong.
Of the 5,000 terrorists operating inside Jammu & Kashmir, nearly 60 per cent are foreigners from the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Badr. Ten per cent of these are Afghans, though many more were being trained in Afghanistan.
Logically the number of Made in Afghanistan terrorists fighting in J&K ought now to reduce significantly. That may not be the case just yet. Following the terrorist attacks on the Srinagar assembly on October 1, the US was quick to freeze the accounts of the JeM and, along with the LeT, place it on the terrorist exclusion list.
The other post-September 11 good news for this region is the assessment of Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw in the House of Commons last month that Pakistan's approach of supporting terrorism in Kashmir has undergone a sea-change and that Britain will continue to press Islamabad to continue on the right path.
Pakistani visitors to India have confirmed the welcome change of heart among their ruling elite towards dousing religious fundamentalism, rooting out terrorism and dropping the Taliban. But most remain stuck in the groove of self-determination and UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, which they know, is a non-option. For some of them, the terrorists in J&K continue to be freedom fighters. Yet they have the chutzpah to suggest that India not rock the boat - a euphemism for crossing the Line of Control.
Some churning in the religio-military establishment is also taking place, questioning the rationale of jihad and the Taliban's interpretation of Islam. But the introspection in Pakistan has not diluted the ferocity of cross-border terrorism, which in the short term is likely to escalate. After September 11, some training camps were closed temporarily. Others were shifted to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The months of October and November coinciding with the peak bombings in Afghanistan saw a sharp rise in terrorism in J&K.
The American think tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says that chastened by the failure of his Afghan policy, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf might now use "Kashmir as a safety valve" to show his commitment to the cause and unite public opinion behind him. This is to placate not just the fundamentalists, but also those who are cribbing that "he has dumped the Taliban. He can't do that to the Kashmiris."
In India, the reaction to the Afghanistan campaign is mixed. The US is congratulating India's restraint on the LoC. Many Indians are hoping the US will turn next to terrorism in J&K. US statements that J&K is in phase II of the war against terrorism have encouraged such expectations. Visiting Western leaders have also said so. The moral of the campaign is that there are no good terrorists.
India's security analysts are, however, warning that after its job is done in Afghanistan the US will renege on its commitment to root out terrorism in this region and probably shift to Iraq, though the British chief of defence staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, has cautioned against this. It was Boyce and his military commanders who had earlier said that this war would go on for four years and that missing from the campaign were strategic vision and hard intelligence.
So far India had been congratulating itself even while the US supports Israel in going after terrorists "in self-defence". Now with Delhi being targeted by terrorists, most Indians expect the painful transition from self-delusion to ground reality coming soon.
The fear among the Indian security forces is about the rehabilitation of the surplus Taliban and their next destination. The estimate is that anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 Taliban fighters could be diverted to J&K unless Musharraf can send them to a re-education school. An influx of Taliban is bound to raise the ante and put an extraordinary strain on India's security forces and restraint.
The lessons of the campaign for the Indian armed forces, which have been fighting terrorism for two decades, are only reminders of the crucial role of intelligence, special forces and the need for tougher counter terrorism laws that make life difficult for terrorists and easier for the security forces. Light forces with specialised equipment operating in and integrated into civil-military structures will be required for swift results against terrorist threats in other parts of India.
The victory in Afghanistan has come from fighting a standoff war almost wholly using air power and engaging the enemy with the local militia without deploying US troops in battle. From the deck of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson alone, 3,000 sorties delivered two million pounds of ordnance. By contrast the Indian doctrine to defeat terrorism relies on restraint -- minimum force and good faith. There is no use of air power, not even the offensive use of helicopters. The counter terrorism forces are purely infantry re-geared for fighting terrorists.
In an operational sense, the two wars -- Afghanistan and J&K -- are very different in tactics and strategy.
Pakistan's elusive quest for strategic depth and an economic harvest in Afghanistan has suffered a severe setback. The Durand Line is likely to be destabilised by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The two Pakistan Army corps earmarked for the western border that were available to it to bolster its strategic reserve and sharpen the conventional deterrent against India will now get deployed on the Durand Line. This will reduce its military capability on the eastern front.
The precedents set by the US and Israel by attacking the source of terrorism in self-defence, with the US even suggesting that Israel go for the terrorists, could encourage India to emulate them. In view of the latest terrorist attack by the LeT and JeM against the heart and soul of Indian democracy, it will be extremely difficult for India not to respond appropriately. It may not be an eye for an eye, but with key state elections around the corner, India cannot be seen to be turning the other cheek.
Even while the hunt for Laden and Mullah Omar is on and Afghanistan is limping back to normalcy with an interim government, India and Pakistan are now in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
The military situation is delicately poised. Any counterattack by India, which has in the past spoken about 'limited war', could spin out of control at this juncture. Only the US can now put pressure on Pakistan to stop cross-border terrorism in J&K... or else.
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
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