Post 9/11 and in consequence to national sentiment, the United States under President George W. Bush, launched their forces into Afghanistan, with a declared aim to dismantle, defeat Al Qaeda, destroy its safe havens in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), overthrow the Taliban (student/seeker in Pashtun) government, bring stability, peace and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan, promote democracy and in the process prevent its soil from being used as a base for terrorist operations across the world. After 20 years, trillions of US dollars and more importantly, huge casualties, the US and its allies have exited Afghanistan in a hurry, to say the least, with little to show for their efforts. They did almost destroy Al Qaeda and eliminate Osama Bin Laden though.
The rapid advance of the Taliban into Kabul shocked the world. A plethora of comments, opinions, analysis, recommendations have appeared on various platforms of the media. In India numerous recommendations, analysis and opinions have been published on what should be India’s stand at the bilateral, regional and the international levels. Our system without doubt is looking at these issues overtime and evolving policy options in all their dimensions.
It is equally important to simultaneously address linked issues that we need to take up immediately to indemnify the nation and secure its people and institutions from within against any external attempts at destabilisation. This is an immediate imperative. The need is to take a hard look at our internal situation in all its aspects; examine these in the light of the lessons from the Afghanistan experience, identify weak spots and make corrections where required. In this process the nation must be secured and strengthened to become immune to any efforts aimed at disruption. A brief look at the Afghanistan experience over the last two decades would be a good start point.
Consequent to the US intervention the Taliban government was overthrown and International Coalition (IC) established its presence in Afghanistan. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq and it remained preoccupied with it throughout President Bush’s tenure. Afghanistan remained an over the horizon operation. During this period (2003-2008) the Taliban took advantage and managed to re-establish itself in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
In 2009, the US inducted 21,000 additional troops into Afghanistan. These reinforcements were deployed in southern Afghanistan to address the Taliban gains in the region. Soon the Americans realised that the area was vast, it was impossible to seal the Afghanistan Pakistan border, which was a military must in order to address the Taliban and there was little or no local administration or functional institutions in the region. As a result, not only were the reinforcements too small (by some estimates a minimum of 100,000 additional troops were required to dominate the area), it also became obvious that the operation required a long time. During this time the Taliban had successfully turned the local perception against the US troops through a well organised propaganda machinery. This operation left very little for the western and more importantly the northern areas where the Taliban were weak and even non-existent in some areas at the time.
During this period the Taliban, a primarily Pashtun (approximately 40% of Afghanistan population) organisation, was busy integrating the non-Pashtun tribes, particularly in the north, into their organisation. They did this through a strategy of higher-level centralisation and local-level decentralisation. The integration of the Haqqani group is a good example. The tribal and local leaders were free to exercise complete autonomy in their areas but could not take higher level decisions or address issues outside their areas. The outcome was that while the IC was bogged down in the south and east, the Taliban had managed to achieve control of the western and northern areas of Afghanistan. In hindsight, had the IC isolated the Taliban in the south and simultaneously secured the western and northern areas against the Taliban, which were easy picking at the time, the story may have been different today. However, by the time they started looking north the troops were weary and the public opinion back home had changed. Overall, there was a systemic fatigue at all levels.
Was there a failure of strategic vision and planning? If so, what were the contributing factors that led to this besides the long distance away from home as well as President Bush’s preoccupation with Iraq. The western perception was that the Taliban and other groups were uneducated, rustic, loosely connected, local and could be easily overcome. They underestimated the Taliban, which in turn displayed great vision and outstripped the IC at all stages of the conflict. It is a principle of war that one must never underestimate an enemy. The IC was convinced that they could easily prop one tribe against the other and thus keep the state divided. Taliban outsmarted them and obviated such efforts through integration. Through their drone attacks and air strikes the IC killed most of the strong non Pashtun leaders who could possibly have opposed the Taliban. This played into the Taliban hand. Without going into further details suffice it to say that arrogance, over-reliance on technology, ambiguous directions to the troops on ground were aspects that effected the final outcome. The military, political and diplomatic aims and objectives were at conflict with each other during these 20 years of IC commitment in Afghanistan.
LESSONS FOR INDIA
What lessons do we in India need to take a note of, so that we ensure this never happens here? Our proximity to the happenings, perceived destabilising factors and national imperatives make an immediate corrective course a must.
India has been fighting insurgency in Kashmir for almost 75 years. The Northeast has had insurgency for decades, and the Naxal problem may be down, but is definitely not out. The security forces have been deployed in these disturbed areas and it is to their credit that they have continued to deliver over prolonged periods. The first requirement is that the forces be given a clear and an unambiguous definition of the desired end state. This then will define success in their operations in clear and unambiguous terms. In insurgency operations such definition must be revisited periodically.
Assuming that the mission assigned to the security forces is to restore “normalcy” in the area, the forces then need to define normalcy itself. This could allude to a situation where people feel secure, can go to work and experience economic security, their children go to schools, the administration and the institutions function to their expectations and they perceive a sense of pride in the nation and develop a stake in the nation. The security forces cannot achieve all of this by themselves. All political, administrative, judicial and other state agencies must work together to achieve such a desired end state. The security forces on their part must endeavour to precipitate an environment where all agencies feel safe to function from within and the people feel confident enough to hold such agencies, institutions to account. It is only that much that the security forces can achieve and no more. Therefore, the deployment of the forces is just a means and not an end in itself. The political masters and other pillars of our society must play their part with sincerity and commitment. They owe it to the security forces and the nation to precipitate an environment of normalcy across the nation as a top priority and free the security forces to concentrate on their main task of conventional warfare and defence of the nation. It does not bode well for the nation to have the security forces remain deployed for decades. Such deployment will only ensure status quo at best.
One of the major factors in Afghanistan was the manner in which the Taliban managed to bring majority of the tribes together and integrated them into one whole. Population integration is datum to the concept of normalcy. Each person must perceive a sense of security and belonging. Divisive politics aimed at dividing people along religious, caste, economic lines is only going to create vulnerabilities and weaknesses within the social structure of the nation. Perception warfare was successfully fought by the Taliban. Managing social perception is key to integration of population into one whole and inducing a sense of belonging. Senseless lashings, public hangings, brutal murders and organisational condoning of such barbaric acts are detrimental to such efforts. We are a declared secular country and must aggressively promulgate this aspect of our social fibre. It is dangerous to alienate a section of our people.
In the launch and conduct of this perception warfare the media is a lethal weapon and must be used. Notice how the western media rapidly created an impression that the IC failure in Afghanistan was due to corruption, bad management and defunct institutions of the local system and people. What about the IC? 20 years on? For the media to be effective the people must believe in it. It must be encouraged to regain its credibility. An essential first step.
Of equal importance is the economic wellbeing of the people. We are a young nation where the median age is likely to approximate at 28 years by 2022. We have huge numbers of educated, unemployed and restless youth population. This restlessness has to be harnessed. Maybe we now need to make the change from growing economically to growing as a nation. There is a cost to that shift and has to be borne by the state.
The Indian security forces have ensured that they do not get worn out or fatigued by putting in place a system of relief of troops periodically. In this, the Rashtriya Rifles is an effective concept. Such steps need to be enhanced, added to and every measure put in place to further improve the relief of troops aimed at physical and more importantly psychological stamina and wellbeing in place. The focus must remain on the troops deployed in such operations. There is a debate on the creation of theatre/terrain commands aimed at promoting jointmanship and so on. Such moves should not be at the cost of the ongoing counter insurgency operations. The authorities must invest further in newer technologies to further enable the troops. Given present context such changes can wait.
Afghanistan has proved that the man behind the gun is as important today as he has ever been. A number of comments have concluded that as modern technology takes over, the nature of warfare is likely to lean away from the soldier and he will have a lesser role to play in future conflicts. Afghanistan has proved that the soldier continues to be critical to the battlefield. As a nation we must ensure that his morale and wellbeing remain a paramount consideration in all that we do. He must never be dragged into the political arena. He must be rarely seen for it is this anonymity that is his strength.
Recent happenings in Afghanistan are of grave concern to the world. Proximity to the area makes it all the more serious for India. While we are deeply engaged with our policy options internationally we must look inwards and take appropriate steps to strengthen the nation by integrating it into a cohesive whole with peace, economic wellbeing and harmony across the nation.
Lt Gen Daljeet Singh PVSM AVSM VSM is a former GOC-in-C of Western Command.