Pragati August 2008: Should India send troops to Afghanistan?

Issue 17 - Aug 2008
Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

Making a leader
Excerpts from a lecture on leadership and discipline
Sam HFJ Manekshaw

Our voice in our history
Academic freedom, private funding and historical research
Jayakrishnan Nair

Letters
On whether or not India has a coherent foreign policy

FILTER
A survey of think-tanks
On China policy; Fixing the FATA; An Indo-Israeli alliance?
Vijay Vikram

IN DEPTH
Hold steady in Afghanistan
India is on the right track and it should stay that way
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza

A bigger military presence is essential
…if India is to shape Afghanistan’s future
Sushant K Singh

The myth of Taliban tribalism
The folly of trying to set tribes against each other
Joshua Foust

IN PARLIAMENT
Monsoon Session 2008—What’s in store
Legislative brief
Sarita Vanka

ROUNDUP
When it’s good to slow down
The why and what next about rising inflation
V Anantha Nageswaran

The historical roots of the services sector
…calls for a strategy that plays to India’s strengths
Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta

Profiting from education
Resistance against commercialisation is fruitless
Atanu Dey

BOOKS
Four books about Pakistan
On nuclear proliferation, military politics and society
Nitin Pai

Oh, the delicacy

Superman, Batman and rogue elements in Pakistan’s security apparatus

A senior CIA official, we are told, traveled to Pakistan this month “to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.”

The New York Times report deals a delicate blow to the visiting Pakistani prime minister. The blow is blunt enough to connect the Pakistani establishment to the Taliban and al Qaeda, but careful enough to provide “Pakistan’s most senior officials” with an exit—for “it is unclear whether the CIA officials have concluded that contacts between the ISI and militant groups are blessed at the highest levels of Pakistan’s spy service and military, or are carried out by rogue elements of Pakistan’s security apparatus.”

Another delicacy: it reports that the CIA presented evidence of the ISI-Taliban nexus responsible for the resurgence in Taliban violance “possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul”. But also that while “Afghanistan’s government has publicly accused the ISI of having a hand in the attack”, it is an “assertion American officials have not corroborated.”

So was this trigger for last weekend’s botched attempt by Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to bring the ISI under ‘civilian control’? Possibly. In the event, the CIA official’s effort didn’t amount to much. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has demonstrated that it is he who is in charge of the ISI and would prefer to remain so. And that delicate thing about “rogue elements” is only a crutch for those who can’t stomach the reality.

Dropping more cash from helicopters

Change should not be another word for more of the same

Jim Hoagland’s piece on how the US should transform its Pakistan policy gets it exactly, precisely right.

And it is the case with the campaign promises of John McCain and Barack Obama to unleash ever-larger flows of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Pakistan as a way of bringing stability there and to win the global war on terrorism. They, too, would drop cash from helicopters to calm fears.

That same approach to Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf failed the Bush presidency, and it will fail new leaders in Washington and Islamabad as well. What is needed is a daring reformulation of U.S. policy toward South Asia.

Pakistan has created the world’s toughest foreign policy challenge. Its military and civilian governments have for decades profited from stirring tribal warfare in Afghanistan, then been too frightened of or complicit with their own fundamentalists to push for significant social change at home.

But Qureshi was persuasive when he outlined his determination to improve relations with India. His recent trips there convince him that the two nations must put aside hostility and help make each other rich: “We must capitalize on this opportunity.”

India’s growing economic power will leave its neighbor in the dust unless Pakistan becomes part of that prosperity. Pakistan’s future will be determined by its relations with India, not by increased U.S. aid or maintaining its support for tribal war in Afghanistan.

Recognizing and acting on that Indo-Pak reality — rather than perpetuating the illusion that the United States controls Pakistan’s fate — are the urgent tasks for new governments in Washington and Islamabad. [WP]

Clearly, the task is daunting because US policy must change Pakistani mindsets and attitudes. [See a review of Farzana Versey’s book at Pragmatic Euphony.] It certainly is a whole lot harder than dropping cash from helicopters. Moreover, as Joshua Foust writes, the dream of setting Pashtun tribes against each other is removed from reality, as it ignores the Islamist transformation of Pashtun society over the last three decades.

Change must come from within Pakistan. It is in the United States’ interests to make it happen. For India’s part, instead of focusing on peripheral, irrelevant projects like military lines on glaciers or bus services in Kashmir, a real peace process would strategically engage the sources of economic power across the border.

More on India’s military presence in Afghanistan

Over at Broadsword (linkthanks Pragmatic, Rohit), Ajai Shukla makes a curious case against India strengthening its military presence in Afghanistan.

To now throw troops into what will inevitably become a bloody struggle for power risks smudging India’s benevolent image.

Instead, Indian planners should be considering that, perhaps three years along, US and NATO forces may pull out of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai would be history, and Afghanistan itself divided into different zones of control. In that Afghanistan, India’s physical presence may well be reduced to zero. The ITBP would have pulled out; development projects would have shut down; elements politically hostile to India may well control large parts of the country; the embassy and India’s consulates may well have closed shop. This is what happened in 1996; today, only American and European support—fickle, and already wavering—prevents a return to that time.

But despite those threats, and the occasional cross-border foray, western forces in Afghanistan can hardly influence events in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Only the Pakistan army can do that, but remains unwilling to….The army brass in Pakistan—which will eventually have the final word on this—has not yet come round to accepting that the military has little choice but to transform the NWFP from a sanctuary to a battlefield.

Without that realisation in Rawalpindi, a couple of years more of rising casualties in Afghanistan could well trigger a US and NATO pullout.[Broadsword]

Now, one part of Mr Shukla’s argument is reasonable: that it is crucial for India to consider the effect its level of military presence has on the local population. It is difficult to fathom the logic of the rest of his arguments.

Mr Shukla underestimates the US commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. Far from even talking about cutting and running, both presidential candidates have committed to reinforce American military presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is upping the ante in the Afghan theatre. If the situation can be cast as a battle of resolves, then a “realisation in Rawalpindi” is more likely than a pullout by the United States.

In this situation, the prospect of India deploying more troops to Afghanistan can change the strategic calculations of the Pakistani brass. As Lieutenant-General (retired) Talat Masood writes, the Pakistani army continues to think that the Taliban can be used as frontline options against US troops along the Durand Line (just as it uses jihadis against the Indian army). But the prospect of Indian troops joining the fray, albeit in Afghan territory, would discourage the Pakistani army from pursuing this course. And even if it doesn’t, it still makes sense for India to prevent Pakistan from repeating its 1996 performance in Afghanistan, one that had severe consequences for India’s national security.

Believing and acting on a pessimistic prognosis might well bring it about. Far from discarding the military option out of pessimism or concern for the erosion of ‘soft power’, it is important to keep it on the table.

The road that India built

…in Afghanistan

Zaranj-Delaram Map

The 218-km road connecting Delaram (on the Kandahar-Herat highway) to Zaranj, on the border with Iran has been completed (via Swami Iyer). The strategic importance of this road—as news reports never fail to mention—is to provide landlocked Afghanistan an alternative access to the sea, allowing it to break free from Pakistan’s traditional stranglehold.

Since this route passes through several hundred kilometres of Iranian territory before connecting to Chabahar on the Persian Gulf, it remains to be seen if Iran will prove to be a better neighbour than Pakistan. From a purely economic standpoint though, Afghanistan should benefit from the competition between the two routes.

There is a lot of hope pinned on this alternative route. For Afghanistan, this is an opportunity to regain better access to the Indian market that it lost in 1947. For India, it is an opportunity to regain better access to Central Asia that it too lost in 1947. To the extent that Pakistan remains wedded to its traditional strategic rent-seeking behaviour it is likely to attempt to foil these plans. And as the attack on the Indian embassy has shown, it remains wedded to old tactics as much as it is to old strategies.

This being so, it is strange that the India should be considering withdrawing four companies (around 400 personnel) of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police currently deployed in Afghanistan. There is a case for a robust Indian military presence in Afghanistan; with force levels carefully calibrated, on the one hand to secure Indian interests, and on the other, to avoid being seen by the local population as an ‘occupying’ force. Reducing India’s military presence at a critical phase in Afghanistan’s counter-insurgency war is uncalled for at this stage.

After the Kabul embassy bombing

How should India respond?

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza argues that India should stick to its strategy:

In the aftermath of the July 7 attack, some Indian analysts have suggested an active role for India in the security affairs of Afghanistan. They characterise the Indian Defence Minister’s April 2008 ruling out of the option of sending troops to Afghanistan as “deficient strategic thinking”. Such analysis, to say the least, is based on a complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of insurgency in Afghanistan. It also ignores the far reaching benefits flowing to the Afghan people from the activities that India has been engaged in and which in fact has troubled the Taliban and its sponsors.

It needs to be understood that India, like many other countries, is operating in a highly insecure environment in insurgency-ravaged Afghanistan. In such a scenario, while attacks of the magnitude of the July 7 incident can be better avoided with adequate security preparedness, these certainly do not call for a dramatic reconsideration of India’s non-involvement in security operations. The Government of India should maintain its present course of minimal presence of its security forces personnel coupled with long term developmental activity that weaves aid delivery around greater Afghan ownership and participation. Sending troops to Afghanistan would merely serve as a red rag for the Taliban and its sponsors, even as it causes resentment among common Afghans at the introduction of more foreign troops into their land. Better security for Indian personnel and projects can actually be ensured by working in conjunction with Afghan security forces (including community policing) and other stakeholders interested in building a stable Afghanistan. [IDSA Strategic Comments]

Dr D’Souza has a point. The security situation in Afghanistan today is very different from what it was two years ago. So India would do well to avoid becoming a significant military combatant in the Afghan war. Rather, it would do well to press the United States, and especially NATO, to enhance their military commitments to Afghanistan.

However, additional troops might be necessary to secure Indian re-construction efforts. This is the other factor determining troop levels. Therefore, instead of a policy that rules out additional troops, India’s response should be one of constantly calibrating its security presence.

In any case, the point of focus is quite likely to be Pakistan. As Praveen Swami writes in The Hindu today, an unavoidable (from India’s perspective) “proxy war” is already going on in Afghanistan. Given the state of affairs in Pakistan, reading the signals right, and achieving escalation control in the proxy war is the fundamental challenge to India’s Afghanistan policy.

The attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul

It’s not going to move India

It is said to be the worst terrorist attack in Kabul since 2001—terrorists killed over 41 people and left more than 139 injured in a suicide bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul today. Four of those killed were Indians. The rest, most likely, were all Afghans.

According to early reports, the bomber set off the bombs when two embassy vehicles were entering the compound. Brigadier R D Mehta, the defence attache, and V Venkateswara Rao, the political and information counsellor were in those cars. Ajai Pathania (Rathore?) and Roop Singh, security personnel guarding the embassy, were also killed in the blasts. It does not appear to be a random attack on the embassy—the timing suggests that the attackers deliberately targeted at the Indian diplomats.

It is reasonable to speculate that the attackers want to browbeat India into stepping out of Afghanistan. India has played a quiet but determined role in the Afghan reconstruction, and the attack could well suggest that this is threatening the Taliban and those opposed to the Hamid Karzai government.

Attacking construction crews in the Afghan countryside is one thing. Attacking top diplomats at the Indian embassy in Kabul is another. Why the Taliban sought to escalate their violence against India remains the question. Not least when they are engaged in a two-front war—against the US & NATO forces in Afghanistan, and, to some extent, against Pakistani forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas and NWFP. The embassy might have offered a target of opportunity and the attack might have been a tactical success, but its strategic utility is suspect.

That’s because India is quite unlikely to be deterred by this attack. It is unlikely to scale down its reconstruction initiatives. If the attacks were intended to provoke and suck India deeper into Afghanistan, then that too is unlikely to happen. In all likelihood, the Indian response would be to harden the targets and move on.

That opens up the other possibility: is this the handiwork of Pakistani interests? The political turmoil in Pakistan has certainly created a window of opportunity for the tradition “strategic depth” seekers to try and play their old games again. Knowing that the “noise” makes a retaliatory Indian tit-for-tat response unlikely, it is possible that one of the factions in Pakistan’s security establishment ordered the strike. Tactical success, but again, the strategic value remains uncertain.

One thing is clear though—as far as the United States is concerned, the war in Afghanistan needs its own General Petraeus.

Update: On what India should do now.

Sunday Levity: The Mujahideen’s blanket

Pashtun war gear

Picture: Amazon.com
In The Battle for Afghanistan (published earlier as Afghanistan: The Bear Trap) Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin describe the Mujahideen’s kit:

After their weapon, the next most valued possession is their blanket. It is usually a greyish-brown in colour, and is used day and night for a wide number of purposes. The Mujahideen uses it as a coat, or cloak, for warmth in winder, or against the wind; they crouch under it to conceal themselves from enemy gunships, as it blends perfectly with the mud or rocks; they sleep on it; they use it as a sack; they spread it on the ground as a table cloth, or upon which to display their wares; often it becomes a makeshift stretcher and sometimes it is a rope; several times a day it becomes their prayer mat. [The Battle For Afghanistan pp35]

Brigadier Yousaf does not say whether and how often they wash it.

(It is interesting how today’s Taliban and al Qaeda types are labelled jihadis, and the words mujahid (one who does jihad) and its plural form, mujahideen are reserved for the Afghans and Pashtuns who fought the Soviets.)

Little Games

Connecting the dots in Waziristan, Afghanistan, Islamabad, Davos and London

The United States ‘offers’ to send special forces and military assistance to the Pakistani army fighting the Taliban militia in South Waziristan and other tribal areas. Politicians, pundits and even ordinary people around the world publicly express worries about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands.

Baitullah Mehsud, until recently the anointed leader of the Pakistan Taliban, gives an interview to Al Jazeera, stating that it was the United States that posed a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, not he.

Around this time, Mullah Omar—he with only one eye—sacks Baitullah Mehsud, for attacking Pakistani forces instead focussing on the US-NATO troops on the Afghanistan side of the border.

General Musharraf is in Europe finding it hard going answering questions about his own role in Pakistan’s political crisis. Around this time, back home in Rawalpindi, General Khalid Kidwai, the most public face of Pakistan’s nuclear command, reassures the media on custodial control. And then, Pakistan announces that it has raised the state of alert over nuclear weapons.

So what’s happening?

Mullah Omar’s public signal—that Afghanistan should be the focus of the Taliban insurgency—indicates that he would rather not have US forces fighting on the Pakistan side of the border, sandwiching the insurgents. It also serves Musharraf’s interests. He can now tell the insistent Americans that their ‘help’ is less necessary now.

Baitullah Mehsud’s statement on the danger to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sounds identical to what the Gul & Co faction of the military establishment would argue. The message is directed at the Pakistani people, but it is almost certain that the signal is also meant for external parties with an interest in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Here’s an hypothesis: Musharraf & Co and Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban have found reason to strengthen their long-standing alignment. The threat of US military intervention in Pakistan have compelled them to distance Gul & Co and the Baitullah-led Pashtuns on the Pakistani side. But this not a ‘hard’ split—for Mullah Omar & Co can’t do without help from the Pakistani side. And Baitullah Mehsud & Co can’t do without access to the lucrative drugs smuggling trade centred around Afghanistan.

That leaves us with the announcement about the raised alert levels. Why announce this publicly, at a time when General Kidwai & Co are playing down the risk of losing custodial control? Well, Musharraf probably reckons this kind of news will make European audiences more favourably disposed to his protestations of indispensability.