There is a huge international coalition fighting in Afghanistan; India should become a part of it — the earlier the better. The war is being waged to root out a culture that has spawned terrorism around the world and attempted to take the country back to medieval times. On one side we have the United States and the NATO-led, United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the fledgling Afghan National Army led by the government of Hamid Karzai. On the other are the Taliban and the Al Qaeda which are backed by elements in Pakistan, which is otherwise supposed to be an ally of the US in this war.
Ours cannot be an intervention on behalf of some beleaguered regime, but a war to secure India. It has been clear for a millennium that developments in Afghanistan play a decisive role in the security of India, but the rulers of Delhi — Hindu or Muslim —repeatedly failed to understand this. Ironically, 2008 marks one full millennium since Mahmud Ghazni defeated Jayapala of Gandhara and began his forays into India. And then in succeeding centuries, from Afghanistan, or through it, came Muhammad Ghori, Tamer Lane, Babur, Ahmad Shah Abdali, Nadir Shah. Only the most consummate of rulers of India, the British, figured out that truth and their entire military strategy and deployments were devoted to ensuring that Afghanistan did not threaten Hindustan, directly or indirectly.
In recent times, the impact of Afghanistan on India’s security began on that fateful Christmas day in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded the country. The decision of the United States to back a jihad against the Soviets using Pakistani territory meant not only the rearming of Pakistan with modern weapons like the F-16s, TOW and Harpoon missiles, but also that the US and China tacitly allowed and even aided Islamabad’s nuclear weapons programme. The resurgent Pakistani army and its nuclear weapons have constituted the single most important external threat to India in the past decades. This, in turn, has enabled Islamabad to launch a not-so-covert war of a thousand cuts against us, since we are not able to retaliate in a conventional fashion and are unwilling to act covertly.
The moment the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, Pakistan began to use Afghan territory, now held by its surrogates, to establish training camps for the use of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups to target Jammu & Kashmir. It was in 1992, that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ISI’s favourite jihadi, sent in a group of militants led by a relative of his, Mohammed Akbar Qureshi aka Akbar Bhai who established themselves in Sopur and were eliminated only after a tough contest with the Border Security Force. Another group sent by Hekmatyar was commanded by Mast Gul who created a sensation of sorts by setting Charar-e-Sharif ablaze. There were other Afghans like Sajjad Afghani who were also sent by Hekmatyar.
Other Afghan mujhaideen groups such as the Hizbe Islami of Yunus Khalis and the Jamiat-e-Islami of Arsalan Khan Rehmani were also involved in the Kashmir attack. The former group was associated with Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the latter sent a lashkar with Nasrullah Mansur Langaryal into Kashmir. Both Hekmatyar and Haqqani remain active with the Taliban today and are part of a time-tested link with the ISI of Pakistan.
As in all modern wars, we face a complex challenge. Neither Afghanistan, nor Afghans are our enemies. Our adversaries are those who seek to control the country, ostensibly to provide themselves “strategic depth” . Given Pakistan’s historic fears of India, this sounds reasonable and defensive. But the facts are that Pakistan has sought this depth to launch a war of aggression not only against India, but other parts of the Muslim world, including Uzbekistan and Tajikstan. The chicanery of the Pakistani establishment in sheltering the Taliban and turning them against the Karzai government in Afghanistan is becoming apparent to the US which spent a fortune in trying to ensure that the Pakhtun-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Area were pacified through development works. Instead the area has been lost to people called the Pakistani Taliban who have expanded their hold into North and South Waziristan, the Bajaur agency and Swat and are knocking at the very gates of Peshawar.
Given the recent history of dictators and warlords, it is difficult to believe that the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is the first legitimate government in three decades. What Karzai is trying to do is to rebuild not just the physical infrastructure of a country which has known only war, murder and pillage for the past forty years, but also its civil society and its very raison d'être as a nation. Having suppressed the warlords, he is now trying to use the instrumentality of the ANA and the police to bring a semblance of law and order back into the country. He has made his mistakes, but his principal problem, as he himself has articulated, comes from Islamabad’s support to the Taliban insurgency. He has the assistance of the US and the ISAF, but their power is mainly aerial. Between them, the three — the ANA, the US and the ISAF — have only about 150,000 troops on the ground. Notwithstanding the enormous abilities of the modern NATO armies, their numbers are insufficient. For the sake of comparison as to what it requires to control, though not pacify an area, consider this: The 150,000 strong force in Afghanistan must deal with a territory of 647,500 sq kms. Compare this with India’s 350,000 force that is involved in counter-insurgency, counter-infiltration and civil police duties in the 145,000 sq kms of territory of J&K under Indian control. Counter-insurgency, as the Americans are learning rather late in the day, is about boots on ground. Fortunately, India has them, at least in Kashmir.
The shortage of forces compels the US/ISAF forces to rely on air power. While no country in the world can match the superlative air forces of the NATO nations and the capabilities of the Predator drones of the US, the use of air power almost always results in a huge number of collateral casualties. In war-torn Afghanistan such deaths do not make much news, but the facts are that they are being exploited by the Taliban to undermine the Karzai government.
The time has come for India to stand up and be counted. We can tarry and wait till Pakistan is Talibanised. Or we can, for once, take the battle to where it should be fought —Afghanistan. India can choose to fight in the ISAF because it has a UN mandate, or deal directly with President Karzai to assist the Afghan National Army and the national police. To its credit, New Delhi has recognised the strategic importance of the country and launched what is clearly one of the most effective reconstruction programmes in the war-ravaged nation. This is the reason why Indian project personnel have been targeted by the Taliban/ISI since 2006. But the attack on the embassy— not very different from the attack on our Parliament in 2001— is a different kind of a signal. It is a declaration of war. It is up to us to respond.
This article first appeared in Mail Today July 9, 2008