So US president Donald Trump wants India to display its muscle by deploying troops in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban at bay even as he decides to pull out or at least drawdown the strength of the US presence from 14,000 to 7,000 troops. Is this tripe or potential for India to gain a higher place in the Trump durbar, unpredictable that the latter is anyway. It needs examination if for nothing else than doing an appreciation on India’s out of area military capability and examining the strategic implications of what at the face of it sounds a lot of balderdash.
There appears a US perception that the situation in Af-Pak has dwindled down from the international strategic to merely a regional one. Strange perception since the US went into Afghanistan for many reasons. First, there was the sentiment of retribution for 9/11. Then there was the desire to offset those conditions which gave rise to threats not to the US mainland alone but also to the western world in general. The first was achieved ten years later; the second hasn’t been achieved to date. The potential return of the Taliban has all the portents of it playing host once again to those who harbour ambitions of a caliphate. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), set up by the US but not adequately equipped, is losing 175 men a week (700 a month) battling the Taliban and other forces ranged against the National Unity Government. The effects are no doubt regional but discounting international threats is no prudence at this juncture.
Two examples come to mind immediately when demands for troops from the Indian subcontinent rise. First, the attempt to draw an Indian presence into Iraq in 2003. A formation was on request; fortunately, the wisdom of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not allow this to happen. In 2015 Saudi Arabia demanded from Pakistan troops to join the Islamic Coalition to fight the Houthis in Yemen. Pakistan was in a quandary but its National Assembly came to the rescue and refused to adhere to the request although Pakistani troops have done service in Saudi Arabia for other purposes.
Now imagine hypothetically the Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) deployed in Afghanistan. Many clarifications would be necessary and many may not be given here. First, will it be a peacekeeping mission or a peace enforcement one; much difference between the two. Considering the situation on ground peace enforcing seems the only option. Secondly, what would be a suitable strength? Suggestions in discussions are ranging from a corps to a brigade. Much depends on how many other international contingents would also deploy. If it is to replace the US troops alone then the deployment would be more in the ground holding role rather than in strike role; occupation to deny space and support the ANA in its operations.
Third a concept of operations would need to be drawn up based upon which selection and creation of a force structure would be needed with clear command and control. An example of this would be the necessity of heavy weaponry with the ANA. To make it more effective detachments of artillery, mechanized infantry and engineers would be required to be grouped with ANA formations; what would be their command and control? International peace enforcing even under the UN can be very challenging. Here it would be devoid of the UN flag and all kinds of factors would come into play which needs resolution well before lives of Indian troops can be placed on the line. Bases for the air force and billets of Indian troops would need protection for which elements would be separately needed enhancing the size of the force.
We cannot draw upon the experience of Operation Pawan because that was an overseas deployment of only the Indian Army and not even in cooperation with the Sri Lankan Army which could have been the host organisation. From a logistics point of view Operation Pawan had clear lines of communication by sea and air and thereafter by land. Land routes had to be secured physically in which considerable deployment of troops was involved although the air force rotary resources did outstanding work in the execution of logistics maintenance. With overland routes through Pakistan closed to India the only means of logistics would be through the inordinately expensive airheads at urban centres such as Kandahar, Herat and Kabul or through the sea route to Chah Bahar and then the 1,800 km highway to Kabul via Zahidan. The nightmare that this would pose for security is actually incomprehensible even to trained military minds. In addition, simply assuming that Chah Bahar is under an Indian company and therefore gives military access at will would be a grandiose mistake. Iran’s sensitivities in supporting an Indian mission, which would be at the behest of the US, may not accept this.
General David Petraeus, ten years after commencement of the Af-Pak campaign realised that the US armed forces were culturally insufficiently prepared to undertake hybrid conflict of this nature. In 30 years we have remained culturally unprepared for the hybrid conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. That isn’t a happy commentary on our capability to undertake the most modern form of conflict in the world today, that too overseas. There are no straight lines in this conflict and different cultures, Tajik, Pashtun and Uzbeg all intermingle differently and political meandering through these is a nightmare.
We cannot discount the adversary in this. Pakistan with an Indian force deployed on its western flank would perceive existential threats beyond even the conventional red lines we imagine. With its well-embedded networks established through 40 years, with the Haqqanis and the Taliban, it would have an intelligence march over any ‘alien’ force which would deploy.
We mock at General Pervez Musharraf’s grand Kargil plan where conflict initiation was easy but he had no vision of conflict termination. Similarly, getting into Afghanistan may sound romantically tempting with India at a higher table but conflict termination and resolution eluded the Americans with all their capability. What about us? Would it be worth the while to have troops deployed overseas while land and air threats continue to multiply at the borders and Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) transforms to 5GW. To add to it General Ziaul Haq’s infamous strategy of a thousand cuts to bleed India would receive impetus in one more unimagined dimension.
There is no doubt that Indian political leadership is pragmatic and balanced just as it was when the issue confronted former prime minister Vajpayee. The latter’s refusal in 2003 did not take India out of the US ambit of strategic partnership. In fact, the India-US relationship flowered much more after the polite refusal. President Trump’s ‘kite flying hints’ to India and derision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the issue of the library created by India in Kabul for the Afghan people need not be taken seriously. As they say quite often – this too shall pass.