America's direct eight-year intervention in the Vietnam War ended almost as its failure to resolve the issue summed up by then President Nixon as ‘America’s longest war, and its first defeat’ as the US Army was fighting in unfamiliar terrain, unprepared and untrained in the guerilla warfare conditions, lacking morale and motivation, untrained to respond to guerilla warfare and inability to block the combat Vietcong guerillas.
In January 2020, there were massive protests and escalation of tension between the US and Iran and Iraq passed a resolution for expelling all the foreign troops from its soil. This combination of such disadvantages and the loss of public support, led to the US withdrawing from Vietnam.
Along with Vietnam, the US got involved in Cambodia, Vietnam’s dreaded enemy attacking Cambodia in late December 1978 to remove Pol Pot and two million Cambodians were killed by Khmer Rouge regime and Pol Pot's bloody cross-border raids into Vietnam; straining Cambodia-US relations due to ‘carpet bombing’ of Vietcongs hideouts in Cambodia. This, briefly sums up the track record of the US involvement in other countries affairs as a superpower.
The Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan by US-led forces in 2001 and ever since the US has been waging war against them in Afghanistan. The Afghans weary of Mujahideen's excesses, initially welcomed Taliban for ending corruption but their hard punishments, strictness on enforcing Sharia laws, public executions of murderers, hard criminals and adultery, banning TV, music, dancing and cinema, and disapproval of girls education and enforcement of purdah/burqa etc alienated the locals immensely.
They were accused of mass scale human rights violations and destroying the world heritage site of Bamiyan Buddha too, against the worldwide outcry, leading to the US intervention lasting 21 years. A total of 2,312 US military personnel in Afghanistan have died and 20,066 have been wounded ever since 2001. The number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan range from 35,000 to 40,000, while the cost of military operations is put at $824bn.
The US as hitherto, much domestic outcry and protests, planned complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by 11 Sept 2021, after the Taliban militants with strength of 60,000 funding itself from opium production and sale, took advantage of the US withdrawal capturing major cities and have now reached the outskirts of the capital Kabul without any resistance from the 3.5 lakh strong but with no will to fight and en masse surrendering of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA).
I have little experience in combating insurgency in Mizoram, Nagaland and Punjab and the only way to defeat terrorists is to isolate them from their societies. In Mizoram, we regrouped villages bringing them away from the international borders along East Pakistan and Burma, established company sized security posts, in grouped villages, introduced civic actions, provided much needed educational and health facilities in remote villages with psywar themes to integrate locals in the mainstream by winning their hearts and minds.
The isolated terrorists would come towards villages for rest and logistics support and ideally ambushed and destroyed by our security forces (SFs). I keep advocating many of these themes for ending the J&K insurgency.
Shockingly, ANA is totally unmotivated with low morale and surrendering en masse to one third its strength of Taliban. No ‘War Cry’ or synonymous ‘Battle Cry’ was shouted by ANA charging or in rallying to attack Taliban to express solidarity and intimidate the enemy. In a war, the most humiliating act for a soldier is to surrender without a fight.
In Bangladesh’s liberation at the end of the war, around 93,000 Pakistani soldiers were captured by the Indian forces and Pakistan had suffered the most number of casualties with approximately 8000 dead and 25,000 wounded. Around 3000 Indian soldiers died and 12,000 others were wounded in the war. Unlike ANA, the Pakistani Army gave a good fight before surrendering.
As I write this article, events are happening faster than the T-20/20 match and as per media reports while the Afghanistan President Ghani flees the country on the way to Tajikistan the Taliban has full control over the presidential palace and is talking for peaceful transfer of power to the Taliban. As way back as 15 April 2021, the Taliban had announced, ‘we have won the war, America has lost' summing up the high morale of the Taliban vis-a-vis demotivated US and ANA troops.
Haji Hekmat, the Taliban leader had reiterated 4 months back that the momentum was with the Taliban and the inertia with the demotivated ANA, letting Taliban capture Afghanistan, sealing international borders, forcing Ghani to flee, while the US absconds and the Taliban seeking peaceful transfer of power to avoid bloodshed.
Haji Hekmat had spelt out the Taliban strategy months before that they were totally prepared for peace while fully prepared for Jihad which is an act of worship but neither the US led allied forces nor the Afghanistan government prepared for the impending challenge.
The US and the allied forces need to learn that conventional armies, however superior in strength and equipment, cannot fight insurgency with World War II tactics and strategy. We learnt that initially in Nagaland, Mizoram and later in Punjab and J&K. To fight insurgents, we need to live, train and operate using insurgents’ tactics with appropriate doses of psywar winning hearts and minds and corruption free good governance failing which would lead to situations faced by the US in Vietnam, Cambodia, Middle East and now Afghanistan.
The British led numerous unsuccessful invasions to tame Afghanistan. The Soviet Chief of Defence Staff General Ogarkov had cautioned President Brezhnev not to invade Afghanistan which due to its hostile terrain, climate, means of communications and Mujahedeen was unconquerable. The Americans today are forced to leave Afghanistan like their predecessors erstwhile Soviet Union with pants down.
Many may know that Afghanistan was part of India till 1738 when Iranian warlord Nadir Shah not only plundered Delhi but annexed Afghanistan. It was only Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s lustrous General Hari Singh Nalwa who led a successful military operation deep inside Afghanistan. But for his successful military operations, Peshawar and North West Frontier Province (NWFP) now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remained part of undivided India and later the Crown could define Durand Line as the border between undivided India and Afghanistan.
Implications for Afghanistan
- With Kabul and a major portion of the country in Taliban control, the Afghanistan government has collapsed and President Ghani has fled to Tajikistan with family, setting a very bad example to Afghan people of deserting them in their worst crises.
- Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, said on President Ghani’s fleeing Afghanistan, ‘He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable.’ Abdullah Abdullah was reported to leave for Doha for talks with the Taliban but there is no confirmation.
- Reports also indicate Ali Ahmad Jalali, the US based academician and former Afghan interior minister is likely to be named to head the interim administration in Kabul.
- There are reports of gunfire at Kabul's airport and warnings to its citizens to take shelter as the security situation was changing very fast.
- All major countries are evacuating their diplomatic staff. The American sent their combat helicopters and thousands of troops to assist in evacuation of their citizens while the UK has sent 600 troops and others are contemplating to evacuate their nationals. The Russians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Iranians and mostly central Asian republics (CARs) are staying put presently as Taliban has assured security of all diplomatic missions. India too is contemplating to shift its diplomats.
- Huge smoke emanated from the US embassy, possibly burning/destruction of classified documents and sensitive equipment.
- Locals are in panic, withdrawing money from the banks/ATMs to stock essentials in their houses. There are reports of sporadic fighting and injuries to some locals.
- There is utter chaos, uncertainty and total failure of the political, military and administrative leadership.
- Possibility of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists with intent on doing harm to the US or other foreign powers exists.
- Where ever limited resistance was offered by the ANA against the Taliban offensives, the civilians suffered the most due to widespread Taliban atrocities like summary executions of captured Afghan Prisoners of War (POWs) and thrashing of women considered immodestly dressed and killing of the political leaders, human rights activists and the journalists.
What must be done to stop the Taliban?
- While Taliban takeover of Kabul was thought to be years away, it is now inevitable at any time. While take over was given on platter by the Afghan government and the ANA, the Taliban consolidation process would be most difficult leading to civil war, insurgency, deaths and destruction.
- The Afghan political and military leadership MUST deny the Taliban to consolidate their hold on Afghanistan.
- ANA to fight Taliban, must behave, act, train, organise and fight like terrorist/insurgent groups. The Taliban has alienated large numbers of tribal leaders, ethnic groups and women and face serious governance challenges from them as they do not want to highlight atrocities, human rights violations and repressive policies of the Taliban being witnessed again after 2001.
- Loyal and anti-Taliban population can be very gainfully employed targeting the Taliban and its supporters and in isolating Taliban’s from population by subversion and targeting hugely extended lines of communication (LoC) by sabotaging by using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambushing and raiding their isolated posts. Loyal population can be effectively used for gathering real time intelligence and espionage.
- Evoke nationalism and pride highlighting even small achievements of citizens and ANA against Taliban, its agents and supporters.
- Subvert elements joining hands with Taliban with appropriate themes that rogue elements are to plunder Afghani resources and their tyrannical rule is illegitimate, unconstitutional against the values of Islam, human development and only to plunder.
- Afghanistan has a huge network of diplomatic missions. These must be activated worldwide to convince Taliban atrocities and withdraw under the UN created Force to evict Taliban from Afghanistan. While doors must be kept open for agreement with Taliban.
- The Afghanistan government should immediately appeal to the United Nations for immediate intervention and form a powerful group with an anti-Taliban coalition of political leaders and unite in a more coordinated and spirited opposition with support of friendly countries that are not grouping with China, Turkey and Pakistan.
- President Biden thought having withdrawn troops from Afghanistan needed to be persuaded by the Afghan National Army and the Government to motivate and fight back against Taliban gains and take the fight back to the Taliban. The stalemate will check Talibani momentum to grinding war of attrition helping in peace negotiations.
- There will be large scale Afghan refugees migrating to neighbouring countries. Those who helped the US and allied effort in Afghanistan will be targeted by Taliban and need rehabilitation in allied countries.
Dilemma of International Changing Dynamics !
China and Pakistan support the Taliban due to domestic compulsion. China is deeply concerned about the Taliban entering through its rugged 57 Km border with Afghanistan to liberate Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims brutally suppressed by the Chinese. Taipei has confirmed reports that a French warship has anchored off the coast of Taiwan.
There may be movement of Quad warships too around the South China Sea. Many analysts are of the view that the US has sacrificed Afghanistan for Taiwan wanting it to bleed both in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. The US appears to be changing its focus from the Middle East and South Asia to Indo- Pacific due to following compulsions:-
- Abandoned Afghanistan to take on China by dominating the Indo-Pacific region to contain Chinese maritime expansion involving India as an active member of the Quad, to ease Chinese aggression along the Sino-Indian border.
- Keep China on tenterhook on likely Taliban interference in Uighur (Xinjiang) on one hand and contain its maritime activities in South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region on the other.
- Encourage India from being a soft power to get involved in a greater geo –strategic role.
- Reduce US focus from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific region.
- Get out of the costly endless war in Afghanistan.
- India and Afghanistan have a centuries old relationship.
- India being a soft power has been deeply involved in projects beneficial for uplifting poor Afghans standard of living bringing peace and prosperity.
- Pakistan and China are opposed to India’s role in Afghanistan reconstruction and development.
- Americans left Afghanistan to focus on its foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region to contain Chinese maritime activities by shifting to East Asia.
- The Taliban are terrorists, and they will support all Muslim fundamental terrorist organisations and provide safe havens for al-Qaida, LeT, Jaish–e Mohammed (JeM), ISIS constituting national security threats to India. Defeating the Taliban and nation-building were part of the US commitment in Afghanistan, in which the US has failed adversely.
- With US withdrawal, India cannot protect its huge investments and commitments that run into over USD 3 billion, and cultivate further strong economic and defence ties with the Afghan government.
- Americans feel instead of the US getting involved in the lost war, it should now urgently prepare itself for the unfolding geopolitical contest with China.
India’s Options in Afghanistan
India as of now has very few options other than talking with the Taliban and seeking security guarantees with assurances of helping Afghanistan once normalcy returns and that they would keep away from Pakistan and its ties with the Haqqani outfit which Americans overlooked and suffered immensely. India should continue talking with the Afghan Government as there is no guarantee Taliban will comply with Indian concerns.
India should diplomatically endeavour denying the Taliban legitimacy if they take power in Afghanistan by force. The Taliban have relished the international attention over their negotiators with global diplomats seeking political settlement on their terms primarily to gain time to capture Kabul.
There is a possibility of Pakistan and China perhaps recognizing the Taliban government. The international community should deny the Taliban travel privileges from Doha as long as fighting supersedes intra-Afghan talks. The UN, the US and the EU should make clear to the Taliban that if they take Afghanistan by force, it will not be recognized as a legitimate government and it will lose all but humanitarian assistance.
Though India supported ANA, with training and equipment and sharing intelligence but once Taliban is in power that may not be possible till there is hope of forming a national government and reconciliation. India should also coordinate with other regional powers to support the Afghan government because if the government forces crumble before the Taliban, the prospects for a political settlement would be narrowed.
India must through offensive diplomatic blitzkrieg propagate the role of the ISI is in fostering Taliban with arms ammunition and intelligence as a necessary bulwark against its traditional rival, India ignoring Pakistan's long, porous border with Afghanistan and the Taliban would relish interfering in troubled Baluchistan bordering Afghanistan and Iran seeking separation from Pakistan and home for tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in border camps threatening the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) running through troubled Balochistan.
Once in Afghanistan, The Taliban will cultivate other Muslim terrorist organisations in Pakistan like Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Omar,Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Sipah-e-Sahaba,Jaish ul-Adl , Al Badr Mujahideen Harkat ul Mujahideen and Iran thus posing grave threats in J&K and Punjab in India and Iran. India should seek a regional solution with cooperation of like-minded countries in seeing a political settlement in Afghanistan.
Other than Pakistan, no regional country including China wants the Taliban taking over Afghanistan by a fundamental Sunni outfit in Afghanistan with a fractured ethnic equation. Since Russia has good relations with the Taliban, India should seek Russia’s support in any form of direct engagement with the Taliban. India, if need be as a diplomatic initiative, should not be shy to talk with China, with the objective of finding a political settlement and lasting stability in Afghanistan.
India has good relations with Iran who has a common border with Afghanistan and similar ethnic minorities and the main objective of India’s Chabahar project in Iran was to create a direct access to Afghanistan, by passing Pakistan. This direct access can move large supplies to Afghanistan for India to retain its presence in the event of a civil war or carry out covert operations against the Taliban due to changing scenarios, perhaps much to the annoyance of the US, Pakistan and China.
About the Author
Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. Upon his retirement from the army, he went on to work in intelligence, specializing in industrial security, goin on to conduct security audits of vital installations. Presently he is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War. He can be contacted at Email: [email protected]
(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)