THE war on terrorism declared and launched by the US is taking shape and gathering momentum. Events are unfolding and a pattern beginning to form, if somewhat slower than may have been expected given the belligerent noises being made by the US administration and by sections of the international media seeking both to stoke the fires of hatred and slake the thirst for blood which this necessarily entails. The broad coalition of nations being enlisted by the US is taking shape with some familiar actors and roles, such as the UK eager to display its “special relationship” with the US and at the forefront of the military preparations, and several newer and even surprising ones even if on the fringes with as yet undefined roles.
Some moves have been initiated by the US and its close Western allies to freeze known bank accounts and other financial assets of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qa’ida network, the campaign against terrorism is shaping up as chiefly a military one specifically against these entities. A list of 27 other terrorist organisations has also been released by the US, with numerous and obvious names missing, making the targets quite limited rather than taking in a broader sweep as desired by many nations reflecting their concerns and threats. The war on terrorism, even if played out on a near global scale, is therefore looking more and more like a US-led war on anti-US terrorists. The much-promised “second phase” when it comes about, supposedly will widen the scope of the anti-terrorism campaign and its partners, but this may be quite some time coming if at all.
Nevertheless, even the current operations are likely to see far-reaching strategic implications unfold for the entire region with significant impact on global geo-politics and of course for India.
LIFTING OF SANCTIONS
The lifting of US sanctions against both India and Pakistan which had been imposed after both countries had tested nuclear weapons in May 1998 are a case in point. The US was already considering lifting these sanctions, although asymmetrically in the two countries. With the growing distancing of the US from Pakistan given the increasing awareness of its involvement with fundamentalist and terrorist forces, the clandestine acquisition of nuclear and missile technology, the Kargil misadventure and finally the military coup, the US had imposed several layers of sanctions on Pakistan. At the same time, with growing proximity between the US and India especially with the BJP-led government’s eager efforts to endear itself to and serve US interests, the US had begun easing sanctions against India, peeling off layers one by one.
After the terrorist attacks on the US and the ensuing developments, this process of lifting sanctions has been reversed. Pakistan has been rewarded for its agreement to align with the US against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and India has been graced with lifting of sanctions in a reciprocal measure. More than this practical reality, the terms of the debate in the international community regarding nuclear weapons have been drastically altered, including amongst the 165 countries duped and bullied by the US into signing the CTBT, thus ratifying the monopoly of the nuclear weapons states.
The Bush Administration’s abandonment of the CTBT and its relentless pursuit of NMD, combined with the cynical way in which the sanctions have been lifted, together signify a severe setback to the international campaign for universal nuclear disarmament. In the midst of the on-going “war on terror”, the lifting of sanctions and the issue of de-nuclearisation appear to be mere side-shows. The main show in town is the imminent military action against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
MILITARY CAMPAIGN IN AFGHANISTAN
The firepower and weaponry being mobilised by the US and some of its closest allies is awesome to say the least, certainly in view of the known capabilities of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US now seems determined to oust the latter from power in order to cut off a key element of what US officials have been calling “support systems of global terrorism”.
US aircraft carriers Carl Vincent and Enterprise with their complement of
aircraft and cruise missiles, along with several accompanying naval vessels of the US 5th and 6th Fleets, are now more or less in place. The battleship USS Roosevelt and 15 other naval vessels have left Japan for the Arabian Sea. Massive air power in the form of the venerable B-52 bombers, the deadly B-1 and F-111 Stealth bombers, attack and troop-carrying helicopters, mid-air refuelling tankers and airborne surveillance aircraft, have all been flown in and positioned in different countries around Afghanistan. The US base in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is poised to play a crucial operational role in the coming weeks.
A British aircraft carrier, a nuclear submarine, Jaguar and Tornado strike aircraft and close to 20,000 troops earlier scheduled for exercises in the Gulf, some even otherwise based in Oman, are now being redeployed for action against Afghanistan, the largest biggest British naval and troop deployment since its war against Argentina over the disputed Malvinas/Falkland Islands.
Given the likely nature of the effort to get at Osama bin Laden, the likely battles against the Taliban and the terrain in Afghanistan, there is certainly an appearance of overkill in this massive force deployment. This is partly justified by the anticipated long-term campaign against terrorist groups in the region as a whole. But a large part of it is pure show of force, a reinforcement of a now permanent US presence in the region already heavily bolstered during operations against Iraq, all backed by the huge financial outlays amounting to 40 billion dollars sanctioned by the US Congress for tackling eventualities arising out of the terrorist attacks.
While the US had declared its intention to take out “high-value targets” in Afghanistan, there are hardly any of these left in that benighted country after more than 20 years of war. There are no major factories, no big industrial installations, no major military bases. Indeed, there is hardly any infrastructure of any kind left in Afghanistan to service its population who have few operational hospitals, schools or places of employment. With so little left to destroy, what will all these forces target?
It seems more than likely that air power would be used to seek and destroy Taliban tanks, artillery and aircraft, fuel and ammunition dumps, besides key governmental buildings and military command structures in Kabul and Kandahar. The latter are likely to be empty by the time they are actually hit and civilian casualties in nearby areas can be expected. The Taliban and other terrorist and jehadi training camps would also be hit even though these too may be empty and in any case have few fixed assets which could not be put together in some other place. A few bridges may also be targeted although many of the 15 said to have been identified by the US are already ramshackle structures and may also be required by other ground forces, say of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
In any case, few of these operations would call for cruise missiles being launched from the Arabian Sea or the Gulf which would be largely ineffective as seen during the Clinton-era attack with over 70 cruise missiles against Osama bin Laden’s camp in Khost in south-eastern Afghanistan.
In order to be effective, therefore, the operations in Afghanistan are not
likely to be similar to the earlier “TV wars” against Iraq or Yugoslavia, where there were many large, visible and asset-packed targets both military and civil-industrial, and would necessarily involve less of remote-control attacks and more of close-quarter operations. Precision strikes by low flying strike aircraft, use of “smart” bombs and “cave-busting” munitions would probably be preferred. Importantly, the military action in Afghanistan would also call for substantial use of helicopter gunships and helicopter-based “in and out” commando operations. Britain’s elite SAS has already tried out some dummy commando runs deep inside Afghanistan. Such operations would almost certainly lead to casualties among the US and allied forces.
Thanks to the US itself, the Taliban is equipped with anti-aircraft weaponry including shoulder-fired Stinger missiles which are quite effective against low-flying and relatively slower aircraft as would be the case in the mountainous terrain, as the Soviet forces had earlier realised to their high cost. The effectivity of such weaponry would be reduced by subsequent technological developments such as diversionary flares (which make the heat-seeking missiles deviate away from the aircraft engine’s heat) and increased capabilities for night-time operations, but the dangers of higher casualties would remain.
The campaign realities discussed in the first part of the article have strategic implications in the region around Afghanistan which are likely to further unfold in the coming weeks. Since the direct use of naval including carrier-based forces is likely to be less, the emphasis would be on land bases near Afghanistan. The US has already deployed surveillance and troop transport aircraft in Uzbekistan and is likely to also obtain access to base facilities at least for such support in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan too, especially now that Russia has given them a green signal. Turkmenistan may also come on board later although it has been highly reluctant to date.
Some defence analysts have speculated that if ground operations are undertaken they would be launched from these northern neighbours of Afghanistan with whom it has long borders, much of it demarcated by rivers not difficult to cross and with wide flat steppes on either side facilitating vehicular movement unlike the more mountainous areas to the south. However, this scenario seems unlikely for several reasons.
Russia would not view positively any large-scale US or NATO troop deployment in Central Asia where it itself has over 25,000 troops in Tajikistan for instance and which Russia regards as a crucial buffer between it and states to the south. The greater likelihood is that these bases would be used to provide support to the forces of the anti Taliban Northern Alliance in terms of more weaponry, ammunition and other supplies, and even air cover.
In such a scenario, Pakistan is the more likely base for ground forces despite the military and political limitations. Given the mostly mountainous terrain, entry points into Afghanistan from Pakistan are few, chiefly from Peshawar towards Jalalabad in the south-east and from Quetta in Baluchistan towards Kandahar in the south-west, and being relatively narrow in field are more vulnerable to counter-attack.
Rather than large ground force deployment, helicopter-based commando operations backed by air strikes from these locations in Pakistan are then the more probable scenario. Pakistan and the US would both like to avoid this and lean towards bases in the Central Asian states given their common desire to minimise the Pakistani ruling establishment’s internal problems in dealing with Islamist opposition, but there may be little option.
IMPLICATIONS IN THE REGION
All this may enable the US-led forces to capture or eliminate Osama bin Laden and destroy much of the Taliban’s larger military assets and even, along with other ground operations, drive the Taliban out of Kabul and Kandahar. But, in the medium term, it may not have as much impact on the Taliban and other international jehadi forces in Afghanistan. These forces could withdraw into the mountains paving the way for the more protracted campaigns which have been the notorious graveyard for so many invading or occupying forces in Afghanistan, the last of whom to have succeeded being Alexander the Great who too did not stay for long. This would imply a continued long-term presence of US and allied forces in the region, still operating from Pakistan and other neighbouring countries in preference to a presence inside Afghanistan, in support of whatever dispensation is put in to replace the Taliban in Kabul.
A serious worry in the region is the possibility of massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan in the event of hostilities breaking out. Central Asian Republics, Iran and even China are doubly anxious at the possibility of fundamentalist and militant elements coming in along with the other refugees and posing threats in the future. Pakistan itself is likely to be badly affected if its internal opponents are joined by militant Taliban and other jehadi forces. While Pakistan, along with other neighbouring countries, has claimed to have sealed its border with Afghanistan, most of the 1700 km long mountainous border region is highly porous and populated by fiercely independent tribal chieftains with no particularly national loyalties. This is also likely to provide fresh impetus to separatist tendencies, dormant for some time under pressure of both military action and events in Afghanistan coming to the fore in these peoples minds, in both Pakhtoon and Baluch areas along the northern areas of Pakistan. These tendencies are likely to gain momentum if the Taliban dispensation is replaced in Afghanistan since all its predecessors have had an uneasy relationship with Pakistan and have not recognised the Durand line taken by Pakistan to be the Pak-Afghan border.
CONTEMPLATED SET-UP IN AFGHANISTAN
Serious moves have already begun to fashion a post-Taliban set up in Kabul as if the war had already been won. Current favourites are the Northern Alliance being the military arm and the government in Kabul being led by the exiled King Zahir Shah.
The Northern Alliance is the term loosely applied to all the somewhat disparate forces who were once part of the mujahideen rallying together against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but who later went into armed opposition against the Taliban. The Alliance comprises not only the political opponents of the Taliban but also most non-Pakhtoon ethnic and religious minorities of who were severely marginalised by the Pakhtoon-dominated Taliban who imposed the Pushtu language and Deobandi fundamentalist Islam on the highly varied ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural mosaic of Afghanistan.
The Alliance includes the mainly Tajik and Farsi-speaking Jamaat-i-Islami forces under the late Commander Ahmad Shah Masood, “Lion of Panjshir”, the valley to the north of Kabul in which it chiefly operates; the mainly Shi’ite Islamic Unity Party operating chiefly in Bamiyan province and including the minority Hazaras who were subjected to ethnic cleansing, mass murders and severe persecution under the Taliban; the mainly Turkic-speaking Uzbek forces of the National Islamic Alliance led by general Rashid Dostum in the area around the strategic northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif and some other scattered opposition forces in other parts of the country. All these forces are components or supporters of the government led by Burhanuddin Rabbani which is recognised by the UN and most other countries including India. The notable absentee is the Hizb-e-Islami led by Professor Burhanuddin’s erstwhile partner, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has declared his support for the Taliban from his base in eastern Iran.
These forces, united under King Zahir Shah, himself a Pakhtoon heading a large landed aristocracy, could certainly unite the Afghan people and restore earlier traditions of Afghan rule including due role to Dari (the local term for Farsi deriving from darbari or language of the court) as lingua franca as it had earlier been and rule on behalf of all ethnic minorities through a revived loyal jirgah comprising tribal chieftains, religious leaders, intellectuals and other community leaders. Such a dispensation in Kabul would doubtless please various regional powers including India, Russia, the secular former Soviet Central Asian Republics and even Iran. Clearly the unhappiest would be Pakistan, whose hackles have already been raised by such a prospect however remote. No wonder General Musharraf told India to “lay off” in connection with the Dushanbe conference to discuss future plans in Afghanistan in which India also participated.
While all this is going on, the BJP-led government continues in its somnolent ways. Its diplomatic moves are mostly reactive, directly almost exclusively at the US, and with only tentative moves towards Russia, Iran and other regional players. It has further reduced its manoeuvrability by continuing high-level discussions with Israel while Palestine and the mid-East are in flames, further isolating itself from Islamic countries as never before. India has played little or no pro-active role and has chosen to confine itself to backroom diplomacy. The BJP-led government has not realised, even after the fiasco in Agra, that campaigning through the media and public opinion is a crucial part of contemporary diplomacy. Unfortunately, when it comes to the media, foreign minister Jaswant Singh continues to rely more on his baritone and clipped British accent, which have long lost their charm, than on content. While the military dictatorship in Pakistan holds wide-ranging consultations with all sections of Pakistani society and polity, in democratic India even the BJP’s NDA allies are scarcely consulted and the Opposition almost never. The 21st century version of the Great Game is afoot, but the Indian player is nowhere to be seen.