October 2, 2022

The Default in Kabul (Part I) – Intelligence

Do our foreign missions have a vision for intelligence acquisition and for that matter do the R&AW and NTRO have a vision of their own, this is a matter of significance at this hour and we must think and analyse suitably

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

The fact that America was reconciled to handover Afghanistan to the Taliban was becoming evident since 2016 when the US decided to provide ‘only’ air support to Afghan National Army (ANA). This was concurrent to Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, religious chief of Afghan Taliban calling for the Afghan government to cut ties with all foreign allies. In fact, the US had denied ANA support of US Special Forces (USSF) when Taliban invested Kunduz in 2015; the USSF were willing to help but said they were not getting clearance for doing so.

If there were any doubts about American intentions, the so-called US-Taliban peace deal of February 29, 2020 should have removed all, especially with US deliberately leaving out Government of Afghanistan from these negotiations. Once this deal was signed, the US began withdrawing air, artillery and even logistics support to ANA. Withdrawal of civilian contractors dried up logistics to the extent that some posts eventually ran out of ammunition and even pay for the troops. 

Lieutenant General Sami Sadat, who commanded ANA’s 215 Maiwand Corps in southwestern Afghanistan (covering Helmand region) and finally as Commander of the Special Forces, puts part of the blame for ANA’s capitulation on ‘some’ Generals promoted due to political favouritism – something which the ‘deep state’ resident in the Government of India is trying to do under cover of “merit-based” selection for promotion of two-star rank officers to three-star level.

The contractual period for an ANA soldier was five years. Afghan Government wanted to increase it to 10 years but could not because external financial assistance was only pledged in three-five years blocks. Some were allowed second term but not all. Few years ago foreign journalists in Afghanistan had reported average annual desertion in ANA to the tune of 50,000 and 27,000 in police. Many deserters sold their weapons or joined the Taliban. Making up numbers was easy because of high rate of unemployment. Interaction with ISAF instructors revealed this adversely affected specialisation, fighting capability and leadership.

Foreign missions of all countries have elements of external intelligence – in our case Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). It is the job of R&AW to generate intelligence about ‘all stakeholders’ in the region. This includes insurgent, radical and terrorist organisations – even infiltrating them. Given that India had generated tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan and had invested USD3 billion in developing projects, India was best placed to generate its own intelligence, which should have covered all stakeholders including the Afghan government, erstwhile Northern Alliance, Taliban, NGOs and other organisations operating in Afghanistan.

Instead, we blindly accepted what the Americans wanted us to believe. This was easy going but deceived us of US intent to handover Afghanistan to the Taliban. At the same time, factions in Taliban were appreciative of Indian intentions and development programmes though acknowledging that Pakistanis regulars and proxies would work against Indian interests. Did we ever examine how to address this?

Given that India had generated tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan and had invested USD3 billion in developing projects, India was best placed to generate its own intelligence, which should have covered all stakeholders including the Afghan government, erstwhile Northern Alliance, Taliban, NGOs and other organisations operating in Afghanistan.

Do our foreign missions have a vision for intelligence acquisition and for that matter do the R&AW and National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) have a vision of their own? Public is unaware of goings on in our missions abroad. Our diplomats get two postings abroad and one in India by rotation. One ambassador (not in Kabul) used to openly say how much money he makes no one would know because he could have multiple accounts abroad. He even owned an apartment in Manhattan, New York. There is much more but suffice to say that instead of demanding intelligence, ambassadors play buddy to the R&AW representative (s) for fear they may get reported upon.  Hence, intelligence-wise it is chalta hai.

Had we generated our own intelligence and undertaken periodic appreciations, we would not be in the situation that we are in today. But who can question R&AW and NTRO when the politico-bureaucratic hierarchy has their own skeletons to hide? The charter of Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) when established included operating sources abroad which was not permitted to start with by the Ministry of Defence. Whether DIA was permitted later and had lien on Afghanistan is not known.

As mentioned above, R&AW should have developed links with the Taliban and even infiltrated it by proxy as possible. This would have enabled us to decide whether our embassy should be evacuated, when to do so, and not leave many Indian nationals and Afghan supporters at the mercy of Taliban, as has happened now diluting some of the goodwill we had generated. Who would understand this more than NSA Ajit Doval who reportedly infiltrated the Mizo National Front (using disguise?) and stayed in Myanmar for some time.

Look at the paradox of our media talking about Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai nicknamed “Sheru” when under training at the Indian Military Academy and our embassy in Kabul contacting Taliban last minute for moving to the airport under their escort. According to one report, Taliban had even asked the embassy not to shut down. One angry nationalist writes, “I think the evacuation of our complete embassy was like running away from a fight with its tail tucked between its legs. They managed to get a Taliban escort for them to go to the airport. If they had that much clout, why did they not leave an IFS guy behind to begin negotiations with the new regime, to look after assets built by us, and to help the rest of the Indian citizens and our Afghan friends stranded there and help evacuate them?” 

Do we know how many Indians, Afghans of Indian-origin (who wanted to come out) and Afghan sympathisers are left behind although government would like us to believe there are none? When ISIS began attacking in Iraq, it was the same problem – not knowing how many Indians were present in Iraq and how to contact them. Is it too difficult to maintain a list and contact numbers of all Indians by concerned embassies, updated through immigration in India with every individual going abroad and immigration of the country the mission is situated in?

How much to we know about Afghans coming out? Surely the ISI had foreseen the inevitable exodus and planned accordingly. According to NBC TV sources, of the Afghan citizens evacuated to the US, 100 have been marked potentially threatening because of links with terrorist or radical groups like the Taliban. On August 31, a 17-year-old Afghan teenager was arrested by the J&K Police at Lakhanpura in Kathua District of Jammu who said he was going to Kashmir for onward journey to Afghanistan.       

Reflecting the government view on developments in Afghanistan, CDS General Bipin Rawat says Taliban takeover was evident but it would happen so fast was not expected. This is natural when you keep your eyes and ears shut. Similar, was the stupid excuse we knew the PLA exercising in Aksai China could occupy new locations in Eastern Ladakh in 24-36 hours but never expected them to do so. Any military-man would know capabilities matter not intentions which can change overnight.

Finally, our intelligence has been poor to say the least since 1947 through to the 1962 Sino-Indian War, 1999 Kargil Conflict, 2020 Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh and now in Afghanistan. Whether this can improve is anybody’s guess because somehow the powers that be appear uninterested.     

Finally, our intelligence has been poor to say the least since 1947 through to the 1962 Sino-Indian War, 1999 Kargil Conflict, 2020 Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh and now in Afghanistan. Whether this can improve is anybody’s guess because somehow the powers that be appear uninterested.     

The author is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

To be continued….

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