October 5, 2022

The Default in Kabul (Part II) – Sub Conventional

At the sub-conventional level we must go pro-active in the true sense. It is time we stop limiting Special Forces operations to ‘reactive’ actions with politicians using them for sermons at election rallies and elsewhere.

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

Over the decades India has employed tremendous amount of ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan. In comparison the US did nothing for ‘nation building’ though American politicians now brazenly say that was not their task; it was fighting terror and now have handed over the country to Taliban whose government has 14 UN-branded terrorists. For India, the harsh truth is that ‘soft power’ is of little use unless backed by ‘hard power’. Placement of military formations in Afghanistan was not an option because of lack of land access but deployment of Special Forces to back up our soft power certainly was.

At the sub-conventional level, our Special Forces had a role in Afghanistan even before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This was conveyed to the government by the Army but Indian governments never had the stomach to employ Special Forces in this manner – and so the response was this is the job of R&AW. 

On the other hand we demonstrated abject surrender to terrorism in handling of the IC-184 hijack engineered by Pakistan’s ISI in December 1999. Lack of requisite response while IC-184 was parked at Amritsar for refueling demonstrated our laid back set up. At Kandahar we released Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Masood Azhar who founded JeM in 2000 and was behind numerous terror attacks including the 2001 Parliament attack, 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008 and 2019 Pulwama car-bombing. We have paid the price in blood ever since and our Sheikh Chillies could never get Masood Azhar holding public rallies in Pakistan.   

At the sub-conventional level, our Special Forces had a role in Afghanistan even before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This was conveyed to the government by the Army but Indian governments never had the stomach to employ Special Forces in this manner – and so the response was this is the job of R&AW. 

Employment of our Special Forces in conjunction the then Northern Alliance would have given us strategic dividends. After the US invasion, our Special Forces should have been deployed in Afghanistan ‘both’ in covert and overt mode – how need not be elaborated here. Over the last decade, the Afghan Army was conveying that Pakistan faces a double front (sandwiched between India and Afghanistan) and that Special Forces of both countries should operate in tandem against Pakistan. We had been conducting joint training but India only wanted Afghan Special Forces to act against Pakistan and Pakistani proxies with us sitting on the fence.

On foreign soil R&AW wants to do everything itself but it has constraints and limitations. Our national hierarchy should have understood this after R&AW’s botched up its experiment with the LTTE going alone. We need Special Forces elements in all our areas of strategic interests operating in tandem with R&AW. This is how the ISI and CIA have been operating. In one case, a Kabul-based overt Taliban leader had even hinted that Indian forces should come in covert mode as the Pakistanis were doing, which was conveyed to the government through a Think Tank. But there was complete inaction.   

R&AW perceives military’s Special Forces employment encroachment on its own turf. Personal egos are another hurdle. When news about some Special Forces being sent to Kabul appeared in media few years ago, a very senior Special Forces veteran suggested to the NSA that elements of Army’s Special Forces be sent and they could be sent in ITBP uniforms if required. His response was: “My ITBP boys are as good as yours.” This is not surprising if the task envisaged for Special Forces is ‘only’ to guard the ambassador and the embassy! But Special Forces need to be employed on strategic tasks, also augmenting intelligence collection and strategic surveillance for R&AW in the process, not just to be parked in a foreign mission.     

Incidentally, elements of Chinese Special Forces in foreign missions and development projects are also tasked to work out evacuation plans for Chinese nationals in advance to cater for emergencies, get these approved from Beijing and oversee their execution when required.

Over the last decade, the Afghan Army was conveying that Pakistan faces a double front (sandwiched between India and Afghanistan) and that Special Forces of both countries should operate in tandem against Pakistan. We had been conducting joint training but India only wanted Afghan Special Forces to act against Pakistan and Pakistani proxies with us sitting on the fence.

India has still not defined a national security strategy though the NSA was tasked to work this out in 2019. We don’t have a policy and strategy for employment of Special Forces on strategic and politically sensitive missions as well. For our politicians criminalisation of politics is no issue in state elections but they want to fight external threats ‘ethically’ while dirty war rages worldwide. They do not understand that Special Forces ‘do not’ create insurgencies but ‘assist’ insurgencies already in place. Had we stoked the dissent in POK at an appropriate time, China would have found it hard to initiate the CPEC.

In recent years, sub-conventional forces have proved to be of greater strategic value over conventional and even nuclear forces, latter being only of limited deterrent value. Ironically, this is still not acknowledged by our policy makers because of which we continue to suffer strategic disadvantage vis-a-vis both Pakistan and China at the sub-conventional level. Our national hierarchy has little understanding of Special Forces operations and that is why we keep harping over the one time cross-border ‘surgical strike’ which actually was in response to casualties suffered in a cross-border terrorist strike.

Perhaps another surgical strike may happen before a coming state election for thumping the table to attract votes, only dilemma being which state elections – UP or Punjab? Wasn’t boosting elections the precise reason why nothing happened on the first anniversary of ‘surgical strikes’ but for the second anniversary nationwide celebrations were organised. Our politicians never stop talking about the surgical strikes by Special Forces and air strikes at Balakot.  

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also mentioned the same at his recent address at Defence Services Staff College in aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. But a dispassionate analysis would tell you there is ‘nothing pro-active’ about these actions because the surgical strikes were in response to the casualties suffered in the terrorist attack at Uri and Balakot in response to the casualties suffered in Pulwama car bombing – both in ISI-supported cross border raids.

In recent years, sub-conventional forces have proved to be of greater strategic value over conventional and even nuclear forces, latter being only of limited deterrent value. Ironically, this is still not acknowledged by our policy makers because of which we continue to suffer strategic disadvantage vis-a-vis both Pakistan and China at the sub-conventional level.

Pakistan proactively employed its SSG for the capture of Panjshir Valley though grossly misusing them for frontal assaults that reportedly resulted in excessive SSG casualties: seven officers, 12 JCOs and 75 other ranks killed plus five officers, nine JCOs and 160 other ranks wounded – total of 12 officer, 21 JCO and 235 other rank casualties alone. On our part, we did not even permit our Special Forces to cross the Line of Control during the Kargil Conflict when they could have played merry hell into the main enemy gun position at Gultari, forward heliports and echelons in the rear.  

Given the soft mentality of the political hierarchy little wonder that when the General commanding the newly raised Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) approached the senior-most military officer with recommendations for improving combat capabilities of the AFSOD, he was told “just relax, no one will employ you”.   

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and Sirajuddin Haqqani appointed the Interior Minister of Afghanistan, we need serious introspection. Mere procurement of weaponry, establishing Theatre Commands and IBGs is not going to suffice by themselves as war clouds are appearing on the horizon. At the sub-conventional level we must go pro-active in the true sense. It is time we stop limiting Special Forces operations to ‘reactive’ actions with politicians using them for sermons at election rallies and elsewhere.

Former joint director Intelligence Bureau (IB) had said, “I continued to advocate for an aggressive and proactive counter and forward intelligence thrust against Pakistan. My voice was rarely heard and mostly ignored. The Pakistani establishment is a geopolitical bully. The best response to blunt such a bully is to take the war inside his home. India has allowed itself to be blackmailed by Pakistan even before it went nuclear. The sabre rattling of “coercive diplomacy”, which is nothing but sterile military power, cannot convince the Islamist Pakistani Establishment that India can take the border skirmishes inside their homes and hit at the very roots of the jaundiced Islamist groups.” An odd surgical strike means nothing to Pakistan.

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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