The question whether India should deploy troops on the ground to assist Afghanistan in its battle against the Taliban has been long debated in Indian think tanks and in the national media and perhaps will continue to be so debated till the wretched war finally ends in that country. Afghanistan has been in conflict ever since the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979—a period close to four decades— seriously impacting on the country’s socio economic development. Presently, while a semblance of political stability exists with the legally elected Ashraf Ghani regime, the country’s security forces, with the assistance of the US led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), continue to battle the Afghan Taliban for supremacy and eventual control of the state. In the fray is also the al Qaeda and more recently the Islamic State or Daesh. Neither the present government forces nor its antagonists are in a position to affect an outright victory, so we are looking at a continuation of the conflict for quite some time to come. As of now, the Afghan National Security Forces (AFNS) which comprise of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), number over 3,50,000 men. The actual numbers may however be far lesser than this figure as a large number, possibly in the tens of thousands who are on the payrolls, are absent or non-existent. This was stated by the Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson to the Senate armed services committee in February 2017. Despite all its shortcomings, it is this force that is resisting the Taliban and the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As per Gen. Nicholson, the battle situation appears to be a stalemate, though the General admitted that the Taliban has made gains in 2016. The General also stated that one reason for the deadlock was the increasing spoiler role of Russia, which he claimed was seeking to undermine the US and NATO in Afghanistan, adding that he was “concerned about the increasing level” of unspecified Russian support for Taliban insurgents.
The Taliban has successfully resisted the Afghan forces and remains in control of a large area within the country. Of the 400 districts in Afghanistan, the Taliban is in control of 34 districts and is contesting another 167 districts. The capture by Taliban fighters of the strategic district of Sangin in the southern Afghan province of Helmand after ISAF pulled out, underlies their growing strength in the South and also gives them control of the bulk of Afghanistan’s billion dollar opium crop. It appears unlikely that the ANSF will be in a position to seriously weaken the Taliban, despite ISAF support. The Taliban too, which is believed to number around 25,000 fighters, is not in a position to take over the control of the country, though it continues to carry out a number of high profile attacks within Afghanistan and is expanding its influence in the rural areas. For their part, the Afghan National Security Forces have been improving their combat capabilities and are becoming more and more successful in holding their own against the Taliban. Also in the frame is the Islamic State, which is believed to have about 700 to 1000 fighters, but lacks the local support that the Taliban enjoys. In the current scenario, Washington appears to be pursuing a strategy of buying time, in the hope that the Afghan central government would eventually be able to establish a functioning military as well as a political and economic system that could essentially make a deal with and absorb the Taliban. This strategy is fundamentally flawed as the Taliban will only come to the table if the Afghanistan Government is prepared to consider formation of an Islamic Government, based on the Sharia. Even if talks do take place, we are unlikely to see a solution, unless one of the protagonists is defeated. As the two opposing protagonists—the Government forces and the Taliban— lack the ability as of now to achieve a decisive outcome, the current stalemate is likely to continue.
India’s assistance to Afghanistan has been mostly in the civilian field – in particular, in power plants, road construction and medical aid amounting to USD 2 billion. Another USD 1 billion assistance is in the offing. India has baulked at providing weapons and equipment to Afghanistan, as requested for by the Afghanistan government in 2013, though it did provide military aid of a non-lethal nature such as bullet proof vests, vehicles etc. India’s assistance in training thousands of Afghan National Army personnel has also been significant. In 2014, a trilateral arrangement was suggested, wherein weapons and equipment, including there spares could be supplied by Russia and India would pay for them, but that proposal did not gain traction. However, in a departure to the above policy, India supplied four MI 25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan in 2016. Prime Minister Modi has also assured President Ghani of India’s continued support for ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan.
In the above circumstances, Indian support to the Afghan government is essential. India has strategic interests in the region which will be compromised if the Taliban comes to power. To support the democratically elected government, India must off course continue with economic and diplomatic support, but there needs to be a military component as well, to shore up the ANSF. In the prevailing circumstances however, providing military troops in support of the government forces will be counter-productive.
The most telling argument against sending a military force to Afghanistan, to fight alongside the ANA is the reality that victory on the battlefield will be but a chimera. Given the terrain over which operations are to be conducted, the fighting capability of the Taliban and the nature of conflict in that region, it would be naive to presume that deployment of the Indian Army could possibly lead to the eventual submission of the Taliban. India has great experience in combatting insurgencies and low intensity conflicts within the country and a lesson from the Indian experience is that subduing the opposition till the time a political solution is reached, takes decades of effort and great sacrifice in human terms as well as national treasure. The force required to achieve such an outcome, in addition to the present strength of the ANSF, will be to the order of six to eight divisions, duly supported by air power. Even if India were to provide a Division or two, where is the rest of the Force to come from? The US has about 8000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in the advisory role and as trainers, and is unlikely to pump in troops to fight the war. The same goes for its allies. By putting boots on the ground, India will, willy nilly find herself gradually expanding her level of commitment to unsustainable levels, without even the hope of success.
It must also be understood that winning the conflict in Afghanistan would require the battlefield to be isolated. That too is a non-starter. It is well known that the Taliban sanctuaries mainly lie across the Durand Line, in Pakistan, on Afghanistan’s Eastern Border. Till such safe havens exist, which provide the Taliban leadership and its rank and file relative immunity, as well as administrative and financial support from the Pakistani establishment, it would be well nigh impossible to bring about a change in the ground situation. On the contrary, in this battle of attrition, the Taliban is confident that it will outlast any opposition and will eventually prevail.
The third compelling reason why India must not commit to the deployment of troops on the ground is the sheer difficulty in maintaining such a force. In the absence of land connectivity, the force will have to be sustained through either the Central Asian Republics or through Iran. The logistic nightmare and the diplomatic fallout of such maintenance is perhaps a price not worth paying. Deploying troops is hence counter-productive as India will have to deal with its negative consequences, without even a hope of positively impacting on the current war in Afghanistan. The Centre of Gravity in the Afghanistan war lies in Pakistan and till that is addressed, the hopes of a successful resolution of the conflict appear bleak. What then should India do? As a first step, India must continue with its diplomatic and economic support to the government and people of Afghanistan. India is well respected in Afghanistan and while the impact of soft power has limited bearing on military operations, the goodwill of the Afghan people is a priceless asset. On the military side, India should seriously consider the supply of offensive equipment to the Afghanistan Army. The war must be won by the Afghans themselves and for that they must be enabled to fight and win. Indian support could be in terms of equipping, training and logistically supporting a part of the Afghan Army with heavy artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships, drones and missiles. The number of Afghan troops being trained in India could also be increased. Major impact could be made in Special Forces. India could raise a brigade worth of Afghan Special Forces, trained, equipped, maintained and paid for by India. This will pay good dividends in the type of war currently being waged in Afghanistan, especially as such a force would have the capability to be inserted inside Pakistan to deal with Pakistani supported Taliban bases in FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Increased intelligence sharing and provision of medical support could also be part of the Indian support.
Geo-political implications must also be addressed, especially in neutralising Pakistani hostility to any Indian move. While India must shed its diffidence in providing military hardware to assist the Afghan forces in their war against the Taliban, such support must not encompass deploying troops to fight Afghanistan’s War. That job is best left to the Afghans themselves.