Even as the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan becomes a reality in 2014 after over eleven years of debilitating conflict, our security establishment needs to seriously assess its ramifications for our security environment in particular, if not for our entire neighbourhood and the global community as well. This would not only sub serve our national interest but would also be in keeping with our desire to be recognised as a global power. We need to war game, create security ‘scenarios’ and prepare on the ground to meet the ‘worst case’ situations and initiate measures to mitigate their impact.
Just as the Soviets under Gorbachev were definitive about their withdrawal from Afghanistan long before they set the deadline in1989, the Americans too have made their intentions clear. They have claimed that their mission to eliminate the threat from Al Qaeda (AQ) has been accomplished with the serious attrition inflicted on the AQ core leadership and the perceived inability of the organisation to mount a major attack on the American mainland. But little is said about their sanctuaries in the AF-Pak region remaining intact and their Taliban hosts being dangerously resurgent with Pakistani duplicity. Such indeed are the pressures and compulsions historically imposed on imperial powers fighting protracted but un-winnable wars in the harsh Afghan geo political and socio cultural environment!
The US has yet to clearly delineate its security posture in Afghanistan after the withdrawal. However, several indicators suggest that it would be limited to a counter terrorism posture specifically directed against the AQ and assistance to the Afghan regime in terms of military advice, training, and supply of hard ware, intelligence sharing and occasional air support. The USA and Europe assess that their primary terrorist threats now emanate from self radicalised individuals/groups and ‘sleepers’ in the Muslim diaspora. They apprehend more terrorist attacks a- la the ‘Boston Bombers’ and the more lethal aviation related terrorism where plots may originate in poorly regulated jurisdictions beyond their shores. They perhaps rightly assess that frontal assaults by ‘terrorist commandos’ as in Mumbai on 26/11 would be logistically very difficult to execute in the USA or Western Europe.
Post 9/11, the USA has also established very comprehensive security-cum-intelligence grids and a hard pre emptive and retaliatory counter terrorism (CT) doctrine wherein blunt threats of relegating errant countries (i.e. states sponsoring terrorism) back to the ‘stone age’ are made without demur when national security or public interest is involved.
In our own context, our geography, our immediate neighbourhood, internal security resources, geo political stature and reach and the single mindedness and resolve required to eliminate terrorist threats, bear no comparison with the USA. We should not allow the declining trend in Jihadi terrorism over the past decade (in fact in indigenous insurgencies as well) to lull us into complacency. This trend is attributable in large measure to Pakistan being under intense international scrutiny and pressure over the war on terror and reaping in large measure the devastating wrath of its own protégées over its alliance with the USA. This trend is wholly reversible as the environment in the region will undergo considerable change after the US withdrawal.
We need to consider several possibilities. Once the US led NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, how will the vast infrastructure of terrorism and insurgency expend its energies and resources, even as a possible struggle for the control of Kabul ensues? At this point, an enduring peaceful settlement with the hardcore Taliban appears a mirage. Besides the considerable manpower and fighting/ terrorist capabilities of the Taliban, over three thousand foreign terrorists from over two dozen countries are reportedly present in the AF Pak area recruited by AQ to fight NATO forces. With their ‘far enemy’ ‘defeated’ in Khorasan (the Taliban and its cohorts will certainly dub the US withdrawal in these terms) and beyond their reach, who else will they target other than their declared proximate enemy within the triad of ‘Crusaders, Zionists and Hindus’. This is not difficult to conjecture with the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e- tayyaba (Let), Jaishe-e- mohammed( JeM), Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and Harkatul- jihad-e- islami( HuJI) continuing to freely articulate their hatred for India. In February this year, some of them openly vowed to avenge the execution of Afzal Guru, convicted for masterminding the attack on India’s Parliament in 2001.
To argue the case further rhetorically, will the Afghan Taliban and its cohorts the TTP, the HuJI, Let and JeM, with their supporters in India in the Indian Mujahideen (IM) or the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), refrain from mounting occasional big ticket attacks in major urban centres in India just because the new civilian government in Pakistan asks them to desist, if it does that at all? Will the Pak Army ever submit to civilian control? And if it does not, as is most likely, will it give up on its non-formal combatant ‘ cousins’ in favoured terror organisations like the LeT and not use them as heretofore? Consider especially that India has thus far failed to exert any form of coercive pressure and has surrendered all options except that of cordial dialogue. It even eschews aggressive repartee when seriously goaded by Pakistan!
We may do well to remember what could potentially become an unfortunate precedent and may take us ‘back to the future’. This is a repeat of the post 1989 Soviet withdrawal scenario from Afghanistan, when Jihadi assets were turned against India by grand design and to great effect by the Pakistani ISI-Military establishment in launching the ‘Kashmir Jihad’. The HuJI was created in the mid 1980’s to fight the anti-Soviet Afghan “Jihad” and then turned upon India by Pakistan to wage proxy war after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in early 1989. The LeT was formed subsequently expressly for this purpose. The jihad was then extended beyond J&K to urban areas in the Indian hinterland. This deliberate and meticulously planned intelligencemilitary- jihadi operation attained apogee in the unprecedented Mumbai attacks on 26/11 by the Let with ISI’s active complicity.
Meanwhile, a more lethal melange of killing techniques and methodologies for multiple simultaneous suicidal commando style attacks , particularly in urban centres (essentially the 26/11 template with more fire power and terrorist teams involved), has been perfected in Kabul and other urban centres in Afghanistan by the Haqqani – Al Qaeda -Taliban combine supported by the Pakistani ISI. These could well provide the model of attack against targets in India in the future. The close affiliation of the LeT and Huji with the Taliban and AQ are well known and the possibility of their engaging in such attacks or other high voltage actions like an attack on a nuclear installation in India after 2014 cannot be dismissed facilely.
We in India have yet to put together the vast CT capabilities required to counter repeats of the 26/11 model made more audacious and lethal as evidenced in attacks in Kabul. This indeed would be a daunting challenge even for countries in the better organised western world. In our context it requires comprehensive action across our entire security architecture against the backdrop of declining credibility of governments and institutions in a federal polity. The capabilities that need to be put in place urgently are well known to the security establishment and need not be reiterated; but translating them into action on the ground has been an uphill task. While there is no need to engage in unjustified sabre rattling, it must be recognised that the essentially defensive CT posture we have adopted (we do not have a declared CT doctrine) is imperfect, onerous to sustain, preponderantly reactive and will leave us vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The author, an erstwhile member of the Indian Police Service, is a former Secretary (Security) Government of India