Lieutenant General P K Singh
Lieutenant General P.K. Singh, PVSM, AVSM (ret)
Dealing with Crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
What are my qualifications for talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan? I have been dealing with Afghanistan in the Indian Army since the mid-1990s and with Pakistan since birth, definitely since I joined the army in 1967. So I have been looking at Pakistan closely for the last 43 years. What I am going to talk about now is based more on the seminars, workshops, and conferences that I have attended on Afghanistan internationally and, more importantly, the ones I conducted at the United Service Institution (USI) in Delhi in 2009, to which we invited not just Afghans in large numbers but delegates from Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Russia, the U.S., the EU, ICRC, and, of course, India. This is the regional approach that General Lather was alluding to. You want to hear the views of others too.
In addition to the involvement I just mentioned, I also participate in regular dialogue with India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, track-two regular dialogue that is ongoing. I also attended a three-day workshop between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India that was hosted by India at Shimla. So the inputs I am going to share with you are based more on what the participants of these discussions and other conferences may want to convey to us rather than just on what I look at from an Indian point of view. Even when I talk about Pakistani military operations, I will do so as a professional and look at them dispassionately, and not make suggestions that are based on Indian views.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, we always need to keep some issues in mind, and these were brought up in various seminars and conferences and by Afghan friends and interlocutors who have been asking these questions over and over again. First, many people believe that the Taliban were never defeated in 2001. They simply made a transition from the seat of power to that of a powerful insurgency. They do not consider themselves as defeated: They did not sign a surrender agreement and they were not decimated. This needs to be remembered. Second, all of us involved in Afghanistan need to understand the military objectives of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghans talk of the U.S. and of NATO, and when you ask them why they talk about them separately, they always feel that even if certain elements of NATO or other contributing nations withdraw, the Americans may stay there longer. The Afghan perception is that, even if others leave, chances are that the U.S. will remain. So they talk of the U.S. a little differently than they talk about ISAF. If what they say is true, we should look at the military objectives of this military force there, because if we do not understand their objectives and we want to be a part of the solution, we may go wrong, since there is also a military campaign going on in Afghanistan. It is not just development, not economics, not anything else; we cannot detach development from security or security from development.
What is the perceived military aim of ISAF? The feeling is that it is to reduce the Taliban’s oppression capability to a point at which they are no longer a serious threat or challenge-not to the U.S. or to ISAF, but to the Afghans if they are left on their own. In case of a withdrawal, what will be the Taliban’s capacity to challenge the Afghan National Forces? The feeling is that ISAF’s aim is to decimate Al-Qaeda. But Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are two different entities requiring two different operations and two different strategies to address them.
What do the Taliban aspire to? A simple answer is that they aspire to come back to power. The Taliban have never given up that hope. Can they come back to power through a military victory against the forces that are operating in Afghanistan? Definitely not. They can never do it militarily. They cannot get back to power by defeating the U.S. and ISAF militarily. They do not stand a chance.
So how will the Taliban get back to power? The feeling is that they will get back to power through the back door, initially by being part of a governing council or governing system. But even if they are in government or in the ruling coalition, they will not stop hitting militarily at ISAF. So if we believe that because there is a signed agreement or a Peace Jirga that the military part of the Taliban will stop fighting ISAF, the answer is they will not. We will have to be prepared to talk and fight at the same time with this group called the Taliban.
The linkages between those who join the government and those who fight need to be understood. We tend to forget that all of these organizations, even in my country, have a political element and a military element. To think that they are divorced may be a mistake. They are never really going to be divorced. They talk to each other and there is an amount of coordination in their strategy.
What does reconciliation with the Taliban mean? This is an important question that seems to cause a great deal of misunderstanding and differences of opinion. Here I would like to say that a lot of people think that India opposes talking to the Taliban. But how can we oppose? We have talked to all the insurgent groups in India ourselves. But when we talk, we lay down the conditions: Who will be allowed to reconcile? Will it be somebody who agrees to certain frameworks, certain decisions, such as not picking up weapons against the state? There will be certain parameters that the Taliban will have to accept in order to be part of the system now. That needs to be understood. In other words, we will talk from a position of strength.
Will this reconciliation follow a politico-military success or will it be a substitute for defeating the Taliban through counter-insurgency operations (COIN)? The answer is that it will be a mix. In case of a military success, there will be no need to ask the Taliban for talks, because they will come to the table on their own. But if they have some success, there will be resistance, and we will have to get them to the table. This is how insurgencies carry on-I have some experience fighting insurgency in my country. You fight with them and you are sure that there is no talk; then comes a stage when you start having talks and the talks progressively get enlarged but the fighting carries on. Then comes the stage when the agreement is signed and the fighting stops or starts tapering. There will not be a clinical on/off button. So we have to understand this a little better.
Key Issues for Partners
Next, we need to know who has vital interests in Afghanistan, since there are many who do aside from Afghans themselves. It is also important to know who has the means to pressure, bargain, and guarantee an agreement on key issues. It is even more important to know what these key issues are. The need for defining these issues and finding out who is committed to them will lead us to those who can be our partners in Afghanistan. I cannot be a partner if I do not understand the goals or if I oppose the goals that have been commonly laid out. And we are not really laying out what those goals are, who actually subscribes to those goals, and therefore who should be our partners in bringing about peace in Afghanistan.
The key issues are:
How will we know that the U.S. and NATO or ISAF are going to leave? It will be when you start seeing the increase of other countries’ activities to safeguard their own national presence in Afghanistan. And what will happen in Afghanistan if we stabilize the country but do not stabilize the western borders of Pakistan? How safe or secure will Afghanistan be? Afghans feel that they will not be secure inside their country if there is no security on Pakistan’s western borders. So we cannot detach the two.
Finally, I would like to say a word about the military perspective in Afghanistan. One issue that Afghans keep bringing up to us is that we have the best and most developed armies of the world fighting in Afghanistan. They say that the armies fighting in Afghanistan have the best support systems available to them, and that no other army can match them in terms of troops, force multipliers, or military intelligence. They argue that, if we withdraw the best and leave it to the second or third best-the Afghan National Security Forces, which will have a component of the military and a component of the police, without the support system or the force multiplier-what chances will they have? What should their numbers be? Are they capable of standing up and for how long will they need support? No one can put their money, men, or material in Afghanistan ad infinitum, but premature withdrawal will be disastrous.
The Pakistan Army has been waging a very difficult war against the insurgents on its borders with Afghanistan. I must compliment them for doing a reasonably good job with what they have so far. But since I am talking of the military aspects of this war, I would like to flag some issues that highlight what it means to Pakistan if the country is serious about the war on terror. When you fight terrorism or you fight insurgency in your country, you also have to look at the macro issues, not just the military issue, not just the war on that day or week when you throw out the insurgents from an area. You can be totally wrong if you think you have succeeded.
These are the issues I want to flag:
First, the Taliban-LET-Al-Qaeda combined insurgency in FATA and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan mixes Pashtun nationalism with religious extremism as a unique sociocultural driver, and it is very different from the self-determination motives of the Baluchis. So when you look at the western border, please remove Baluchistan from FATA/NWFP, because it has a different connotation.
With the killing of a large number-some accounts say 500, 600, or more-of the Maliks or tribal chiefs by the Taliban, there is a power vacuum in this frontier agency of Pakistan that is being filled by the Mullahs who owe allegiance to the Taliban-Al Qaeda combination. Cutting peace deals between the insurgents and the Pakistan Army or the Pakistan state and ignoring these tribal chiefs has further aggravated this problem. The image of the chiefs has been lowered and there are few chiefs left, although today all of us who are outside Afghanistan still think of the tribes as having a tribal chief or a strong chief. I do not think that there are any strong chiefs left. Those who were strong have been eliminated and replaced, and we do not understand yet the effect of these removals or the compromises that these tribal leaders have had to make.
The other aspect that any one of us, whether in the military or not, will understand is that the rugged, underdeveloped terrain, the population distribution pattern, the lack of governance, and the weather conditions are all favorable to the insurgents’ operations. The conditions that exist on the frontier help the insurgents against the armed forces and require much more effort to counter. So, when we consider the number of Pakistani troops that are needed to fight against the insurgents, we have to build in these conditions-the weather, terrain, and population-to our framework. I am not even talking about differences in language, about the uncertain effect of troops who have been enrolled from that area-how willing they are to fight an insurgency against their own kith or kin. If you add all this in, the difficulties for the Pakistan Army multiply.
Counter-insurgency operations take many years or even decades to be successful. So Pakistan has to understand that it must have the will to fight and that defeating the insurgents in a particular district and moving to the next district is not going to solve the problem. In order to conduct a successful counter-insurgency operation, we need to look at a couple of ratios and figures. All armies do it. They look at the troops-to-population ratio, the troops-to-space ratio, and the troops-to-insurgent ratio. For example, the number of troops required will be different if the area is large or if the population is different.
As a soldier, I feel that, if Pakistan really wants to be successful, it will have to put no less than 20, or even 25, soldiers to every 1,000 people for the long haul. For a population of 28 or 29 million in that region, what will Pakistan need to deploy? It should be approximately 500,000 troops over the long haul. Today, they only have 150,000 troops deployed. With 150,000 troops, quick victories may be possible, but it may not be possible to sustain them and to sustain them over the entire region. If Pakistani troops win here, the insurgents may go elsewhere; if the troops address them there, the insurgents will come back here the next day in a cat-and-mouse game that can carry on for years.
To conclude, the jury is out on many of the issues I have highlighted. Illusions of a quick victory are dangerous because they inhibit clear strategic planning. Let us discuss these issues with an open mind and with pragmatism.