There have been reports in the media that the Afghanistan government has requested India, though not officially, to send soldiers to the country to maintain peace after the exit of US and allied troops. Even some Indian commentators are saying that India should accept the request and send in soldiers to protect its geostrategic interests and indirectly thwart the Taliban from sending militants to fight in Kashmir once they are free of fighting US troops.
However, none of them has been able to grasp what it will take to maintain a large force in an unfamiliar foreign land which has seen continuous strife for the last four decades and this has resulted in it being labelled a failed state. Another factor is that the Afghans don’t like foreign soldiers deployed in their country, even from India, which is seen as a friendly country by majority of them.
Afghanistan has never been kind to foreign forces who have tried since times immemorial to try and occupy it and dictate terms. In recent history the erstwhile Soviet Union, a super power, invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and tried all its might to subdue the Afghans into submission but it failed, losing more than 50,000 soldiers in the 10 years it occupied the country, finally withdrawing in 1989 battered and bruised.
Next was the turn of the United States, which invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after the Taliban government refused to surrender Al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, the planner-in-chief of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
After meeting with initial success, when they routed the Taliban from all the major cities of the country and pushed them deep into the countryside and mountains, troops from US and allied countries got bogged-down in a protracted insurgency which continues to this day.
The main reason why the Taliban have been able to stay afloat for the last 19 years is because of the covert support provided by Pakistan. The US has been asking Pakistan to close its border with Afghanistan and stop Taliban militants from taking sanctuary in its territory but it hasn’t complied.
Afghanistan has been Pakistan’s backyard ever since the Soviet invasion. To push the Soviet forces out of the country, Pakistan was used as a base by the West to train and arm the Afghan mujahideens (freedom fighters).
Later, the Taliban, who originated in the refugee camps inside Pakistan, were nurtured by the Pakistan establishment and given military support in their fight to oust the Afghan government of that day in the mid 90s and start ruling the country themselves. So the bond between Pakistan and Taliban is very strong and they both hate India.
Needless to say they will never want Indian soldiers in the country and will be bitterly opposed to such a move.
Now with no end in sight to the conflict and acknowledging that it has failed to bring peace to the country, US has started talking to Taliban for a face-saving peace deal so that its forces can withdraw. In a way US accepts that it has lost the war.
Wary of Taliban coming back, the Afghan government, knowing very well that the Afghan armed forces won’t be able to keep Taliban at bay, wants India to send in troops to keep peace in the country and act as a buffer between the two sides.
India has also, like the Soviet Union and US, burnt its fingers trying to bring ‘peace’ in another country by deploying troops. In 1987 the Indian Peace Keeping Force was sent to northern and eastern Sri Lanka to act as a buffer between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
However, soon after the LTTE turned their guns on the Indian soldiers and after losing 1,500 soldiers IPKF withdrew in 1990 without achieving the objective it went there for.
Will history repeat itself? Hope not. Though India has strategic interest in trying to have a say in Afghanistan as it is a gateway to energy-rich central Asia and an India-friendly government there would help keep watch on Pakistan, keeping a substantial force there will be a logistic and financial nightmare.
For one, Afghanistan is a landlocked country that doesn’t share a border with India. So, to keep troops properly supplied will be a gigantic logistic operation unlike any seen before in India’s history.
India will need to deploy at least upward of 50,000 troops to effectively handle duties. The only route which can be used to send in equipment, supplies and other stuff will be through the Chabahar port in Iran and onwards to Afghanistan through a road. This is circuitous route, which will take quite a number of days to circumvent.
The only other way into Afghanistan is by air but that would take transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force like the C-17 Globemaster, which has a capacity to lug 80 tons of material, many sorties a day to accomplish.
Once everything is in place, a virtual air bridge will be needed to be maintained, with numerous sorties every day, to keep troops properly supplied with everything needed so that they remain an effective force.
Once the Indian troops start patrolling they will realize that the insurgency in Afghanistan is vastly different to the one in Kashmir. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have access to wide variety of weapons, including the deadly improvised explosive devices (IED), courtesy Pakistan. Taliban militants are trained in the same camps as militants who go to Kashmir.
While Indian army is dominating the situation in Kashmir and has virtually choked flow of militants from Pakistan occupied Kashmir with heavy troop deployment on Line of Control, in Afghanistan the vast majority of the border with Pakistan is unmanned. This allows militants to come and go as they please and bring in whatever weapons they want.
To protect troops against IEDs and anti-tank guided rockets like the RPG-7, specialised vehicles will be needed in vast quantities. At the moment the Indian Army doesn’t have such vehicles in the quantities needed nor does the defence budget allow them to buy these. Will The US provide these vehicles to India? There is no clarity on it at the moment.
So, if Indian troops are deployed, they will be very vulnerable if attacked till the time they get the proper vehicles providing protection against IEDs.
US troops have been able to take very few casualties in the 19 years they have been in Afghanistan compared to what they suffered in Vietnam.
Around 2,400 have died and over 20,000 injured, with most of them being victims of IEDs. Reason for such low casualty figures is that there has been a constant air cover provided by fighter planes and helicopter gunships which have come to the aid of soldiers whenever they have come under fire or engaged the Taliban in a firefight.
Will the Indian soldiers have a similar air cover? Some fighter aircraft will be deployed and also helicopter gunships but it is unlikely that these will be able to give cover to all the troops which will be spread throughout the country.
So, when they come under attack from the Taliban, they will have to fight it out on their own with crucial air support missing.
How long will the troops stay there? Going by the past, it will not be a short stay as the Taliban will want absolute power and the Afghan will resist it and struggle between the two will continue.
Pakistan will also take this opportunity to use their proxy, the Taliban, to attack Indian soldiers as it doesn’t want India to have a foothold in Afghanistan, which Pakistan wants to dominate as the country provides Pakistan strategic depth.
It wouldn’t be a surprise that Pakistan Army soldiers, especially from the elite Special Service Group, will take part in these attacks. Pakistan will never let go of this opportunity to target Indian soldiers.
Sending soldiers to Afghanistan will be needlessly risky and a drain on the exchequer. When a country like the US, which has more resources than us failed to achieve its goals even after two decades of presence in Afghanistan, what chance do we have?
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