When the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul in Oct 2001 on the back of relentless bombing of the Talibaan by the US, they did not have to fight their way in, they were led into the city by the first man to walk in down the main highway, BBC’s Simpson. A “covering force” of a few hundred Pakistanis and a handful of other foreigners roamed around like headless chicken within the city, the balance of the much vaunted fighting force disappeared into the Afghan hinterland. When several thousand Talibaan were trapped in Konduz, the Afghan element led by Mullah Dadulla negotiated their own freedom in exchange for marching the remaining (mainly Pakistani) Talibaan into Dostum’s custody, the tens of thousands of Afghan Talibaan literally took to the hills. He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. Most of the Pakistanis ended up buried alive by Dostum in Shebergan.
Many attempts have been made to change Afghan society into resembling civilization as we know it, the Soviets tried this in a prolonged period starting with the overthrow of King Zahir Shah by his cousin Daud in 1973, and ending with the ouster of Najibullah by the Mujhahideen in. Possession of Kabul always being nine-tenths of claiming sovereignty over Afghanistan since time immemorial, the Tajik -” dominated government with Ahmed Shah Masaud as Defence Minister made no attempt to exercise control over any other area in Afghanistan except for the city of Kabul. Dostum ruled over Mazar-i-Sharif, Ismail Khan held sway over Herat and various Pakhtoon warlords controlled area extending from Kandahar in the south, Jalalabad in the north-west and upto the gates of Kabul. A decade or so later, the only difference is that US has now its own physical presence within Afghanistan, its forces are in the countryside hunting down the Talibaan (and Al-Qaeda) Hamid Karzai of Pakhtoon extraction from Kandahar the figurehead President in a Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul. A mainly Tajik “national” Afghan Army is being trained to take over advanced internal security duties (including counter-guerilla warfare) from US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it is yet to be seen how they perform when push comes to shove.
“The natives are getting restless” as can be seen by the increasing number of attacks on US, ISAF and Afghan Government forces, particularly in the areas south of Kabul extending down to Kandhaar. There has been a spate of guerilla actions west of the Durand Line, leading to Afghan Government accusations that Pakistan deliberately allowed sanctuary to the Talibaan to re-group in the tribal areas that runs along the Durand Line North East to South West. Most guerilla activity is focused in two widely separated areas, opposite South Waziristan in the south and then about 150 kms north facing Mohmand Agency. Pakistani para-military forces and Afghan forces have traded not only small arms fire but also field artillery at places, intelligence reports indicate that personnel of the Indian Consulate Generals at Kandahar and Jalalabad have been active not only in stoking up anti-Pakistan feeling on the Afghan side of the border areas but have supported active operations against our border guards.
Afghanistan is a land-locked country, during the Afghan War in the 80s decade Karachi’s port was almost the only conduit for all kinds of supplies for the Afghan Mujhahideen. When the US ousted the Talibaan (and Al-Qaeda) after 9/11, Pakistan border areas and cities became far more important to them, particularly as a safe haven. Osama Bin Laden’s presence in our side in the immediate vicinity of the border areas is almost impossible. With his height and build, not to speak about accompanying bodyguards and necessary medical and other logistics, he would be easily spotted. So either he is deep inside Talibaan -“occupied territory within Afghanistan or in Pakistan in a major city like Karachi or Lahore, where his “entourage” could easily melt into the population background. The Talibaan have risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of their 2001 madness when they tried to fight a modern high-tech Superpower in a conventional 19th century manner, two years later they have reverted to classic rural guerilla hit and run tactics.
Since the Talibaan can come and go easily across the long and porous border at will, it is convenient for Afghanistan (or anyone else) to put the blame on Pakistan in the same manner India does. One may well ask, why are US and Afghan forces not able to stop the infiltration? It could be that Talibaan have sanctuaries within Pakistan but these cannot be obtrusive enough to be used as training camps or they would be easily spotted by ground observers if not US surveillance aircraft and/or satellites. At most individuals and very small groups can use safe locations in the border areas for R&R (Rest and Recreation). There is a vast difference between this and active training/regrouping bases, even that is clearly unacceptable to the Pakistan Government.
Security in our Tribal Areas is looked after by a para-military force called Frontier Corps, Federal Troops do not venture into this area where the fiat of the Provincial Government is represented by the Political Agent. This was good enough in the last century, in the new real world we cannot afford to ignore ground realities anymore, we cannot allow for the possibility of that area rapidly becoming a haven for terrorists. Benign neglect will ultimately make the area a festering breeding ground for a new wave of terrorists. However we have to tread carefully, the loss of their “virtual independence” is resented by the tribals, sometimes violently as the only rule of law they understand is not the written code but the “Jirga” system and their tribal customs. Some tribes wanted for criminal activity were not handed over by the Zalikhel-Qarikhel (sub-tribes among the Waziris) to the Federal Authorities who recently launched Operation Al-Mizan, killing 8 and capturing 18 Al-Qaeda suspects. In the new circumstances after 9/11 where terrorists have made the world into a global village, Pakistan cannot afford a “hands off” policy anymore. Imposition of the rule of law in the tribal areas is necessary to remain a responsible member of civilized society.
But how to impose the laws of the land without causing an insurrection? We have to permanently maintain a strong deterrent in place, troops with excellent mobility and communications. This operation will not last for six months or a year, this has to be a permanent solution over a decade or so that the recalcitrants among the tribals do not bide their time and re-appear when the Federal troops return to their permanent locations.
Given the difficult mountainous terrain and non-existent roads, a permanent helibone force is the only answer, possibly four to five brigades. Heli-lift capacity must be supplemented with helicopter gunships with adequate airborne firepower. Pakistan already has good experience with Russian-origin M1-8 and M1-17 (available from many Warsaw Pact countries now members of NATO) troop lifting helicopters, as well as US-made Cobra gunships. The US must make these available for Pakistan to actively pursue “the war against terrorism”. Terrorist activity may not take place in the tribal areas itself but the area will serve as a sanctuary unless and until the people of the area realize that the bad old days are gone forever, that can only be conveying through an effective ever-present interdicting machine. For a permanent solution to denying secure haven for terrorists, fully air-mobile troops capable of not only reacting at short-notice but pre-empting possible terrorist hide-outs in this almost impassable and inaccessible mountainous terrain of our western borders adjacent to Afghanistan is the only answer.