The war in Afghanistan has entered its six month, the concerted air offensive giving way to occasional air strikes but mostly ground battles against suspected Al Qaeda / Talibaan strongholds. As “Operation Anaconda” has shown, the claws may have been blunted, the sting still remains. And so it will, for some time to come.
The US ran the war according to what was their actual primary mission, to topple the Talibaan from power and thus deny terrorism in the form of Osama led Al-Qaeda a firm base to operate from. For the record the war on terrorism was primarily meant to bring Osama Bin Laden (OBL) to justice, however Mullah Umar and OBL continue to evade capture. Bin Laden’s No.2 in Al-Qaeda Abu Zubayda, was hauled up recently during raids on urban hideouts in Faisalabad city. On the premise that the tougher they seem the softer they are, he should be a mine of useful information to the US, for whom every bit of knowledge about Al-Qaeda’s intention is necessary in their plans to counter-effectively in their “Homeland Defence”.
According to US military sources, a group of Al-Qaeda fighters who ultimately were estimated to be about a 1000 were spotted gathering in cave complexes east of Khost near the Pakistan border. The battle that developed forced reinforcements by more US troops into the fray than earlier anticipated, it also underscored the fact that the Al-Qaeda/Talibaan were now re-grouping in small units, with the ability of coming together very rapidly when faced with an air/ground assault. “Anaconda” was a major test in the US resolve. Having had relatively an easy time evicting the Talibaan from the cities of Afghanistan, the US had only the recent Tora Bora experience to go by with respect to fighting a counter-guerilla war in Afghanistan. In Tora Bora, while the fighting was intense, most of the firepower was directed from the air and quite a lot of the guerillas had managed to escape because the mercenary militias employed by the US failed to come to grips with the enemy. During “Operation Anaconda”, a better quality of Afghan soldiery was clearly in existence with the result that greater firefights took place between combatants on the ground. The induction of a Panjsheeri Tajik armoured unit was resented in the Pashtun area but it remained a resentment only because they were not employed. US spokesmen claimed that 800 of the approximately 1000 guerilla fighters had been killed, this could not be verified as very few bodies, less than two dozen, were actually discovered. The intense air activity must have resulted in high casualties but it seems that the bulk of enemy forces slipped through the net that had been laid for them in high mountain passes and narrow valleys. Obviously the route was into Pakistan across the border where they would get shelter from sympathetic elements. However this help would only be a temporary transit permit, not as a permanent base to carry out cross-border attacks. This is an important point. While there will be sympathy for them and their grievous travails at the hands of Coalition Forces it will be far diminished than the earlier enthusiasm because of the treatment that the Pakistanis got at the hands of Afghans within Afghanistan. Even if an enemy turns up at your gate and asks for help, Pashtun honour cannot refuse that help. What Pakistan has paid in social disintegration and economic devastation thereof as a cost of such help can only be estimated.
The induction of British Marine Commandos into Afghanistan will ease the pressure of US forces now carrying the brunt of the fighting. As the snows melt from the high mountain passes, many more routes will open up during the summer for easy cross movement of guerillas, nearly all of whom would be of Pashtun extraction, with the odd Al-Qaeda foreign member, mostly Arab, thrown in. The area of counter-guerilla operations will be limited to the areas adjacent to the Pakistan border on a Northwest-Southeast axis. Obviously the guerillas will attempt using Pakistani border locations as a sanctuary, if not as base for operations. This puts Pakistan in double jeopardy as armed militants will need financial and logistical support and the obvious source will be Pakistani religious parties who have since recovered from their double debacle, both in the streets of Pakistan and in the killing fields of Afghanistan where their “volunteers” were set upon by friend and foe alike. It is very revealing that the religious parties make no mention anymore about their “Foreign Legion”. An obvious solution would be to give Coalition forces right of hot pursuit but that would not be palatable to the population in the frontier and by extension the masses of Pakistan. Stationing of Pakistani troops in proximity of the border would be the ideal solution but does Pakistan have the necessary resources in both helicopter gunships and troop carrying helicopter, particularly given that hostile India has parked most of its Armed Forces all along Pakistan’s borders in clearly an offensive posture? On the other hand Pakistan cannot afford to let armed militants roam freely in and out of its western borders. Remember how the Palestinians took over most of Jordan, and then later a larger part of Lebanon, before being expelled? As it is, Pakistan has a religious extremism problem, it cannot afford not to exterminate the germs of militancy operating in Afghanistan from our side of the border.
The best solution would be for the Coalition to pay for equipping, training and cost of operation of a Pakistan heliborne division that would ensure that militants have no sanctuary this side of the border. This airmobile division, equipped with helicopter gunships and troop-carrying helicopters would be for more cost lethal in operation than any comparable western force. Moreover Pakistan is not averse to taking casualties as is the west, particularly the US. The force would be far more effective in closing in for combat with the guerillas. This is the only long-term solution possible to put down terrorism in its crucible, give Pakistan the capability of doing the job without having to reach deep down to its already scarce resources.
Hamid Karzai recently presided over the induction of the first batch of the new Afghan Army. When today the ethnic division between the majority Pashtuns in East/South East and everyone else i.e. the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras in North/South West makes for a divided Afghanistan with no hope of unity. Over the years a constant ISAF presence may bring about homogeneity. A united Afghan Armed Forces is far further down the road. However as Afghan have shown over the centuries, their soldiering, of whatever ethnicity, answer to the paymasters’ call. You keep paying them their salaries and you will keep their loyalty, on that premise and given that there are very few other employment opportunities available, a national army is quite possible. But this is in the doubt future in the meantime the guerillas seem to have now learnt their lessons and are operating as guerillas should, almost never get involved in pitched battle against superior forces. On October 13, 2001, I wrote in The Nation (Pakistan), “War without End Begins”, six months later one can only say “War without End Continues”.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).