Thoughts of Chairman Mhow
Each year, the 40 odd officers at the Senior Command Training Course at the Indian Army War College at Mhow fly in speakers to give them a lowdown on facets of United States strategic policy. It’s always disorienting to be in an Indian military establishment. It’s almost like a reverse desi universe. Everyone is Indian to the hilt, but they are not merely on time to all appointments, they arrive early. Objects, like the toothbrush and soap and shaving kit in the quarters I stayed for two nights, are kept in excruciating order. All roads are neat and perpendicular. All bushes are trimmed in straight lines. If they aren’t saluting, people murmur quietly. And any off-the-cuff request has everyone stamping around with a This Must Be Done look about them.
Most militaries are like that everywhere, but the contrast to the chaotic streets of the nearest city of Indore is as stark as it gets. My session was dedicated to AfPak, something that got the officers’ ears. What happens there, after all, is going to have a direct effect on them. The army’s worst years in recent times in Kashmir have been when the Taliban were in Kabul. And if the Taliban take Islamabad, then these officers could have a very busy career. The talk and the Q and A were behind closed door. But the session and some pondering later on did crystallize some points in my head. To get AfPak right, you have to get these assessments at least partly right.
1. How united are the Taliban? The term “Taliban” refers to a whole slew of Pashtun militant groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan order. Are they a bunch of independent tribal militia or an interlinked group? If they are more the former, then a policy of divide and conquer is feasible. If more the latter, than a policy of conquer and then divide may be needed.
2. Has the Taliban concept of jihad become universalist? The traditional Afghan fighter’s holy war was about defending his soil from foreigners. Once the foreigners left, the jihad was over. But if the Taliban are now infected with a more global vision of jihad, one that sees the world as its oyster, then a US withdrawal would mean Afghanistan becoming a giant terrorism export-processing zone. Note how many journalists meeting Taliban cells these days mention finding non-Pashtuns and non-Afghans among the fighters.
3. Can we negotiate with the Taliban? Right now everyone is trying to hold a dialogue with various bits and pieces of the Taliban. Hamid Karzai is wooing the Haqqani network. So are the British. The Pakistanis have kept their old ties to Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. But no Taliban leader is rising to the bait. Why? One Indian official put it simply, “They think they’re winning. Why negotiate when you think you’re going to win?” At a minimum, some serious military blows have to be dealt first. But it also depends on the answers to question 1 and 2.
4. What is the role of the Pakistani military? The past Pakistan army policy was to distinguish between the Taliban who attacked Afghanistan and those who attacked Pakistan. Former good, latter bad. But the two Taliban groupings seem to provide support to each other. The Pakistani army supports the Afghan Taliban because they want the present Kabul regime out. They believe a Taliban regime would be friendlier to them. But if the answer to question 2 is Yes, then that won’t be the case. Depending on the answers to these questions, the results of a Taliban recon quest of Afghanistan could be anywhere between:
a) a new regime even more dedicated to the export of Islamicist terror to other parts of the world than the original Taliban regime was (the first regime wasn’t active in such business, they allowed Al Qaeda and others to operate from there) and,
b) an Afghan regime headed by detribalized Pashtuns and possibly Uzbeks influenced by Deobandi precepts so very insistent on doctrinaire Islamic law but otherwise Afghan in their perception of national interests. Tough on Afghan women, but easy on the rest of the world. Anyway, I flew back to Delhi with a lot of email addresses to continue these discussions.