Lessons from 9 11-Interview with Indian General (ret.) Asthana:“Military power by itself can’t eliminate Wahabi ideology“ „The theory of good and bad terrorist is flawed“
Global Review had the honour to have another interview with Genral Asthana about the the lessons from 9 11, the situation in Af-Pak and the relations between the worldpowers USA, China and India.
Veteran Infantry General with 40 years of varied experience in national, international fields and UN. Worked as Director General of Infantry of Indian Army. Awarded twice by President of India, twice by UN, and CEE excellence award for Nation building by Governor of Haryana. Awarded twice for “International Diplomacy and Global Conflict Resolution” and ‘International Diplomacy’ by the International Organization for Educational Development “IOED”, Consultative body for ECOSOC and International Police Commission (IPC India) by the former Prime Minister of Moldova.
· Currently Chief Instructor of all Courses for military officers in United Service Institute of India. On Governing Council of Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE), Security Council of IOED, International Police Commission, (IPC, India), United Nations Collaboration for Economic and Social Development in Africa (UNCESDA). On Expert Group of Challenges Forum, Advisory Board of Swedish Armed Forces International Center – SWEDINT, Member Norway based UN organization-Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON). Recently appointed IOED representative in UN Headquarters, Vienna, Austria.
· Member of various Think Tanks like Future Directions International (Australia), Institute of Defense and Strategic Analysis. Life member USI of India and Centre for Land Warfare Studies. Distinguished Expert, Bharat Center of Canada (BCC).
· Globally acclaimed strategic & military writer/analyst on international affairs. Authored over 400 publications/articles/blogs on international & National issues. Writing articles/opinion/Editorials for Washington Post, Modern Diplomacy (EU and Africa), Global Review (Germany), FDI (Australia), Korea Times, Economic Times, South China Morning Post, International Business Times (US), Asia Times (Australia), Weekly Voice (Canada), Business World (India), Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Journal, Tuck Magazine(Australia), Eurasian Review, Diplomacy and Beyond(EU) British Asian News, Eurasian Review, Gulf Today, Indian Defence Review, The Sunday Guardian, Diplomatist, GIAP Journal, EBO (Myanmar) Business Standard, DNA India, Financial Chronicle, USI Journal, Indian Military Review, Synergy Journal, The Daily Guardian, WION News, ANI, IANS, Sify News, Kootneeti, Outlook, Quint, India Times, Navbharat Times, The Indian Wire, The Indian Tribune, Borderless Newsonline, National Defence, Salute, Scroll, Print, Kootneeti, Newsmobile, Lokmat, Rashtriya Sahara, International Affairs Review, Indian Observer Post and Newsroom 24X7 in different forms, besides USI and own publications. Continues to write on international subjects in globally renowned publications, newspapers and web portals.
· Has been interviewed by various National and International media channels in various appointments in India and abroad, including frequent discussions/opinions/video analysis on Rajyasabha TV, Doordarshan, DD India, WION News, NewsX, CNN News18, Republic TV, India Ahead, ABP News, AajTak India TV, Zee News, TV9, India News, Samay TV. Interviewed by BBC News, Doordarshan, Rajya Sabha Vishesh, HT Focus, Democracy Live, SCMP (8 Times), Global Review (Germany) 9 times, Safety & Security International (Germany), Diplomacy and Beyond Plus (EU) Voice of France, Akashwani, Hindustan Times(6 Times), Financial Express, Business World, The Sentinel, ANI, Kootneeti, International Affairs Review and many organisations. Some of the interviews, articles and videos available on website https://asthanawrites.org/
· Delivering talks on strategic, military, UN, educational, motivational, leadership subjects in various universities, military and civil servants’ organizations, Thinktanks, Conclaves, UN Courses and various forums in India and abroad. External examiner for M Phil, with Panjab University, in Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi. Seminars on UN Peace operations at UN Headquarters New York and Stimson Centre, Washington organised by NUPI and International Peace Institute, New York 2019. Leadership workshop at ZIF, Berlin, Germany in Feb 2020, on leadership in UN Peace Operations. Engaged with Global Peace Operations Network.
· Doctoral researcher with JNU, holds two M Phil degrees with outstanding grade, PGDHRM and various management degrees, UN Courses, prestigious Defence Courses, Advanced Professional Program in Public Administration at IIPA, and National Development Course in Taiwan.
Reachable at Facebook, LinkedIn, as Shashi Asthana, asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel site https://asthanawrites.org/ email email@example.com LinkedIn Profile www.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6 My YouTube link
Global Review: General Asthana, how did you experience 9/11? Where have you been at that day? Did you know where this attack came from as the USA supported Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida and other Islamists against communism and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East and it became under the Clinton administration a source of threat after the USS Cole attack, Bin Laden´s activities in Sudan and bombing of the US embassy and the planned attack on the World Trade Towers by a blind Islamist sheik. Did all this come by surprise, as even the Taliban warned US officials that Al Qaida planned an attack against the USA?
Major General S B Asthana
I happen to be on deputation with United Nations during US invasion in Afghanistan post 9/11. Till 9/11 happened, US and most of Western countries used to believe terrorism as a regional problem, not affecting them and terrorists as a tool for geopolitical powerplay. The orientation and treatment to various terror groups was also based on individual national interest. Besides others, India has been suffering from proxy war through terrorism and raised it in many global forums before 9/11, but world powers including US failed to recognise it as Global threat. Post 9/11, everyone acknowledged it as a global threat, and U.S. invaded Afghanistan not because it was ruled by the Taliban, but it sheltered al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden, who masterminded execution of the barbarous terrorist act in New York. America’s primary objectives in Afghanistan were to disrupt al-Qaeda and capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack and Taliban refused to hand him over to US. It may be interesting to note that the world was divided in good & bad terrorist theory even that time, because initially US tried to get UN sanction for multinational force operation, but didn’t get it as UNSC couldn’t come to consensus. The operation thus proceeded without UN sanction. The world hasn’t changed and still naming/using terrorists selectively as per individual national interest. The terror attack was therefore not a surprise, but the magnitude of 9/11 attack was a surprise.
Global Review: Many critics say the USA and NATO should never get involved in Afghanistan as already Homer Lea said that “Afghanistan is the graveyard of all empires”, be it Great Britain or the Soviet Union. Was the goal of Al Qaida to get the USA drawn in a Afghanistan quagmire which would dissolve its Pax Americana? Did they succeed? Was there the alternative that a US president would do nothing and not react or that the reaction should have been not a war, but a special operation by Seals or whatever like the USA did against Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan? Could a simple “police” operation have been the answer? What went wrong in Afghanistan in your opinion?
Major General S B Asthana
US supported by multinational forces entered Afghanistan, post 9/11 terror attack in New York, with a goal to dislodge Taliban Regime, which sheltered al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden, who masterminded execution of this terrorist act. Their military aim encompassed ensuring that no terror group in Afghanistan becomes strong enough to strike their mainland again, besides eliminating Osama Bin Laden and some other terrorist leaders. I don’t think that al-Qaeda was keen to draw US in Afghanistan to dissolve Pax Americana. The preferred model of al-Qaeda was to do it through terrorist actions globally, including wolf warrior attacks on the name of misplaced version of Islamic Jihad. Seeking direct confrontation with conventional American Forces was not the aim of al-Qaeda.
The public opinion demanded a visible large scale action from US President. A covert operation or mere police operation would not have satisfied American public; hence an operation to punish al-Qaeda and dislodge Taliban was a compulsion for the US President at that point of time. Don’t forget that covert operation to finally eliminate Osama Bin Laden took many years and American public would not have been quiet for that long.
As per principles of war, had US stuck to its aim and exited after dislodging Taliban Regime, reinstating a democratically elected Government in place, eliminating Osama Bin Laden, marginalising al-Qaeda and other terror groups, it would have been a graceful exit. Peace and Development in Afghanistan was advertised side-effect, not their main aim. Some of the major strategic errors which happened in 20 years of so called GWOT are:-
· US stretched its aim to impractical limit, of eliminating Taliban and other Islamic terror outfits from Afghan soil, least realising that the military power by itself can’t eliminate Wahabi ideology. Finding only a military solution to problem of religious fundamentalism was a strategic misjudgement. This shifted achievement of the aim of multinational forces (MNF), beyond their culmination point, operationally.
· MNF was of fighting from urban bases, through technology and airpower could not eliminate Taliban from rural areas. People are centre of gravity in such operations; hence one innocent kill in collateral damage of airstrikes can lead to birth of many terrorist, strengthening ideology of fundamentalists.
· To execute military operations at the desired scale, US had to depend on Pakistan for logistics chain, intelligence and boots on ground, despite full knowledge of Pakistan’s support to Taliban and other terror groups, having gainfully used services of ISI and Pakistan Army against erstwhile USSR. It sounded logical then, but Pakistan double gamed US. US consistently underplayed Pakistan’s support to Sunni terrorists in the region, making it a major beneficiary of monetary help and military hardware. It is to the credit of Pakistan that it lured US to extract maximum, by encashing their expertise in terrorism, and finally helped US in defeating itself in GWOT.
· Battle fatigue and political considerations steered the desire of MNF to pull out. In exuberance to do so, sham peace negotiations of US with Taliban (which turned out to be an exit deal) was the next error committed by US. It legalised Taliban as political entity from terrorist status; which led to a tired US military, fighting defensive battle against a resurged, legalised offensive Taliban, for its safe exit.
· The Pentagon also went wrong in its assessment of time available for orderly withdrawal. ANDSF and political leadership did not put up any worthwhile resistance leading to collapse of morale, giving in too early, resulting in a botched withdrawal by US. Withdrawal is a complicated military operation wherein adequate military force is required to be maintained to protect routes of withdrawal and the airhead, to first let all softer elements withdraw first. Military should have withdrawn last to avoid any hostage like situation.
Now after 20 years of war, losing 2400 soldiers, more than $3 trillion, US and MNF have also lost the strategic space, bases in Pakistan, amounting to a walkover in Af-Pak region. A threat by US, not to recognise Taliban, ‘Over the Horizon’ drone strikes are weak responses to mitigate embarrassment indicating its helplessness. US continues to depend on Pakistan, with a hope that it might need Pakistan again, least realising that its strategic choices are hostage to China and has no utility to US, as Its NSA recently threatened to say that if the President of US can’t talk to his PM “They have other options”.
A panic exit of most embassies is evident from fact that US has send troops to safely evacuate its embassy staff after destroying all classified records indicates poor assessment of situation by NATO. A beeline of people who helped US, waiting to be evacuated visible near airport indicated what all went wrong.
Global Review: You claimed that the USA and NATO could have won the Afghanistan war if it hadn´t relied so much on Pakistan, as the ISI supported the Taliban and played a double game. Doesn´t that assumption overestimate the role Pakistan had and of its influence on the Taliban? Isn´t the Taliban a mainly homegrown power group? Is the Taliban mainly identical with the former Mujaheddin or a own new formation? And do you also think that the USA as early as 1979 shouldn´t have supported Pakistan and the Mujaheddin in its fight against the Soviet Union? But wouldn´t the price have been a communist Afghanistan and the option for the Soviet Union to have a new front state to Iran and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf?
Major General S B Asthana
Reliance of US and NATO on Pakistan in GWOT was a logistics compulsion and Pakistan extracted full benefits out of it. The double gaming by Pakistan of helping Taliban, other terror organisations, and posing to help US proved disadvantageous to US and NATO. A complete victory in Afghanistan through military was not practical, as pure military operations are not complete solution in combating radicalised forces with or without Pakistan. Had Pakistan not double gamed, the best result could have been much weaker Taliban and democratic government in power in Afghanistan, for which Pakistan must be held accountable. The jubilation amongst Taliban and Pakistan of seemingly defeating the most powerful US and allied forces and freedom to form a ‘Government, which is of the terrorists, by the terrorists, and for the terrorists’, has rejuvenated terrorism, fundamentalist ideology and self-belief in victory, by displacing a democratically elected government and leaving the world community helpless, with praises from few countries like China.
Taliban certainly is a home grown entity, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a Deobandi Islamic fundamentalist political movement and military organization of Afghanistan. Taliban under the leadership of Mohammad Omar shifted power in its favour from Mujaheddin warlords controlling various areas in Afghanistan. It was able to form Government in 1996, recognised only by three countries with some part of Afghanistan held by Northern Alliance.
USA’s aim to become sole superpower prompted it to help Pakistan and Mujahideen to facilitate break up of erstwhile USSR as its strategic aim. The fact that USSR fragmented indicates that USA was successful in achieving its strategic aim, which can be perceived right or wrong by countries with orientation to the two power blocs at that time. I don’t visualise a communist Afghanistan was a possibility, because Soviets were in Afghanistan for quite sometime and faced similar fate in ‘Graveyard of Empires’. If they could not achieve it then, they couldn’t have achieved it any other time. I am of view that no foreign recipe for peace can work in Afghanistan or Iran.
Global Review: The world was united with the USA after 9/11, even calling for unlimited solidarity. However, the USA didn´t limit the War on Terror on Afghanistan, but then started a campaign against the Axis of Evil and started the Iraq war 2003. Conspiracy theorist said that 9/11 was an insider job an just a pretext for a new world order. Made it happen on purpose (MIHOP) or Let it happen on purpose(LIHOP) , just to create a new world order in the Greater Middle East and the world which was not limited on a Afghanistan war. Many supporters of Trump have this theory and use it as argument against the “globalists “and the “international interventionists”. Because of this the West split, Rumsfeld declared a New and an Old Europe. Do you think if the US foreign policy at that time would have concentrated on Afghanistan, not starting the Iraq war and containing China, the world would look different today?
Major General S B Asthana
In my opinion, 9/11 was a terror attack which caught USA off guard from terror threat from radicalised elements within and outside USA. The conspiracy theory of MIHOP or LIHOP is more linked to subsequent event of invasion of Iraq on the excuse of destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which were not found in Iraq, questioning the logic of such great devastation. Critics link it with aim of dislodging Saddam Hussain, who was becoming too strong for neighbour allies, with incentives like arms sale, strategic dominance in Middle-East as well as desire to control oil in Gulf. Later US incentive for oil become less attractive, because of shale oil and its self-sufficiency in oil. Some countries like Germany and France were critical of intervention of Iraq in 2003, which Rumsfeld declared a part of Old Europe and referred to new communist inductee to Europe and its trusted ally UK as new Europe in context of their support for cause of Iraqi invasion. In hind sight, the invasion of Iraq proved to be a major strategic error because all radicalised non-state actors never became so strong during Saddam’s rule, but later ISIS became strong enough to form caliphate demanding another global operation and the region never saw peace thereafter. It is for these reasons that US intervention post 9/11 was supported by most allies, but some were critical of Iraqi invasion. I must point out that none of these interventions had UNSC sanction.
Global Review: How do you perceive the goals for Afghanistan since the Petersburg Conference and the development afterwards? Where there different phases in the Afghanistan war-militarily and politically? Was democracy ,women´s rights and well drilling not the wrong approach in comparison with a stability approach? Was it not just a big lie to tell the Western audience that the NATO troops were just drilling wells and not really fighting a war against the rising Islamists?
Major General S B Asthana
After establishment of Karzai Government replacing Taliban regime following Shariah Law, stabilisation of a war torn country was a good optics in international domain. With UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), was established in 2002. Lakhdar Brahimi, spoke of achievements in human right issues to be significant in Petersburg Conference you mentioned. There is still no doubt that nation building of Afghanistan was not the primary aim of intervention in Afghanistan, as I mentioned earlier, it was just a fringe benefit, which did give some better life to women and children suffering under Taliban 1.0 regime under Shariah Law and misplaced interpretation of Jihad. The radicalised Islamists group were still active in rural areas and NATO troops had very less footprints in rural areas. They were operating from their bases through drones and airpower. The raising and training of Afghan security forces also happened on similar lines. The leadership of Taliban, al-Qaeda, Haqqani Network remained in safe sanctuaries in Pakistan, which helped in resurgence of these groups. In other words, NATO troops having passed their culmination point, were more defensive in approach to minimise casualties and operate through drones, which was not good enough. The terrain in rural areas was such that terrorists could survive and operate.
Global Review: After 20 years of war , NATO withdrew, but you claimed in our previous GR Interview: “President Biden will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by or before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that first drew the United States into its longest war, thus keeping remaining U.S. forces in the country beyond the May 1 exit deadline. US withdrawal will embolden Taliban, which already controls over two third territory to stake claim for governing the country. Taliban thus claims to construct an inclusive and comprehensive Islamic system of governance that encompasses all spheres of life. Their promise of renouncing support to al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS seems unrealistic, because ISKP, AQIS and Haqqani network continue with frequent attacks on Afghan security forces, civilians including minorities, with no visible reluctance from Taliban. Tired of combat fatigue, it is certain that US troops will withdraw, ceding strategic space to others, but it is unlikely that this Peace Deal will work. US pull back will thus leave stronger Taliban, growing IS, emerging AQIS and suffering population of Afghanistan.” However, many people in the West and also in China and Russia hope that the Taliban are different than they were in the 90s and could become more moderate and should/may be recognized as a legitimate government with a seat in the UNO. What do you think about this scenario, if you look at the new Taliban government?
Major General S B Asthana
Whatever you quoted above, which I said in my last interview has come true exactly in the form I had anticipated. With announcement of initial caretaker Government led by 18 UN designated terrorists out of 33 Ministers, Taliban mocked the global community, UNSC, all world players and actors, who were propagating Taliban 2.0 to be moderate and reasonable, hoping for inclusive government. The desperate cries of Afghan women, and attempts of people to throw babies out of Taliban controlled land, has shamed the world community, finding itself helpless due to varying interests, hiding behind “Wait and Watch” policy, as the last cry for resistance in Panjshir also fell to Taliban-Pakistan nexus, in territorial terms, although insurgency and social resistance will continue. No women in caretaker Government even after expansion to 50 members, and the Ministry of women Affairs replaced by Ministry of Vice and Virtue, ban on protests, women sports and scores of restrictions are enough indicators of revival of Taliban of 90s. All promises of Taliban leaders that it is moderate Taliban 2021 capable of meeting people’s aspirations, stand junked as ‘Shariah Law’ like curbs are back in place and the most disgusting is listing of single girls between 15 to 45 years, to be married to Taliban fighters as reward. Even if Taliban leaders pose moderate by falling back on 1964 Constitution, their fighters will not let the leaders settle down for anything but Shariah Law. Taliban as per current behaviour doesn’t deserve to be given a seat in United Nations. Last time when it was in power it was recognised only by three countries. To provide humanitarian aid to it should be given in kind through UN agencies and not in cash.
Global Review: What do you think means the US withdrawal for the USA in the view of their allies and other powers? Is the USA still a reliable partner? Is the withdrawal a symptom of a declining US power, the rise of a multipolar world and will it catalyse the assertiveness of Russia, China and other revisionist powers? How do you think the withdrawal from the Greater Middle East and Afghanistan will affect the US Indo-Pacific strategy, the US- Indian relations and its role in Asia?
Major General S B Asthana
US decision to withdraw can be well understood to be in its national interest, having crossed its culmination point and the need to reduce one friction point to concentrate on other frontiers and countering China challenge. It therefore can’t be taken as indicator of decline. More than the reliability, the incorrect assessment of timeline of resistance by ANSF, and poor conduct of military operation of withdrawal by US has created an awkward situation, where in combat troops left, without evacuating many citizens of many allies and countries, whose exit remained at the mercy of Taliban. During Withdrawal the military is expected to maintain adequate combat troops to keep the exit route and airport/airhead safe for softer elements to pull back, and troops withdraw at the end. The fact that $ 85 billion worth of US equipment (some rendered unfit) is in Taliban hand has appreciably increased its capability, with potential of its repair, transfer to Pakistan/China and possible reverse engineering, will haunt US Military of botched withdrawal for many decades. More than Russia and China this withdrawal has certainly catalysed the assertiveness of Taliban and all terrorists across the globe, especially in Afghanistan- Pakistan Region, which has become the largest conglomeration of terror groups in the world. Like other countries Russia and China are also concerned about their security from terror groups. It will certainly help US in paying more attention in Indo-Pacific Region. The strategic loss due to Afghanistan passing in the hands of Taliban is for US as well as India; hence I don’t visualise any major impact in inter-se relations. ANSF had no reason to rely on MNF for eternity; hence can’t blame withdrawal, as expecting foreign forces to protect them for ever is unrealistic.
Global Review: Former German ambassador to Afghanistan Dr . Seidt wrote an essay what Russia has learned from the Afghanistan experience of the Soviet Union. First: Don´t let yourself be drawn in a quagmire anymore. Secondly , don´t try to change whole societies and define realistic and pragmatic goals. Thirdly focus on world regions you can influence, use instabilities to become a major player by the use of limited, but concentrated forces. Should the West draw similar lessons from its own Afghanistan experience?
Major General S B Asthana
I agree with the lessons enumerated by Dr. Seidt and the West would have drawn similar lessons along with some additional ones in strategic and military domain. It’s clear that no foreign recipe can bring peace in Afghanistan and radicalisation can not be contained by military alone. It has also exposed the hypocrisy of major world powers, like China emboldening Taliban even before takeover, and US not punishing Taliban and Pakistan for supporting terrorism, but sanctioning Iran on similar excuse. It has also exposed the double speaking Islamic terror groups, who want to speak for Muslims, but choose to ignore Chinese treatment of Uyghurs, to get funding and legitimacy from a P5 member in UNSC. It proves that terrorist live for themselves, to grab power and spoils of war, and misuse religion for self-interest. It has also exposed the weakness of UN. The UNSC Resolution 2593 is so weak, deleting the word Taliban from the text, regarding not to allow use of territory for terrorism against other countries, justifying poor credibility and lack of consensus in UNSC.
Global Review: The South China Morning Post reports that some Chinese strategists think about sending “Chinese peace troops” to Afghanistan. Is this a serious scenario as China also doesn´t want to be drawn in a quagmire and the Taliban and other Islamists insist on the withdrawal of all foreign troops in Afghanistan. On the other side, could China and Pakistan team up to support a Taliban government, in alliance with the Haqqani network, to stabilize the situation in order to build its new Silkroad through Pakistan via Afghanistan to Iran after China a signed a 25 years agreement with Iran? As China doesn´t care about human rights or ethnical values, focuses only on stability, economic and geopolitical gains, could such a scenario work out? And as other Muslim countries don´t support the Uyghurs, was it possible that the Taliban and other Afghan Islamists don´t support Uyghurs and fight the Islamic State? Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi officially welcomed a high representative of the Taliban in Beijing, Turkish President Erdogan wants to meet the leader of the Taliban. How will the regional powers and Russia, Turkey, Iran and China influence the situation in Afghanistan? What role can the SCO play in this context?
Major General S B Asthana
Chinese strategic interest in Afghanistan includes, connectivity projects to Iran by extending CPEC to get warm water access and exploit mineral and other resources of Afghanistan, including narcotics trade. With initial hesitancy of not becoming the third power (after USSR and USA) to suffer in “Graveyard of Empires”, China engaged with Taliban in Tianjin earlier, and recently announcing $31 million aid, hoping that ‘Interim Cabinet will restore Order, and end anarchy’. I don’t think China is thinking of sending any troops to Afghanistan in near future. China hopes that it will be able to secure its security and economic interests with Taliban, which is promising no support to ETIM and inviting their investments, thus opening the window for economic exploitation, in a haste for recognition. This is a dangerous honeymoon, because neither Taliban is homogenous to control all factions, nor Chinese have support of local population in Afghanistan, and there are many groups like ISKP, which may not be amenable to ignore atrocities in Xinjiang. Taliban itself has ETIM cadres fighting for them including some commanders; hence it is unlikely to divorce them, although it doesn’t mind making a sham promise for the sake of seeking international legitimacy. China may find that it may be much more risky to operate any transport corridor/project in Afghanistan, than doing so in Pakistan, where a politicised Army is sustaining it, with difficulty. Chinese, however, are unlikely to make heavy investments in Afghanistan easily. Their aid/investment will have some strings attached in consonance with ‘Debt Trap Policy’. All neighbours of Afghanistan are concerned about export of terrorism and refugees from Afghanistan including Russia, CAR countries, Iran, and China. Iran has also voiced concern over Pakistan active involvement in Panjshir Valley battle and is concerned about security of Shite Muslims including Hazaras. Taliban has treated Turkey as foreign force and did not give it chance to operate airport, preferring Qatar over Turkey. SCO is also concerned about export of terrorism and refugees, but has not been able to make any visible impact as the national interests of members vary regarding expectations from Taliban.
Global Review: How do you think India should react after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan again? What does it mean for India? Will there be a rethinking of India towards the USA? Modi also exclusively relied on Trump (Namaste Trump) and has to repair his relations with Biden and the Democrats. How will the US policy and Indian policy change after the withdrawal in Afghanistan?
Major General S B Asthana
India like other neighbours will has to be ready to face additional terrorists with better weaponry and surveillance devices, as pay back to Pakistan’s support. Pakistan was never short of terrorists to infiltrate. Post abrogation of Article 370, political, financial, intelligence support to terrorists within India has reduced, synergy between security forces and intelligence agencies has improved and strong security grid is in place to check infiltration from Pakistan; hence additional terrorists will add to waiting list for induction into India. The bigger concern is export of fundamentalist ideology, incentivising lone wolf warriors/sleeper cells within country, which has temporarily increased innocent killings. India also needs to strengthen its investigative, legal and other systems to improve rate of conviction against people misusing human rights like right of speech to stoke radicalisation and violence.
The Indian strategic interests in Afghanistan include prevention of export of terrorism and connectivity projects to CAR through Iran-Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. In this context, India may have to talk to the Government of the day. India doesn’t hold Gilgit-Baltistan; hence despite being a legal neighbour of Afghanistan, has no direct land route, which reduces its capability to directly influence any military outcomes in Afghanistan. For the time being India is raising its voice on persecuted of minorities, evacuating the desirous ones. India is likely to refrain from any developmental work despite request by Taliban, and work out options with other countries having similar concerns, unless Taliban instals inclusive government and restores rights of women and minorities. India is looking at delivering humanitarian aid in kind like food and medicines. There is not much change in Indo-US relations and policies as both share similar concerns regarding Afghanistan. There is congruence in strategic interest of India and US in most issues; hence relationship has remained same irrespective of personalities over a decade. The recent consultation of Intelligence staff and National Security advisors of US, UK, Russia, and India indicate some efforts in this direction.
Global Review: Besides the Afghan Taliban there is also a Pakistani Taliban. Will the Afghan Taliban try to expand its territory beyond the Durand line? Will the Afghan Taliban support the Pakistani Taliban and Pakistani Islamists to topple the secular Pakistani government and install a Islamist regime in Pakistan? Or will the Afghan Pakistan make a deal with the Pakistani and Chinese government to focus on the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan with help of the CPEC and the Silkroad and not support other Islamists?
Major General S B Asthana
Afghanistan, even when Taliban was in power never compromised on Durand Line. In helping Taliban, Pakistan’s strategic aim has always been to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan by enforcing Durand Line over friendly government in Kabul, and edge out other players from Afghanistan, including India. Pakistan also utilised the opportunity to send out large number of terrorists to fight alongside Afghan Taliban, whom it wanted to relocate to avoid FATF fallouts, yet preserving its ‘Strategic assets’ to be used against India later. Having achieved the immediate aim, getting Haqqani into strong position, it now faces a challenge of push back from rejuvenated Pashtun community and TTP. Pashtuns have 30 out of 33 Ministers in initial caretaker government and continue to be in great majority after expansion of cabinet. Taliban never compromised on Durand Line and their stance in future may well be similar. A regular backlash with TTP, overflow of refugees and germination of Talibanisation and Shariah Law amidst fundamentalists, in some of its areas will be a challenge for Pakistan in long term. The number of killings of Pakistani security personnel have increased post-Taliban takeover. Taliban will like to engage with China and Pakistan on extension of CPEC, but the outcome will depend on security situation. Taliban is unlikely to divorce any terror group which fought with it to get power, although it may pose so, retaining deniability.
Global Review: What would be the consequences if Islamists seize power in Pakistan and have nuclear weapons? Has India and the USA plans for such a scenario? Wouldn´t they be forced to intervene and act and how could such an intervention in Pakistan look like? How likely is such a scenario?
Major General S B Asthana
A nuclear and bankrupt Pakistan, with radicalised Army and notorious ISI is a global danger. After Panjshir operations no-one has any doubts about Pakistan- Taliban nexus and frequent movement of terrorists, with Af-Pak Region becoming largest conglomeration of terrorists and narcotics trade in the world. It is believed that the nuclear arsenal is well protected by Pakistan Army, and due to the complexity of technology involved, it is extremely difficult that terrorists can get it in ready to explode form, even if some scientists or concerned staff gets compromised or coerced. It is however possible for radicalised elements to be able to get the access/knowhow of a dirty bomb, which is also a serious concern, as there have been reports that al-Qaeda as well as ISIS had been trying for it.
In view of the above threat, West needs to correct its assessment of epicentre of terror, which continues to be Pakistan Army/ISI, which has done its best to make dreaded terrorists as state actors. The West has to get out of love for strategic space of Pakistan (which is now controlled by China) or relevance earned by it, out of its terror factory or nuclear bluff/hangover. Unless Pakistan is sanctioned, global terrorism will flourish, as most group view it as role model for terror combined with nuclear arsenal, making it confident of never to suffer punishment for its deeds. The nuclear safeguards and reactions to its breach are not in open domain; hence it will not be proper for me to comment on US or Indian reaction to such a scenario painted by you.
Global Review: What do you think should be the lessons the West, the USA and NATO should draw from 9/ 11 , the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war? Maybe the reason that the Afghanistan war failed was the geography, the corrupt Afghan government and the medieval structure of the country and its inhabitants. Some people claim that the Afghan mission was as if the US and NATO would have intervened in the Thirty Years’ War in Europe at Middle Ages. It is questionable if a conventional army can manage a guerrilla war insurgency. The last two successful wars have been the Gulf war 1991 and the anti-IS war. May be the war against the IS could be a model for coming conflicts. However, Russia also had very successful minimal interventions in Syria and Libya at minimal costs. Maybe we should also learn from Russian experience. But was future restraint against unforeseeable military adventures the best precaution? What do you think the lessons from 9/11 should be?
Major General S B Asthana
There are many political, strategic and Military lessons learnt out of the Afghanistan crisis 2021 and some of the previous conflicts, which you mentioned. Let me point out some of them.
· No foreign recipe can bring lasting peace in another country. It has to be an indigenous solution.
· In hind sight external interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were disastrous and left the region more instable than before. It will invoke some restraint against unforeseeable military adventures in future.
· The strategic aim and target chosen has to be right. So far the West has been punishing Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as terror centres because all of them are non-nuclear states. The real epicentre of terror continues to be Pakistan Army/ISI, which has been avoiding all the punishment because it’s a nuclear country, strategically located to suit interest of world powers, with leverage and talent for nuclear blackmail, as well as earning out of its terror industry.
· Selection and maintenance of aim is a principle of war. As per this principle, had US stuck to its aim and exited after dislodging Taliban Regime, reinstating a democratically elected Government in place, eliminating Osama Bin Laden, marginalising al-Qaeda and other terror groups, it would have been a graceful exit. Staying beyond culmination point was embarrassment.
· Taliban displayed better strategy than ANSF by consolidation of rural areas, cutting off logistics routes of ANSF, isolating townships, avoiding fighting in built up areas, thus obtained psychological advantage. With a good propaganda plan Taliban could deter Afghan leadership and despite being in much smaller numbers could cause panic in ANSF, resulting mass surrenders by Afghan soldiers.
· In crisis, its own military of the country, which can save its citizens from own non state actors. Help from outside is temporary and a bonus. If the own military gives up, outside forces can do a little; hence can only be relied up to a point and no more.
· Collateral damages by air/drone strikes triggers anger in population resulting more recruitment in terrorists to avenge innocent killings. Population is centre of gravity in counterinsurgency operations and winning hearts and minds goes in favour of forces. NATO irked local population thus all terror groups even with differing ideologies joined hands in pushing foreign forces out. NATO couldn’t get stronghold in rural areas.
· A 9/11 type of strike is thus possible in any part of the world, in quicker time frame than it ever was, making the world much more vulnerable to terrorism, after rejuvenation of misplaced idea of global Jihad, post-Taliban takeover.
· The theory of good and bad terrorist is flawed. The idea that Taliban is good and ISKP is bad terrorist organisation is incorrect. If Interior Minister of Taliban calls IS (K) suicide bombers responsible for killing 13 US soldiers and so many innocents as Martyrs! then it’s a case of both playing ‘Good Cop bad cop’ game fooling the rest of world, wherein ISKP does ethnic cleansing and Taliban denies and vows to target them. All terrorists are same; hence terrorism must be condemned in all forms and manifestations.