Blundering in AfPak’s cultural maze - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

Home Top Ad


Monday 28 November 2011

Blundering in AfPak’s cultural maze

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th Nov 11

As with much else in Pakistan, the unfortunate deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike on Saturday raise more questions than answers. Afghan soldiers now claim that this was not an accident; they requested a NATO air strike onto the Pakistan Army post after taking fire from that direction. But Pakistan’s military spokesperson, Major General Athar Abbas, has revealed that NATO was given map references of all Pakistan’s Durand Line posts. It would seem, therefore, that Pakistan Army posts are now legitimate targets for coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan itself, locals have learned over the last decade that it could be life-threatening to fire celebratory gunshots during weddings, travel in convoys through remote areas, or to have the Taliban anywhere in the vicinity. All these invite the arrival of a 500-pound precision-guided bomb fired by US-NATO aircraft at “Taliban activity”. This trigger-happy regime was extended some years ago to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) that delivered death from the sky to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, unquestioningly despatch any family members or innocents who happened to be in the line of fire.

There is little sympathy in India for the Pakistan Army; its hands are stained with too much Indian blood. Consequently many Indians would react to this latest coalition fiasco with an indifferent shrug that implies, “The Pakistanis have made their bed; now let them lie in it.” But that would be inhuman, short-sighted and strategically unwise.

Instead one must deliberate upon the western military penchant for untrammelled firepower. When a dispassionate history is written this will be recognized as the key factor in the US-NATO defeat in Afghanistan. In an obvious contradiction that is sporadically recognized but never resolved, US strategy aims at winning Afghan hearts, but the overwhelming use of firepower that underpins US tactical doctrine ensures that for each heart won a dozen are alienated. What should be a smooth continuum between strategy and operational doctrine is actually a glaring fault line that continually undermines US aims.

In this case, a border operation of merely tactical consequence has created such bad blood with Pakistan that Islamabad has stopped the movement of supply convoys to Afghanistan; given Washington 15 days to vacate the Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan; and begun a re-evaluation of its strategic relationship with the US. Is Washington prepared for such a reaction? If yes, it could have held Islamabad’s feet to the fire on major issues like support to the Haqqanis or ISI operations inside Afghanistan. Instead, Washington is paying a strategic price for a tactical blunder.

A decade along in the Afghanistan war, the west has failed to understand the region, which it continues to view through a western prism. The futile enterprise to establish a strong centralised state in Afghanistan; the reliance for security on a unitary Afghan National Army; indeed the unswerving conviction that most Afghans detest the Taliban; these are some of the key misconceptions that will lead inevitably to a full western pullout.

For now, Washington is busy creating the fiction of an Afghan National Army (ANA) that will allegedly take over full security responsibility from NATO by 2014. Around that time, or so goes the myth, 260,000 motivated and trained Afghan soldiers will have cast aside ethnic and regional identities and melded into a professional force that will keep the ISI-backed Taliban at bay. Since the ANA would be financed, armed and equipped by the west, and helped along by US mentors, it would gradually morph into a western style force. Proponents of this fairy tale will remind sceptics that Najibullah’s Russian-funded Afghan Army held off the mujahideen for several years until Moscow’s coffers ran dry.

This narrative of hope should be consigned to the dustbin. Firstly, Najibullah’s Afghan Army was not a newly created, western-midwifed unicorn but an existing professional army with an Afghan tradition. Secondly, today’s figures of desertion and re-enlistment are so abysmally low that raising 260,000 troops seems wildly optimistic. An even thornier problem is the ethnic balance of the ANA. Guidelines issued by former US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, called for 38% of the troops to be Pashtun, 25% Tajiks, 19% Hazaras and 8% Uzbek. But Pashtuns are reluctant to join (many accounts say the ANA is barely 10% Pashtun), and Tajiks dominate the officer corps. Many Pashtuns (and certainly the Taliban) view the ANA as a Tajik militia that former Northern Alliance commander, Marshall Fahim, controls.

When the Taliban piles on the pressure, post-2014, the ANA runs a serious risk of cracking along its ethnic fault lines. Power in Afghanistan has long been fragmented between a patchwork quilt of local militias. Traditionally, power shifts not through bloody battles and fights to the death, but with the shifting allegiance of these local militia commanders, each sniffing the breeze and allying with whoever he believes is best positioned for broader power. An ANA under pressure could well break up into multiple smaller entities, each of them making their independent power calculations.

It is hard to tell if the US has simply not grasped these Afghan basics, or whether the ANA is merely a convenient narrative for a face-saving pullout. Given America’s increasing unpopularity across AfPak, and the growing radicalisation that this simmering anti-Americanism catalyses, an early and complete US exit from Afghanistan might be best for New Delhi. Having recouped its strength, the US would emerge refreshed to robustly re-engage the Asia-Pacific, a familiar strategic playfield for Washington where it will hopefully avoid the serial blunders of Afghanistan.


  1. ""There is little sympathy in India for the Pakistan Army; its hands are stained with too much Indian blood. Consequently many Indians would react to this latest coalition fiasco with an indifferent shrug that implies, “The Pakistanis have made their bed; now let them lie in it.” But that would be inhuman, short-sighted and strategically unwise.""

    what do u expect Mr.Shukla..they dug their own they will have to face the consequences..are you suggesting that we shd befriend pakistan now? those back stabbers will never change..After all the inhuman activities that have originated over time across the border..its time they pay the price.

  2. Col. Shukla-

    Another perceptively written and balanced article. having some experience in the region, I completely agree with your assessment that it would be unwise and inhuman for us to think that Pakistan deserves this.

    As for the ANA, again, bulls-eye. It's merely a face saving mechanism for a pull-out. Witness the budget spent on the ANA vs. what is needed... even for decently lucrative salaries in the ANA..

    Nice article, sir.

  3. Wonder how you conclude that a complete American pull-out is in New Delhi's interest as Taliban/ISI/Pakistan Army cabal will take over Afghanistan and use that as a launching pad for anti-India terror, flush from their 'victory'. The army appears to have permitted the civilians to engage in some for of peace-talks taqiya with Indians just to buy time and prepare for exactly that eventuality.

  4. Col - Nice view, but your interpretation misses the point. This was a warning shot for all misdeeds of Pakistan. Simmering anti-Americanism is something not new. It was there before US$7.5billion gift and it will be there after US$7.5billion gift. It will always be there because anti-Americanism, anti-India, anti-Khafir campaign binds heterogeneous Pakistan into single homogeneous group. Rather than questioning American's of misunderstanding the region and use disproportionate fire power, one should question the strategic wisdom of arming Pakistan to the teeth. Which some Americans are doing....better late than never

  5. Col,
    Why are we bothered about US's failure in Afghanistan? or Pak loosing it's soldiers? They deserve each other.

    It is important US stays the "course". This is the only way to make sure Pakistan Army is cut off from it's amblical cord. Fact is it is US's support which allows PA to spread terror across the neighborhood. This support needs to be cut and can only happen, when PA snake bites it master.

    How long with Haqqanis sustain with the collapse of PA support?

    We seal our borders, and let the region become radicalized. It will bit PA hard and PA will be forced to clean it.

    We wait and watch.

  6. Bamiyan Buddha is laughing and will be having the last laugh as well.

    There would have remained no problems by now, if instead of Iraq, Bush would have massively invaded the real culprit Pakistan from a distance. Taliban can survive under the barrage of blows, but not Pakistan. So Nato shall keep hitting the Pak till last.

  7. What is the bottom line?

    For a long time into the future no Pakistan border post on the Durand line will ever think of engaging the NATO forces with artillery and mortar fire. They will think twice before providing covering fire to infiltrating/exfiltrating Taliban forces. This will save much blood shed and precious lives.

    No need to guess what will happen on the Indo-Pak border. Pakistan army will continue to provide covering fire to its militants to aid infiltration/exfiltration as they have continued to do so for past two decades, assured by the fact that the IA will be incapable of doing anything!

  8. The pakistani side of it the account doesn't seem real to me.

    I remember reading accounts several months ago that American commanders on the Afpak border have to deal taliban forces firing rockets and such from pakistan on a daily bases.

    The account goes that the taliban shoot rockets within 300 feet of pakistani outposts and bases. When American commanders call their pakistani counter parts during taliban attack to inform them and seek help from them for this taliban rocketing (that originated not more than 300 feet from their base) they are no where to be found. The pakistanis cannot be reached via any means of communication. When the attack is over they magically reappear and deny any knowledge of the taliban outside of their borders/bases or seeing/hearing massive rockes go off.

    Also, American commanders cannot fire back in case they hit the Pakistani bases/posts because of the political repercussions. They just have to sit and watch as the taliban launch the rockets and run back into pakistani bases or use them as cover. You can guess how much frustration this must cause the American commanders when they have to sit and watch as their 'allies/friends' double cross them and see their friends die from the rockets.

    The Pakistanis must have really pissed of the americans for them to attack one of the pakistani posts. There is only so much backstabbing that someone can take. I bet the pakistanis prior to the incident did something that overstepped the established boundaries/rules with the Americans and then had the audacity to do it again. That's probably what caused the American 'mistake.' The Pakistanis cried hoarse with full knowledge of what occurred. I bet this Pakistani behavior is going to leave a very sour note in the memories of Americans that served in Afghanistan for at least a generation to come and have profound political repercussions.

    I do not know how accurate the above details are but I have read it on multiple occasions and I do not doubt Pakistani actions.

  9. I am not an expert in these matters but I had a friend in the infantry regiment who used to recount his frustrations about how the posts on the pak border give covering fire to infiltrators with heavy caliber weapons. Having been used to half measures from us I guess Pak army was not prepared for this kind of shock death with the two posts being obliterated in no time with overwhelming force hence the hue and cry. This would have rattled the generals and in a sense it may have bolstered the civilian govt which is doing the damage control. Yes Mr Shukla I have no sympathy for Pak army. For us now the Pak army is more dangerous than ever rabid with rage.

  10. Colonel is taking lessons from Barkha Dutt and Arundhoti Roy. You are pathetic colonel, i wish the pakis had shot you in your head while you were serving in the army.

  11. Havent we been here before? The US develops the impression that it is tired of Pakistani actions and shows sympathy with India. It then does a tactical mistake following on which lots of concessions are given to Pakistan....In this case, impressing upon India that the US is a friend shortly before this happened...and now the US is in a position where through its mistake it has to placate the Pakistani's and failing to take a hard stance on Pakistan....

    As long as India sends orders for $4B etc on a regular basis, the US has no incentive to build peace between India and Pakistan...otherwise where will the weapons orders come from?

  12. Its the US reaping as it had sowed in the past . Its the US that provided Afghan militia with hi-tech weaponary. That combined with an highly defensive location of Fata & Nwfp has made it nearly the same situation for US as they made it for the Russians.

    @ Ajai Sir,

    1. How do you view the pull out of American troopz from Afghan without adequately reconstructing/restructuring it (From Afghan perpective) ?
    2. How will Afghanistan place itself politically in the region?
    3. Will India be able to develop stronger relations with Afghanistan considering Pak and China in the equation?

  13. Folks, no one who has actually served in our forces or covert services will ever like or feel sympathy for the Pakmil. You have to actually serve to know what those who served expereinced and know and faced.

    No one who actually served in our forces (or most non-72 virgins-militaries) wants to actually be a "hero" and die. The best victories are those one without fighting, as the Sun Tzi said.

    Pragmatism and foresight supports what the Col. said about need for our sympathy for the situation.

    Imagine the worst that a Pakmil forced to the edge does. Start a war with us. Will any of you arm chair critics take any bullets? Oh, we will win for sure. But at what cost? Do any of you recognize the real cost of war in terms of damage to the economy? Oh lost years of development? Kargil cost us many years on the LCA, as a small example.

    So, foresight and deshbhakti and pragmatism demands that we dont wish for a situation where a war is forced on us, when we should be building our economy and our comprehensive national power.

    We can learn from the Chinese... when did they start flexing their muscles? After 3 decades of focused development, when the world could really no longer ignore them. "Hide your strength and bide your time"- Deng said... not jump and yell jingoistically without understanding the A,B,C's of war.

    That, I think, is partly the rational behind not wishing these kinds of frustration increasing incidents on Pakistan..

    They will manage to dig themselves into terrible situations without these kinds of incidents..

    And we really dont need a war now, we need peace to build our strength.

  14. Hi Ajay, first of all, BIG FAN! :-) . Ok now we in India are happy because of a simple reason, NATO & US have the ability to make the pakis pay for what they have been doing, we dont..despite billions of dollars we invest in defence, money that could have chnaged destinies in this country, we can still be attacked in our key city by a psychotic nation and our armed forces have either the ability, nor the politicans ave the conviction to punish the enemy. I think we should donate a fix per centage of defence budget to outsource revenge against pakis to NATO ;-D , they outsource call centers and we outsource pakistan handling ..

  15. For this article Col...i agree with Nikhil. You are no military, you are just con man like Barkha & Arundhati Roy. foot for bloody bast....Pakistan. You said uttering restraining myself.

  16. @Heberian

    Our politician have caused enough damage to economy...aren't we sustaining ourselves in spite of loot left, right & center. We will sustain full-scale bloody war with Pak. Fear of loosing economy is no answer to Jehad....only blood is answer to blood. Do not forget, "Those of live by sword, will die by sword". Pakistan and Islam have lived by sword, somebody has to kill them. It is a gamble who will kill them...because nobody want's to kill them as of now...but they have to be killed.

  17. Colonel,

    You never served on LC in J&K and faced fire of Pakistani post from across to aid infiltration / exfiltration. You have never seen your own die in front of you and your blodd never boilled emotionally.

    Thank God for those small mercies that you have a free mind to rationalise on oblitration of a Pakistani post.

    Given those Liberties by the policy makers like you, I would have oblitrated thousands of Jehadi supporting posts on Indo Pak border to lesson the problems of IA soldiers.

    By the way can you give me figures how many IA soldiers lose their lives on LC every year due to those Pakistani fire? Perhaps those are cannon (tank) fodder for you!

    Jake Pawn Na phate Bivayi, wo kya jane peer Parayi !

  18. Anon @ 21:58

    Dear person,

    I beg to differ with your opinion in some ways. I agree with your opinion about Pakistan's ways. But I beg to differ about the way you paint a religion. That is merely counterproductive and unintelligent and rather emotional than logical. Not very different from how the jihadis paint us. In our forces, there are lots of officers and men who are muslim, and are defintely more deshbhakt than many commenting here from the safety of their IT/ call centre jobs. Lt. Gen. Hasnain, and quite a few officers in our SF Para regiments and some excellent pilots and navy officers..

    And as I said, these comments and emotional war mongering is easy when you have not had to wonder whether you will survive a 48 hour ambush at 14K feet altitude.... And the job of our service men is not to simply kill, but to make sure that you continue having the freedom to comment as you wish. That take pragmatism. Forget Sun Tzi, if you read the Arthashastra well, you will realise that war is a last resort.. not the first emotional response. If there is war pushed on us, rest assured, you will be kept safe to make comments on how it should have been waged or how Tendulkar should have batted.. and there will be blood spilt for that. But not by you.. I dont think you have ever had to face the family of a brother officer who lost his life to a jihadi bullet.

    The point I tried to make is simple: We are not here as a nation to teach any other nation lessons, but to hopefully ensure the security needed so that everyone one of our brothers and sisters have roti, kapda AND makan.. and good roads and electricity and at least basic healthcare... and I am not talking about the folks commenting here, but about our over 500 million poor. The purpose of a strong and capable and wisely led military is deterrance, not war mongering.

    And for others- pilots, armour men, navy folks etc. do not have to be on the LOC. That does not make their roles and contributions any less when there is war. Do you know what those theatre nukes that Pakistan was recently flaunting are meant for? A soldier cannot use a dagger for the job of a sword, or a sword for the job of an arrow, or an arrow for the job of a spear... All will be used at the time and place they are meant to be. And fyi, it is not easy to be inside a tank in the Thar, just the heat and dust alone is killing..

    As for our politicians, yes, to some extent true. We survive inspite of our system and politicians, but, at the same time, it is this same system that has allowed us progress and given you the job that made you not want the security of sarkari job.... like the tough life of an army man.. As the ex PM of Malaysia, Mahathir, recently said in Delhi, we would be China if we had a little less democracy... but this is what we have, and we have to make the best use of it. Or do you propose that we leave governance to emotional and short sighted folks with no idea of the "games" that need to played?

    As for war, ideally it should be at a time and place of our choosing... not based on some simple emotions.. and to be avoided if it can be. It is essential that our people, like you, learn to differentiate between pointlessly heated nationalism, and patriotism of the highest order.

    The whole point is, we dont want to have to fight a full fledged war with Pakistan if we can avoid it. It will only slow our economic progress, which is exactly what we need if want stronger and better forces.


  19. Bharatiya Nagrik4 December 2011 at 07:05

    Dear NIkhil and other toy soldiers,

    Let us be very clear: Indian soldiers' task is to die for the national interest. We might feel sad that they are killed on the LoC etc. but their job is to try and live and fight the enemy, and perhaps die in this process.

    Revenge and violin stringed appeals to shallow patriotism are completely irrelevant. If the national interest says that we absorb occasional terror attacks without playing into Pak Army/ISI's hands, well too f****ng bad. I'd rather have a couple of hundred civilians and soldiers dead in terror attacks than millions obliterated in a nuclear attack. Which FYI would suit China nicely.

    And in case you haven't noticed, Pakistan is on fire and fighting for its survival. I don't think their tryst with jihad is working out for them, and this is in no small part due to our conventional restraint.

    So bugger off and let intelligent people do the thinking for you.

  20. @ Bharatiya Nagrik -

    You very crisply said what I was so long winded about. And I missed the "Suits China" part totally. :) :)

    Damn, I should learn precis writing, like the good Col. had once told me to, on Broadsword.

  21. Bharatiya Nagar,

    You better bugger off... soldiers are human and citizens and not only stu**ds like you.

  22. Why is an American withdrawal being equated to a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?
    The Taliban juggernaut of the nineties was actually the Pakistan Army rolling up the unorganized resistance with large formation offensives that included armor and artillery.
    Do we still expect so see the Pakistani Army contribute in such a obvious fashion?
    If so, then what do we think the role of the US would be?
    If not, then how do we expect the Taliban to push out the entrenched warlords or influence them to change sides?
    How strong is the Taliban without professional PA officers and troops?


Recent Posts

Page 1 of 10412345...104Next >>Last