Let me make it clear from the get go that I don’t like the Taliban the way lunatic jehadis in Pakistan – and nearer home – admire them. I kind of tolerate them like I would suffer a bad cold and let it run its course. I know I’m being flippant here. The common cold virus does not kill comedians for doing standup comedy; blow up innocent civilians; behead gays; ban music as un-Islamic; or stone women to death for the shocking crime of walking alone through Kabul streets without being accompanied by a male family member. The Afghan Taliban are clearly a bit more dangerous than the flu. Their rise to power should make you feel concerned because the last time they were in power, they allowed Afghanistan to become the launch pad for 9/11. You should also worry for the millions of Afghan women who will never see daylight again as they have become walking tents. But what you should not do is lapse into depression, thinking the Taliban terrorists will be marching into downtown Srinagar. Don’t sweat a bunch of cowardly goatherds who haven’t bathed in years but claim to be pure Muslims. Here’s what you need to know to not be afraid.
Will the Taliban use Afghanistan as a base to export Islamic jehad?
The Afghan Taliban have only ever wanted to rule Afghanistan – unlike the Islamic State which wants to export jehad. Only once, in the late 1990s, did they break from this policy when Mullah Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban, allowed Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists to set up base in Afghanistan, leading to the 9/11 terror attacks. The Taliban paid a heavy price for that strategic blunder when they were bombed to hell by the US military and for the past 20 years they had been on the run. They are not likely to make the same mistake twice.
But didn’t they free Islamic State terrorists and convicted criminals from Afghanistan prisons? Doesn’t that mean the Taliban have a soft corner for terror?
The Taliban aren’t a cohesive or single outfit. The first wave of Taliban terrorists who entered Afghan cities opened the prisons and let out everyone. To them, the previous Afghan government was illegitimate and therefore all their laws and convictions stood cancelled. So it wasn’t because they loved the Islamic State terrorists and criminals more but because they hated the Afghan government more.
Doesn’t Pakistan control the Taliban? Will the Pakistan Army now unleash these unemployed terrorists on India? Didn’t Afghans fight in Kashmir in the 1990s?
The Taliban are a creation of Pakistan’s ISI and needed Pakistani assistance to fight the Americans and the US-backed Afghan government. But despite close connections to Pakistanis and Islamic State leaders, the Afghans aren’t their bitch. Yes, after the Soviet Union quit Afghanistan, some of the unemployed Mujahideen fighters were infiltrated by the Pakistan Army into Kashmir where they became a huge problem for the Indian Army. Owing to their experience fighting the powerful Soviet Army, these battle hardened ex-Mujahideen scaled up the level of terrorism in the Valley. However, eventually the Indian Army improved their techniques and not one of these Afghans returned home alive. Their bones are leaching into the Kashmiri Mountains even today.
The Afghans are chastened now and as Manzoor Pashtin, the influential leader of Pakistani Afghans, has declared, the Afghans are fed up of jehad. When a Pakistani reporter asked him if Afghans would fight in Kashmir, following India’s decision to scrap Article 370, Pashtin replied with an ample amount of sarcasm: “We Afghans have participated in many jehads and lot of us have been martyred. We do not want to keep all the glory for ourselves and deprive other groups in Pakistan of this glory. We will give opportunities to other communities so that they also attain heaven. They should also become martyrs. We are not such cruel people that we will always keep this glory to ourselves. Pakistan has an army consisting of 7-8 lakh troops. We also pay tax to Pakistan (because of which) the Pakistan Army has battle tanks. We tribals don’t have tanks, nor do we have fighter planes. But the Pakistan Army has all this. They are capable of fighting. We highly recommend that they should go and fight. We request them to go and fight India.”
So nobody has anything to worry about the Taliban?
If you are a Pakistani, be very afraid. For, the Afghans have substantial territorial claims on Pakistan’s Pashtun speaking areas. And the Taliban, like every other government in Afghanistan, is not relinquishing those claims. Once the Taliban are done with the slaughter of Afghan civilians, and the peace of the graveyard returns to the country, they will eventually want these Pakistan-occupied Afghan areas incorporated into Afghanistan. There’s nothing the Pakistanis can do that will dissuade the Afghans. No regime in Kabul has ever recognised the 2,670 km Durand Line the British arbitrarily drew as the boundary between India and Afghanistan in 1893. Afghans on both sides of this line swear allegiance to Afghanistan.
Pakistan inherited the Afghan problem after Partition in 1947 and it’s like a dead albatross around its neck. More than “strategic depth”, it’s the trans-loyal Afghans who keep the Pakistani leadership awake at night. Deep down in his heart the Punjabi Muslim fears and loathes the Afghans who have invaded, conquered, raped and pillaged Punjab for centuries. While Pakistan may name their missiles after Afghan warlords like Abdali, Ghazni and Ghori (in a foolish attempt to scare India), the truth is the average Pakistani despises the Afghans. The Afghans know this. Whatever ‘help’ the Pakistanis gave during the 1979-88 war against the Russians was in Islamabad’s own interests. So the Afghans, including the Taliban, do not have any delusions of Pakistani magnanimity. They know Pakistan creates chaos in Afghanistan to keep it unstable. A dysfunctional Afghanistan cannot stake a claim to Pakistan’s Pashtun areas or normalise relations with India. Since the Pakistan Army is too scared to fight India, this is their only strategy to check its prime enemy.
What about freelance Taliban willing to fight jehad in Kashmir? There could be bomb blasts in Delhi and Mumbai all over again.
Don’t be a wuss. Your ancestors fought against Islamic jehad for nearly 1,000 years and Christian invaders and colonialists for another 200 years. Maratha warriors conquered 70 per cent of India from the Mughals and planted the Hindu flag on the walls of Attock. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab defeated the Afghans and turned mosques into stables for his horses. Today, India has the world’s fourth largest military; you can’t fight these goatherds? If history has taught us anything, it is that human history is an endless cycle of wars. So welcome to the real world, pal. Thankfully, the Indian Army is a professional force which has plenty of experience dispatching Islamic terrorists to hell. As Lt-General K.J.S. Dhillon remarked: “Talking about Afghanistan and its impact on Kashmir, anyone who enters Kashmir Valley will not go back alive in whichever way.”
With the Afghan Taliban now in power, has Pakistan finally got the “strategic depth” it has sought since its creation?
What a joke. When you think of countries with strategic depth you think of Russia, China, India and especially the US, which is protected to two oceans and two buffer states. But Pakistan can never aspire for depth as it is thin strip of land than can be sliced in half in a week and a few hours by the Indian Army. To counter this massive strategic drawback, Pakistan has foolishly sought to turn Afghanistan into a vassal state where the Pakistanis can disperse their military assets, especially its air force, in the event of a war with India.
However, strategic depth is meaningless in an era when India can strike deep into Afghanistan if the Afghans allow their territory to be used as a Pakistani sanctuary. As the Balakot strike in February 2019 demonstrated, India can strike at will anywhere in Pakistan, and Afghanistan is only a few miles further north. The IAF may not even be used next time and well-aimed BRAHMOS cruise missiles or Agni intermediate range missiles can make the Afghanistan landscape look like Swiss cheese. Don’t forget, India had four consulates within the country, allowing RAW to develop an extensive network of Afghan informers who can identify targets for India’s military.
There are videos going around of large arms caches abandoned by the US in Afghanistan. Will this leak into the hands of terrorists or criminals in India?
People need to understand some basic facts about weapons. First up, American small arms, including the M and AR series rifles, are extremely high maintenance and require hours of cleaning after use. They are more accurate than Russian analogues but have a higher failure rate in combat. For a large and powerful military like the US, a few individual soldiers stuck with a jammed rifle won’t a difference to the outcome of a battle. This is because the US primarily relies on a combination of air power, missiles and electronic warfare to carpet bomb the battlefield. The soldier on the ground does very little actual fighting and is primarily a component of mopping up and holding forces.
High maintenance American weapons are not meant for the illiterate Taliban who prefer the favourite weapon of terrorists and guerrillas worldwide – the Russian AK-47 or more likely its cheap Chinese knockoffs. The AK doesn’t jam – whether in the hottest desert, coldest mountains or wettest tropics. The AK is less accurate but has more hitting power plus it will never break down. That is exactly what the Taliban need. They don’t require sniper rifles that are used by US soldiers who use math on the battlefield to factor in even the rotation of the earth to make a kill.
So what happens to these weapons the Taliban are carting away?
In all likelihood, these rifles will be sold on the black market to private arms dealers who might sell them to criminal gangs or the Ukrainian Army. Even that seems farfetched. There are very few wars going on at present and therefore not much demand is there for war fighting equipment. Despite what we are witnessing in Afghanistan, the world is a relatively peaceful place right now.
What about the Blackhawk helicopters and Humvees?
Let’s talk about the Humvee first. American soldiers hated this vehicle from day one. Contrary to its cult status among civilians, and the hype created by uneducated journalists, it is perhaps the most disliked vehicle in the US armed forces. The US Army is currently transitioning to its next toy – the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), a significant improvement over the Humvee when it comes to transportability, speed, agility and protection. The US tends to abandon its military equipment after wars because it’s simply too expensive to take them back. The US Army currently has 50,000 Humvees and is planning to procure 49,099 JLTVs. So the more Humvees it abandons in Afghanistan, the more JLTVs it can order. There is no doubt some US generals will be getting substantial kickbacks from American arms manufacturers who can now resupply the US armed forces with brand new gear.
Can the Taliban operate the Humvee? Yes, until its gearbox wears out and after that it’ll mostly be scrap metal. There are thousands of abandoned and destroyed Soviet tanks, trucks and 4x4s littered across Afghanistan. The Taliban’s predecessor, the Mujahideen, used only a few of these vehicles. In fact, the Taliban prefers the Toyota Land Cruiser, which can go 100,000 km with zero maintenance and 400,000 km with basic maintenance.
The Blackhawks are also not much use to the Taliban, most of whom probably can’t ride a bicycle. In fact, in 2015 the Pentagon wanted to pay the Russians $700 million for a fleet of Mi-17 helicopters to equip the Afghan Air Force. American lawmakers were predictably outraged and got the deal cancelled. The Pentagon’s explanation was that Russian helicopters were better suited for Afghan pilots who weren’t educated enough to master the electronic wizardry of American choppers.
Can the Taliban give the Blackhawks to Pakistan?
The Taliban definitely cannot sell them on the international market because these choppers belong to the Afghan government. Weapons sales are highly regulated and any potential buyer will have to deal with Sikorsky which will slap the buyer with a lawsuit. The Taliban will face more sanctions if they try and sneak them across the border to Pakistan.
Again, the problem of maintenance comes into play. The Blackhawk is not a Toyota that can be serviced by a freelance mechanic working from home. Without parts from Sikorsky, it just won’t fly, and military helicopters burn through parts pretty quick. Pakistan can try some jugaad (DIY) but helicopters also require pilots to fly them, and salaries to train them. It is doubtful whether Pakistan can afford to induct these abandoned choppers even if the Americans cynically gave them the green signal with a view to sell more advanced weapons to India.
But the question is does Pakistan want the Blackhawks? The Pakistan Army has plenty of weapons and has no need for more. If the average Pakistani is surviving on one meal a day, the Pakistan Army is the exact opposite – with Islamabad spending half its budget on defence. While Pakistani leaders request the public to eat one less roti per meal, the Pakistan Army is a well fed army of corpulent generals and colonels who have stockpiled large arms caches to fight its bitter enemy India. It’s a different matter that the Pakistan Army has no stomach for a fight with India.
Also, don’t forget that Pakistan has Darra Adam Khel where the ‘cottage industry’ is weapons. Known as the town where the Taliban go shopping, it produces a wide variety of firearms, ranging from anti-aircraft guns to pen guns. Give them a modern rifle, and the local gunsmiths will make you a functioning copy in 48 hours. The gunsmiths of Darra make better rifles than the shoddy INSAS cranked out by India’s state owned Ordnance Factory Board.
At any rate, the mismatch between India and Pakistan is so wide that a few additional Blackhawks in Pakistan won’t change the military balance. The Pakistan Army is not a war fighting army but a parasitic, malevolent force that is devouring the resources of a backward country. It has never lost a war to civilians or in textbooks and that is the best you can say about the Pakistan Army.
The Taliban are not through with what they started out to do – kill every Afghan who does not subscribe to their hateful Deobandi version of Islam. The country has entered a spiral of violence that Iraq experienced after the 2003 American invasion, and the primary focus of these bloodthirsty barbarians is to replicate seventh century Arabia in Afghanistan. Even as the Arabs have moved into the 21st century and have built gleaming cities in the sand and have one of the highest incomes in the world, the copycat Muslims are too busy killing each other to export terror to India. But that doesn’t mean we should slack off. Eternal vigilance is the price of living in the world’s most dangerous neighbourhood. In the meantime, you have front row seats to these barbarians running loose in Pakistan and working for its breakup. There is no doubt Pakistan will break up; the only question is when. The only sure thing is that the Taliban are the catalyst that will hasten the process.
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda