By Lt Gen P.C. Katoch (Retd.)*
Hybrid War is not new but became the preferred option with estimates of a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan costing the US some $6 trillion and the combined figure of 57,694 killed and wounded Americans. Such conflict is raging in Ukraine, West Asia, Middle East and is taking a sinister turn in the Af-Pak. Fresh- trained Free Syrian Army recruits entering Syria from Jordan and Islamic State cadres fleeing to Jordan due to Russian air strikes indicate the chaos that prevails in such circumstances.
Michael Flynn, former director US Defence Intelligence Agency, went on record to say that the rise of Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS was a “willful decision of the US”. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that the ISIS was trained by former British officers in Turkey. There were reports of ISIS being trained in Jordan by US instructors in civil attire.
With hybrid war targeting moral and cognitive plains, the reality often is different from engineered perceptions, and there is ambiguity in who is doing what; which explains why massive ISIS victory parades in Mosul, Ramadi, Idlib invited no US-led coalition air strikes and why the ISIS continues to smuggle out and sell oil to the tune of $2-3 million daily.
The same holds true for news about downing of the MH-17 Malaysia Airlines flight by a Russian missile over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 and the August 2013 Sarin nerve gas attack in Syria; these do not necessarily indicate Russian triggers, especially when the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claims proof of chemical weapons supplied to Syrian rebels by a British mercenary organization as proposed by Qatar and approved by Washington.
Increased instability was guaranteed in Afghanistan when the US decided to pull out and handed over security duties to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2014 without filling up the gaping voids in the Afghan National Army (ANA) in terms of air, artillery, logistics support, medical and even transport capability. Investors and NGOs started abandoning Afghanistan with the US announcing withdrawal. Nothing was done to improve the economy of the country which remains dependent on 97% foreign aid. As per declassified information, the strength of ANA came down to 1,69,203 in February 2015. It has reportedly now touched around 1,40,000. Despite 35% unemployment, there are large-scale desertions as the contractual period of a soldier is three years. By July 2014, 2,03,888 personal weapons had gone missing. With Operation ‘Resolute Support’ ending next year, the ANA will be reduced to ‘fortress defence’ unless measures are taken to boost its combat potential.
Pakistan, the US-cum-Chinese protégé, has a free hand in Afghanistan. Operations against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) enabled Pakistan to flood thousands of refugees into Afghanistan (an estimated 2,50,000 by November 2014), who mingled with Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan has trained 20 Mujahid battalions to operate as Taliban, part of which presumably are already inside Afghanistan, while some are assisting Saudi Arabia in the ground offensive against Yemen.
With 60% Afghanistan under Taliban control, Pakistani writ runs large in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has officially stated that elements of the Pakistani army in conjunction with Haqqani terrorists engineered the deadly truck bombing in Kabul on August 7. During the Herat Security Dialogue held on October 2-3, Afghan speakers openly accused Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban. As usual, Pakistan denied the allegation, insisting that it does not generate terror, which convinced none.
The ease with which the Afghan Taliban captured a major part of the northern city of Kunduz on September 28 underlines the dangers that Afghanistan faces and the threat of terrorism crossing into Central Asia. Key to the Taliban offensive lies with Islamabad because Pakistan has successfully installed Mullah Mansoor as the successor of Mullah Omar. Mullah Mansoor is the religious teacher of Haqqanis based in Pakistan, and the Haqqanis have been the covert arm of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) over the past 30 years.
Both the Taliban have underhand links. The Al Qaeda has declared support to the Afghan Taliban, while bulk of the TTP is aligned with the Islamic State, and ISIS has commenced attacks in Afghanistan. The fact that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has declared they are part of ISIS implies that the ISIS has already entered Central Asia by proxy. The ISIS may be targeted by US, but so did the US target Al Qaeda and yet used Al Qaeda cadres in Libya, Iraq and Syria. The spread of ISIS to Af-Pak creates further instability in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolute intervention in Syria, firing 26 cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea and operating from the new Russian air base in Syria, has given a jolt to the Western hybrid war in Iraq-Syria. Not only has Russia a large naval base in Syria, its strategic interests in the region are well known.
There is considerable commotion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) with speculation they may even deploy in Turkey. In all probability, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, beleaguered from multiple directions, will be able to survive and even regain some lost territory. The geopolitical US-Russia struggle may have overshadowed the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, but then Putin’s strikes against ISIS-Al Qaeda in Syria are also targeted at reducing their incursions into Afghanistan. It goes without saying that enhanced instability in Afghanistan would curb Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
Occupation of the bulk of Kunduz severed the Kabul-Tajikistan highway, but Russia has bolstered its troops in Tajikistan under the Russia-Tajikistan Security Arrangement. Sudden announcement of Taliban withdrawal from Kunduz may well have been on the instance of the Pakistani military, signalled by Washington. The hybrid war in Afghanistan appears taking a new turn.
Afghanistan’s First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum has visited Russia seeking help. Given the turn of events in Syria, Afghanistan could perhaps bank upon Russian air, missile and artillery support in case of grave crisis. That is perhaps the reason that President Barack Obama is now rethinking how many US troops need to be stationed in Afghanistan.
Not that Pakistan would mend its ways, especially when extended garrisoning of US troops in Afghanistan means supplies via Pakistan, guaranteeing continued US financial and military aid.
Not that Pakistan will be saved from the backlash while its military rides the serpent it cannot dismount. It would be interesting to watch which direction the hybrid war in Af-Pak region is headed.
*Lt Gen P.C. Katoch (Retd.) is veteran Special Forces of the Indian Army. He can be reached at [email protected]