PSYCLOLOGY: Why the Gorkhas could solve the Afghan imbroglio

PSYCLOLOGY: Why the Gorkhas could solve the Afghan imbroglio – Understanding the Gorkha Mind ?!!

Gorkhas of yore - inbred ?!!


Leaving Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and the Pakistan army could mean another 9/11-like attack — only this time with nuclear weapons, writes Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd).

Even as Afghan President Hamid Karzai met US President Barack Obama in Washington on Thursday, the Americans continue their search for a way out of Af-Pak quagmire. Unfortunately the whole Af-Pak debate is so stuck in economical truth and selective memory that a clear understanding of the problem is necessary before we think of an out of box solution. While the problem that the US faces is tough, it must be clearly understood that it is India that will face the repercussions of an adverse outcome in Afghanistan.

The US went into Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy Al Qaeda and dethrone the Taliban who sheltered them. Taliban were jointly-fathered creatures of the US and Pakistan during operation ‘Cyclone’ (1979-89).

It is also clear that Al Qaeda-Taliban, located in landlocked Afghanistan, could only carry out their global jihad with access provided by a complicit Pakistan. It was an Af-Pak problem in 2001 itself, complicated by the nuclear weapons with Pakistan. Again the Pakistani nuclear weapons were a joint Cold War enterprise between the US and China to create a balance with India that was in Soviet camp and a nuclear power since 1974.

The twin Frankensteins — nukes and Taliban — were created during jihad 1.0 when madarassas were funded by American dollars, the Mujahideen were the good guys, Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq was the defender of freedom and a certain Osama bin laden, a valued ally.

In Jihad 2.0 on since 2001, America is again throwing dollars to check and shut down madarssas, re-brainwash the fanatical youth and is worried about Pakistan’s nukes.

The cardinal mistake the US made is to ignore the Afghan/Pak past. For most of the people world over, war is a business to be gotten over and peace is the goal. While for the Afghans and Pakistani tribesmen, it is a way of life, sport and normal condition.

If not fighting against foreigners then they fight amongst themselves. John Masters in his autobiographical Bugles and the Tiger (published by Michael Joseph Ltd, London 1956) has drawn a vivid picture of the battles the British fought there in 1936-37. In this case the history seems to repeat itself with vengeance.

John Masters writes of the British-Afghan battles in 1937, “The terms ruthlessness and brutality was a relative and the definition used on the frontier was the Pathan definition. The Pathan’s mined and booby-trapped the roads with dud shells and grenades (what we call Improvised Explosive Devices today). They never took prisoners but mutilated, skinned alive and beheaded any prisoners they took.”

“The troops found that a British officer taken prisoner was flayed while still alive and his skin pegged on the rocks near the British camp.”

A Gorkha and his Khukuri - inseparable & fatalistic ?!!

Masters writes that the Gorkhas, then fighting for the British, replied in kind and would peg a prisoner to the ground in the hot sun with every passerby kicking him till he died of thirst and repeated blows.

But there is another and uncanny similarity between the present and events of 1937. I am referring to the case of Pir of Ippi. The Pir revolted against the British on November 25, 1936, called it jihad and for the next 12 years Waziri and Mehsud tribesmen, less than 1,000 in number, kept a well-equipped British Army of 40,000 engaged. At the time of independence in 1947, the Pir remained free and finally died of old age in 1960.

The British managed to control the situation in two years time mainly with the Indian army troops, the Gorkhas and Sikhs. The tribals at that time were armed with primitive guns and were perpetually short of ammunition. Once jihad was declared it became impossible to ‘buy’ tribes, as loyalty to faith was above all.

Cut to the 21st century. Thanks to Jihad I, the frontier area is flush with arms and ammunition. The tribal is as well equipped as the soldier. Add to this his native skill in the use of terrain and local knowledge and you have a formidable foe. Mountainous terrain neutralises technology. Like the Pir of Ippi, Osama Bin Laden remains out of reach of the Americans even after nine years of fighting.

The Americans seem to have underestimated the influence of religion and ideological sympathy for the jihad’s objectives, though not methods, that ordinary Muslims feel. It is also doubtful if economic aid package could deal with the issue of extremism. It is true that economic hardships helps extremism gain recruits, but economic prosperity is no bar to extremism. The cases ranging from 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, to a million rupee salary earner like Mansoor Peerbhoy of the Indian Mujahideen and the recent would-be bomber of Time Square in New York Faisal Shahzad, were motivated by factors other than poverty.

In fact, all of them belonged to well-to-do families of the so-called moderates (Faisal is son of a retired air vice marshal of the Pakistan air force). Given the above analysis, it is extremely doubtful if the American strategy in Af-Pak will succeed.

The Gorkha Mind - unthinking of consequences, simple and just ?!!

What is needed is a strategy of containment in the area with efficient and adequate boots on the ground. Just like the Pathans, the Gorkhas too love fighting and soldiering. In mountain operations, they have no peers. Not for nothing, did the British trust the Gorkhas when Prince William did duty in Afghanistan.

The situation in Afghanistan needs to be controlled for at least 20 years or so in the interest of world peace and security. It is time to think of a Peace Enforcement Force under the UN to occupy and keep the barbaric tribesmen in check. This force cannot be operating with its hands tied like the UN peacekeepers, who operate under strict conditions of engagement.

Instead what is being suggested is a Korea-like UN intervention. The task will be carried out at a fraction of the cost of NATO forces — which are ineffective any way. The Indian army has the facilities to train these forces at existing regimental centres and the officering pattern of these forces could well be based on international cadres. As a bonus, the situation in Nepal will automatically stabilise, for the ‘real’ problem in Nepal is not Maoism but unemployment and poverty. Much like the Swiss in the middle ages, the Gorkhas could well be the guardians of peace!

On an informal employment, the Gorkahs are already doing these jobs from Europe to Hong Kong! What is suggested is institutionalising a Gorkha force at an international level.

This is just the basic idea and much work will have to be done to give it practical shape. Yet, leaving Afghanistan to the tender mercies of Taliban and Pakistan army will mean return to pre 9/11 situation and risking another 9/11 like attack in the future, only this time with nuclear weapons.

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd) is a former joint director, war studies, ministry of defence, and co-ordinator of the Pune-based Initiative for Peace and Disarmament.


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