Perhaps the real reason for India not having exercised the military rescue option, the primary option under such circumstances, is that India lacks the military capability to plan and execute the type of operation that the situation demands. Though these countries support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, it is doubtful whether they would permit India to use their airbases for a military operation in Afghanistan.
As the hijack drama of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 is being played out at Kandahar airport, it has clearly emerged that India’s capability to intervene beyond its borders is woefully inadequate. In the present era of strategic uncertainty, where nation-states are confronted with complex challenges and asymmetric threats on a regular basis, it is an inescapably essential requirement for a regional power with India’s responsibilities and aspirations to develop the ability to intervene internationally to safeguard national security interests.
There are undoubtedly great risks in launching such rescue operations. The chances of success can never be better than fifty-fifty. Perhaps the real reason for India not having exercised the military rescue option, the primary option under such circumstances, is that India lacks the military capability to plan and execute the type of operation that the situation demands. Since the operation involved overflying either Pakistan’s or Iran’s airspace to reach Kandahar, the willing cooperation of these countries was necessary. However, given our relations with Pakistan, it was unlikely to be forthcoming. Iran too may have chosen to turn down an Indian request to permit military aircraft to overfly its territory for an operation in Afghanistan. That left India with the option of mounting an operation from one of the Central Asian Republics, that is, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Though these countries support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, it is doubtful whether they would permit India to use their airbases for a military operation in Afghanistan. Last, but not the least, the Indian task force would have Kandahar’s air and ground defences to contend with.
lf the Taliban government had not cooperated, a forced military operation would have had to be launched with one or more Special Forces battalions (para commandos) being para-dropped or landed to seize the airfield and neutralise the ground threat. The crack anti-hijack squad of the National Security Guard (NSG) could then storm the aircraft and eliminate the hijackers as per previously rehearsed assault procedures. Throughout the operation, the Indian Air Force (IAF) would need to maintain fighter aircraft on Combat Air Patro! (CAP) on station above the airport to ensure air defence against the ram-shackle Taliban air force. AS Kandahar is beyond the range of IAF fighter aircraft, reliance may have had to be placed entirely on shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles of the air defence artillery. On the successful completion of the operation, a sufficiently large number of transport aircraft like IL-76 would be required to land and fly away the hostages and the assaulting troops and then be escorted safely out of Afghan airspace back to the mounting base.
It does not need to be emphasised that the success of a rescue operation hinges on the availability of accurate intelligence and speedy decision-making as time is of the essence. The reality is India simply does not have a trans-border capability to put an operation of this magnitude together under adverse military conditions. But an interventionist capability needs to be urgently created as similar situations are likely to occur with greater frequency in the coming century. It may one day be necessary to extricate the staff of an Indian embassy or an ambassador taken hostage. It may even be necessary to eliminate militant organisations such as LTTE or the Aceh rebels who may choose to clandestinely operate from India’s Island territories in the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep and Minicoy groups of islands.
The minimum essential requirement Is to be able to launch a Special Forces battalion group into action, with the necessary Strategic airlift, air defence and intelligence acquisition capability, within 24 hours of the occurrence of an incident in the Southern Asian region, on land and at sea. Ideally, the capability should be to be able to plan and implement a brigade group size intervention operation at short notice. Such a capability can and must be gradually built up. It has been said about men and women that the wishbone can never replace the backbone. It is equally true of nations.