By Satyam Singh
The crisis in Afghanistan has worsened exponentially due to repeated attacks by the Taliban over the past few weeks. The sudden turn of fortunes is unfathomable and unprecedented for many foreign policy experts. Consequently, multiple opinions are being floated on the best role that India can play in Afghanistan. For instance, while some suggest that India should deploy boots on the ground, others sternly reject the idea stating, it may lead to complete havoc for the forces operating on Afghan soil.
The latter suggestion seems to be more in sync with the Indian Foreign policy of Afghanistan till now. It may well be argued that the very nature of India’s approach at its core towards any other state consists of non-interference and respect for the other countries. And this mindset has long historical precedence. Of many, the most remarkable one is that despite liberating East Pakistan, India allowed Bangladesh to establish itself as a new nation. That was an unconventional move because India could have merged Bangladesh with itself if it had wanted. The very nature of India’s integrity and honesty is what one should appreciate. Thus it delivered what it promised to the citizens of Bangladesh.
Over the last seventy-four years, India proved over and over that it does not intend to interfere in any other’s internal matters, let alone occupying their territories. Yet, there is another critical role that India plays at the international fora. It is the largest contributor of troops for various peacekeeping missions under the aegis of the United Nations. On those missions, the Indian military detachments continue to play versatile roles ensuring peace between the warring factions while providing the affected civilian population in these wars torn regions with amenities like education, medical care, infrastructure rebuilding and more.
The ambit of UN peacekeeping is pretty much limited to a defensive role. Yet India has always risen to the occasion whatever the odds. For example, a couple of months ago, during the volcanic eruption at Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo the Indian battalion deployed over there not only secured its personnel and assets but also helped speedily evacuate the local villagers to safety.
On the other end of the spectrum, Indian contingents have firmly demonstrated their military resolve to uphold the greater good. One of the many such indelible instances of the valor of our troops, and the tactical acumen of our commanders, was the rescue operation conducted in Sierra Leone. It was the stuff of legends and is still lauded as one of the finest hostage rescue operations in the world. In the words of Damini Punia (Author of Operation Khukri) “that was an Operation that transpired a year after Kargil War, an Operation where soldiers chose death over cowardice, dignity over two meals and honor over freedom.”
Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa, like many of its neighbors, is an erstwhile British colony. It got Independence from the British in April 1961. Since then and till the late ’80s there was relative peace and tranquility. But after the period of calm there were many attempts of Coup by the former soldiers of the Sierra Leone’s Forces. The tussle between various factions was continuously rising that reached its peak in 1991 and, a coup the following year by a group of military officers kicked off a decade long civil war in which around Fifty Thousand people lost their lives, and approximately 2 million were displaced.
Despite the usual condemnations from the international community, there was barely any tangible work done by International Organizations till January 1999. The watershed moment came, when the largest rebel group then active in Sierra Leone, the RUF(Revolutionary United Front), attacked its capital, Free Town. The brutal onslaught started on January 5, 1999, and continued till January 12, 1999. Over the course of that week, there was the mindless butchering of civilians and captured government troops alike by RUF. As argued by many, this was the event that acted as the “Straw that Broke the Camel’s back” moment for the UN.
Over the course of its existence, the RUF had acquired quite a terrifying reputation. Initially popular with the many Sierra Leoneans, the RUF post the coup not only failed to live up to its promises of ‘ free education and health care and equitable sharing of diamond revenues, ’but actively sought to terrorize the population into submission. The RUF was pitiless and cruel; it chopped off the arms of any man, or child who had the misfortune of falling into their hands. Apart from using narcotics to turn many captured children into child soldiers, the RUF regularly used rape as a weapon of war to intimidate and debase the native population.
The quantum of peoples affected was so high that after being mostly a mute spectator for almost ten years, the UN finally decided to intervene. In October 1999 the UN established the United Nations Mission to Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). The main objective of UNAMSIL was to assist with the disarmament process and enforce the terms established under the Lomé Peace Agreement (signed July 1999). Unlike the earlier peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, this time the Security Council brought in some serious military clout in the form of some crack troops from India, Nepal, Ghana, Britain, Nigeria, and even Russia. The mission landed and started playing its role. Soon after the UNAMSIL took over, there was a steady downward spiral in violence. Under the watchful eyes of the UN troops, peace prevailed till May 2000. But in May, there occurred a major incident completely changed the scenario in Sierra Leone.
The event started when the peacekeepers were asked to facilitate the surrendering of arms of all factions, RUF included. For the very same purpose, the meeting was arranged between UNAMSIL and RUF at Kailahun (a stronghold of RUF rebels. And the plan was that INDBATT-1 (India’s battalion), which had men from 5/8 Gorkha Rifles and 14 Mechanized Infantry, will go and meet RUF personnel and ensure their surrender. But On May 1, some elements of the RUF attacked and overran the KENBATT (Kenya’s battalions) forces at Makeni. Due to a communication gap, the INDBATT-1 weren’t informed, and some of their commanders at Kailahun were captured the next day at a meeting with the RUF.
It appeared that the RUF clearly had the upper hand since they had around 225 men of the Indian Army and other UN officials at their mercy. Eventually, the RUF demanded that Indian forces surrender their arms. But as corroborated by multiple accounts, it is clear that men of 5/8 Gorkha and 14 Mechanized infantry hadn’t the slightest intentions of surrendering their arms to the rebels. And despite facing overwhelming odds, the troops of INDBATT-1 chose to engage the thousands of RUF cadre they faced. Thus began a siege that ultimately lasted for over 75 days. While skirmishes were minimal, the Indian commander and the UN military observers kept the RUF engaged and continued to negotiate with the RUF leadership forces them to give up their arms.
As weeks passed with both sides locked in a stalemate, while our soldiers held their ground and refused to budge, there was a growing sense of urgency and anxiety in the Indian administration. The leadership at home knew that the situation could turn deadly without a moment’s notice as frustration and desperation mounted between the RUF and INDBATT-1 with the grim passage of days. While the GOI was committed to making all efforts to ensure the safe return of its soldiers from the ongoing turmoil, it couldn’t turn a blind eye to the possibility of an impending massacre. As days turned into weeks with no breakthrough forthcoming, on one hand, The GOI deliberated with the UN and on the other, it began earnest preparations for a military intervention to free its men should that become necessary.
After over two and a half months, it was becoming clear that the besieged INDBATT troops would be in serious trouble if immediate efforts were not exercised to lift the siege. With negotiations going nowhere, finally, the Government of India decided to opt for military intervention. Accordingly, it instructed the other battalion in the theatre i.e. INDBATT-2 (Located at Daru, Sierra Leone) to rescue their brethren. Notably, INDBATT-2 comprised of men from 5/8 Gorkha, 9 PARA SF, and 18 Grenadiers.
For the upcoming operation, the INDBATT-2 was to get logistics and other support from the military contingents of Ghana, Nigeria, and the UK. However, the whole operation was to be led by the Indian troops. The military leadership decided to conduct the Operation in 5 phases. The first task was to mobilize forces from Daru to Kailahun followed by attack and rescue. The situation, which was already very critical, was aggravated by the fact that the forces did not have any map which showed physical features of the area under siege. But as the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. So, our forces quickly chalked out a customized plan for Reconnaissance and Survey. For the same, they used both, Human intelligence and Signal intelligence.
As a part of Human intelligence, 2 Para (SF) collected valuable information by conducting reconnaissance and inserting its commandos for 7 days at a stretch into the camp in disguise, before the launch of the operation, to map the area, carry out liaison and collect intelligence which enabled the planning and execution of what would become one of the most daring commando operations conducted by the Indian Army on foreign soil. Similarly, for Signal intelligence, the troops communicated over satellite phones with each other and the Headquarters in Malayalam so that no one can intercept their conversations.
Once all the necessary information and intelligence was gathered, collated, and reviewed July the 13th was chosen to initiate Operation Khukri. So before the date, all the necessary mobilization of Troops was done. The next step was to conduct airstrikes and shatter all the defensive measures done by the enemy. Consequently, after combing and securing all the outer perimeters for two days, the Special Forces were inserted into the enemy territory (on July 15) by two British Chinook helicopters. The air assault was carried out under adverse conditions, with heavy rain and poor visibility, and without air and artillery support which had to be withdrawn at the last minute due to the inclement weather. The operation was supposed to start at 0800 hrs, but due to bad weather, the air support got delayed by some time. At 0930 hrs, when the skies got clear, the much-needed air support was provided to the troops which kept on pressing forward because they were determined to rescue their brothers in arms at all cost.
Finally, the firefight started. After several short yet brutally fierce gun battles, the RUF rebels weren’t able to hold back the advancing Indian troops. Those that tried to resist were either liquidated promptly or were forced to flee in terror from their positions. This made the initiation of extraction, which was to be carried out in multiple sorties along with the ground movement. But true to their honorable traditions, at such a volatile and unprecedented moment, the Indian forces gave preference to other UN officials ahead of their own personnel during the extraction. The INDBATT-1 and INDBATT-2 along with men of Special Forces (at Giehun) were tasked to link at Pendembu after the evacuation from Kailahun. From there they all went to their base at Daru safely.
Finally, all the places (Kailahun, Pendembu, Daru) were freed from RUF control and secured by the forces. The RUF fought tried to put up a stiff resistance, but quite frankly, they were outgunned and outmatched by the professional fighting force that confronted them. Despite having more than twice the number of troops (5000) on the ground as the UNAMSIL (2000), the RUF was forced to give ground and sustained considerable losses in the engagement.
The brilliance with which the mission was executed can be gauged by the fact that while RUF lost over 100 men, our forces lost only one (Havildar Krishan Kumar, Sena Medal (posthumous) 5/8 Gorkha). The Indians managed not only to give the louts of RUF a bloody nose, but also handed out the worst defeat that the RUF has suffered till date, while providing a tremendous boost to UNAMSIL morale. This was the beginning of the end for the RUF in many ways, and paved the way for the eventual return of democracy to Sierra Leone.
For its meticulous planning and execution of the operation, the Indian forces received accolades from every corner of the world. Many strategists even said that, were the same operation conducted by the US Army, it would have cost ten times more than what Operation Khukri did. Thus, this mission not only significantly improved the stature of the Indian Armed Forces on the global stage but also helped the UN to recoup its lost prestige on the world stage. As a memento of their appreciation, the administration of Sierra Leone has built a bust of a Gorkha soldier (the Khukri War Memorial) besides Moa River at Daru.
Edited by PK Waghare
Read more on Indian Army