Planning for doomsday: should India send troops to Afghanistan? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 14 July 2008

Planning for doomsday: should India send troops to Afghanistan?

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th July 08

It’s called “mission creep”… the creeping expansion of objectives, and the resources that are deployed towards a strategic aim. After a bloody week in Afghanistan --- not just for India, but for Afghan civilians and US forces as well --- New Delhi is confronting an urgent question: should India send in more forces, even the military, to secure our interests in that volatile country?

Accelerating that re-evaluation has been media commentary calling for increased military presence. A respected national daily editorially observed, "After the Kabul bombing, India must come to terms with an important question that it has avoided debating so far. New Delhi cannot continue to expand its economic and diplomatic activity in Afghanistan, while avoiding a commensurate increase in its military presence there. For too long, New Delhi has deferred to Pakistani and American sensitivities about raising India's strategic profile in Afghanistan.”

This dilemma was at the heart of Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon’s Sunday visit to Kabul, ostensibly to rally morale in the embassy. Fortunately there was no discernible sign of mission creep. Menon assured President Hamid Karzai that India will stand fast in Afghanistan, but the primary responsibility for safeguarding the 4000 Indian doctors, engineers, scientists, executives and labourers there remains with Kabul.

The concept of “Indian security for Indian workers” is an attractive one for a country proud of its military, but must be evaluated cautiously, with a clear understanding that Afghanistan is transitioning from insurgency to civil war. Troops are sent into a deteriorating situation only if their presence can transform impending defeat into a realistic chance of victory. The situation in Afghanistan may have moved beyond that point.

India’s engagement with that country, therefore, must be characterised by the deployment of “soft power”, not the military. The palpable Afghan affection for India flows more from its engagement with Mumbai than with New Delhi. Indian films, music, dance, food, and the peaceful generosity of Indians have transformed our country in Afghan minds into an idyll that far exceeds the reality. This perception has been reinforced by clever aid diplomacy; India has sunk three quarters of a billion dollars into Afghanistan’s medical facilities, educational institutions, public transport, irrigation schemes, even that country’s parliament building.

To now throw troops into what will inevitably become a bloody struggle for power risks smudging India’s benevolent image. Even with the mandate to do no more than safeguard Indian workers and assets in Afghanistan, an enhanced Indian security presence will find its role expanding as the environment becomes more hostile. The very presence of an Indian force will be a magnet for renewed attacks.

Instead, Indian planners should be considering that, perhaps three years along, US and NATO forces may pull out of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai would be history, and Afghanistan itself divided into different zones of control. In that Afghanistan, India’s physical presence may well be reduced to zero. The ITBP would have pulled out; development projects would have shut down; elements politically hostile to India may well control large parts of the country; the embassy and India’s consulates may well have closed shop. This is what happened in 1996; today, only American and European support --- fickle, and already wavering --- prevents a return to that time.

The US and NATO militaries are already losing the battle as they realise too late that the battlefield is not confined to Afghan soil. After the killing of nine US soldiers on Sunday in a Taliban assault on a US post near the Pakistan border, General David McKiernan, the top NATO commander fumed that militants based in Pakistan had staged attacks in Afghanistan “almost every day I have been here.”

Unlike Russia, which faced the same situation in the 1980s --- an insurgency operating from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan --- the US and NATO are making strenuous efforts to shut off Taliban support across the Durand Line. On Saturday, the US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen paid an unscheduled visit to Pakistan. He demanded to meet army chief, General Pervez Kiyani and told him, apparently in the baldest possible terms, that if the Pakistan army was not going to crack down in the NWFP tribal areas, then US and NATO forces in Afghanistan would operate across the border into Pakistan. 

But despite those threats, and the occasional cross-border foray, western forces in Afghanistan can hardly influence events in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Only the Pakistan army can do that, but remains unwilling to. General Kiyani drew Admiral Mullen’s attention to the 800 Pakistani soldiers who have already been killed in counter-militancy operations in the NWFP, suggesting that Pakistan had already done enough. (India has lost close to 7000 soldiers in J&K). The army brass in Pakistan --- which will eventually have the final word on this --- has not yet come round to accepting that the military has little choice but to transform the NWFP from a sanctuary to a battlefield.

Without that realisation in Rawalpindi, a couple of years more of rising casualties in Afghanistan could well trigger a US and NATO pullout. India’s actions today must create influence and goodwill that will sustain itself even without a physical presence. New Delhi must play its own hand in The Great Game in Afghanistan, building bridges with every community and spreading developmental aid across different regions. The Afghan government must be urged to provide the security needed for these projects to continue for as long as possible. And if India is forced to pull out in another interregnum of turmoil, we will continue to reap the benefits of a low-key, aid-driven policy.


  1. Ajay, Where is your LCA story "Stuck" ? I sincerely hope it's worth the wait.

  2. Interesting.

    But just think about it. Will the Indian troops, with 'expanded roles' as you mentioned, be authorised for hot pursuit of militants acroos the Pak border?

  3. Run and hide from any sort of threat has been the policy of Indian policy makers and military alike for the past 5 decades, They responded only when wars were imposed on US yet they were not able to convert these victories (and on failure)to our advantage making the threats more and more deadly and looming over our heads. It is disappointing to read such a pessimistic opinion when four of our men who were spreading the so - called soft power sacrificed their lives and their assailants are free and unaccountable. India should be following a aggressive and preventive policy towards Pakistan and China unless we will be doomed in another 5 decades. Bcoz destruction of India is the common aim of China and Pakistan and even Bangladesh.

  4. Until and unless Pakistan is hit and controlled, I don't think that India or even the U.S will be able to control the terrorist activities in the region. One think that can be done is to arm Afghanistan to the tilt. The money and weapons provided to Pakistan can be provided to Afghanistan. Let the Afghan military take on the terrorists for a better future for the Afghan people by eliminating the terrorists and deterring their enemies.

  5. India must send troops to protect Indian citizens working in various projects to rebuild Afghanistan. Also we must provide good military equipment support to Afghanistan, so that the Afghan military can handle the situation. The western nations must also provide weaponry, technology to bring parity with Pakistan to deter Pakistan from helping the terrorists. This only can eliminate the terrorists from Afghanistan.

  6. This is absolute nonsense. US is not chicken enough to pull out from a place where the next attack on its soil to come from. Well if push comes to shove America may even consider nuking tribal areas especially if there is a nasty 9/11 type another attack by fastly recouping al-queda. Vietnam is different and it was not an existential battle just ideological. Lazy NATO members other than US and UK will get on the boat sooner or later becoz everyone in the world has a stake when jihadis are multiplying like rats in pakistan. The thought of America pulling out is absolute bollocks. They showed great determination in straightening up Iraq which was in worse situation, I believe they can do much better in Afghanistan where people are not as hostile as in Iraq.

  7. India could send special forces in Afghan national army uniforms with some pieces of artillery. What is needed is troops on the ground. Better to fight them in Afghanistan than in Kashmir. Ofcourse, we will be like female pheromones to blood thirsty jihadis, but CI is dirty job. We can't have the cake and eat it too. Time to make hard decisions. More reconstructions can't go on without boots on the ground.

  8. In case we are sending troops to Afghan, shouldn't we get the same kind of military charity that Pak is getting from US?

    If US decides to pullout after Obama's coming, wont they push India to take their place? Then it may not be an issue of choice. (We would have signed the nuclear deal and) We would be FORCED to send troops.

  9. Ajai,

    If we're realizing that the Westerners are going to pull out in defeat and that Karzai will be history, then we need to plan ahead for a future partitioning of Afghanistan. In the previous Afghan Civil War, the Pashtuns were all brought under Pak's tent, thanks to Taliban ruthlessness. We were left to back the non-Pashtuns. That scenario is likely to re-emerge in any future civil war. Therefore, India should be trying to build up the infrastructure in the North, to help them exist independently of Southern Afghanistan, if need be.
    If Taliban regain control of even just the Southern portion of the country, as they did in the past, then J&K will go back to the bad old days of terror. When will the next Indian airline hijacking to Kandahar occur?

  10. Ajai,

    I think you may be underestimating the Western resolve on this.

    But even Worse case - northern Afghanisthan will NOT be allowed to fall the Taliban. And a whole generation of NATO officers are growing to have hatred for Pakistan.

    So I still think - worse case - youa re going to see more and more strikes by NATO on Paki soil.

    But I agree with you Indian troop presence needs to be limited and away from view. Advisors, sF units and intel.

  11. ajai,

    i didn't expect you to also echo that dumbass nehru's stupid policy of appeasement. i guess this subservient mental attitude prevalent in all desis is hard to destroy.

    "... elements politically hostile to India may well control large parts of the country ..."

    this is exactly the reason we need troops in afghanistan. we can ill afford another ISI like organization operating under the orders of an afghani government - we need to nip it in the bud NOW. we need to help the pro-india government stay in power even if it means sending our troops.

    "But despite those threats, and the occasional cross-border foray, western forces in Afghanistan can hardly influence events in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Only the Pakistan army can do that..."

    frankly, this is bullshit. western forces *can* influence the region - they can completely change the geography of the region by flattening it. it is just that they are using restraint and diplomacy (although I think more sinister reasons are the true cause - afterall terrorism is a necessary evil to force people to give up the freedoms)

  12. "India’s actions today must create influence and goodwill that will sustain itself even without a physical presence."

    I don't get this. We've have a goodwill with the Afghans for ages. Did that prevent the Taliban working against Indian interests?

    You also seem to forget that it is our physical presence in Afghanistan today that's giving us some leverage.

  13. I can't agree completely with your blog. As you are very well aware the situation in Afghanistan is much more complex. I guess its imperative that India explore all its strategic options with respect to Afghanistan. Soft diplomacy is one of these many options but I will not favor it completely.

    The difference between 1996 and now is that Pakistan is a bigger mess then ever before and so its capability to project power and bring some semblance of order to Afghanistan is limited.

    Can India afford such a volatile situation and if yes then how long is the real question that will decide the options for India.

  14. hi there,
    i enjoy reading your blogs.this quary is about indian navys nuclear submarine program. any fresh updates on the progress made ? when is nerpa / akulla II being inducted in the indian navy ?
    thanx in advance.

  15. As an American with an interest in geopolitics, this is exactly what ends up undermining Indian interests in the long term. India tends to be far too disengaged, and reactively closes her eyes whenever tough decisions are to be made. If you do not take your interests in South Asia into your own hands, whom do you delegate that responsibility to? When Pakistan or China steps up, then I am sure Indians would be the very first to complain, and spin around dazed about the lack of their insight. Instead of considering what -may- happen in some glib future scenario, it would be far wiser for India to make the effort into actually preventing it first.

  16. Dear American with an interest in geopolitics,

    I hate to hit someone when they're down... but you really, really do need to be reminded that if there is one country on the planet which has painted itself into the most unenviable geo-strategic corner, it isn't India.

    The United States, with its undiminished belief that one can "make the tough decisions", and everything will be just dinky-doo after that, is paying the price in Iraq and Afghanistan. India, with its "disengaged" approach is held in high regard in all these places even though it isn't a Muslim-predominant country.

    I would really commend to you the first dictum of geo-politics: the one that Sun Tzu always wanted to say, but couldn't find the words for: SOMETIMES ONE CAN'T DO A GODDAM.

    India's made lots of tough decisions. It's fought insurgencies successfully through the simple process of fighting only where it is certain that there will be a long-term resilience. You'll never find Indian troops engaged in fighting a battle... and the Indian public slamming them and asking for them to come home. The reason is that we will only fight on our own territory.

    India made this mistake once in Sri Lanka. It will not make it again.


  17. Troops no way. They are already busy fighting insurgencies in the country.
    But definitely we can send our indigenous weapons like Arjun tanks, Akash, Nag etc to Afghan army to do actual field trials in a war zone and test it. Even if this means giving some units for FREE/ deeply discounted prices to them go ahead and do it. Just oblige Afghans to give feedback so that we can improve upon them with field data.

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