06 Aug 2008
Indian presence essential in Afghanistan
A substantial Indian military presence in Afghanistan bodes well for India in many aspects, Sushant K Singh writes for Pragati.
By Sushant K. Singh for Indian National Interest Review (Pragati)
Afghanistan at the crossroads and India, as a close ally of the Karzai government, has an important role to play. The debate on Indian involvement in Afghanistan is sharply polarized - between one group, which wishes to restrict Indian involvement to providing non-military support, primarily in the infrastructure and human resource development projects; and the another, which advocates Indian military involvement in Afghanistan. The arguments dominating the debate are put forth by those opposing Indian military involvement in Afghanistan: problems of overreach, difficult experiences of the US and NATO forces, uncertain commitment of the US in the region and fear of trapping the Indian armed forces in the Afghan quagmire. The most entreating argument put forth is that the current policy of soft power projection pursued by India there has so far been successful and thus warrants no change.
Shifting the battleground
A significant Indian military presence in Afghanistan will alter the geo-strategic landscape in the extended neighborhood by expanding India’s power projection in Central Asia. India has historically had a friendly relationship with both Iran and Russia. With Iran, India can also ride on the goodwill created by Zaranj-Delaram highway, which has provided a road link between Afghanistan and Iran. These nations could well be more amenable to an Indian military presence than they have been to the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani state will be denied the strategic depth it seeks by installing a favorable dispensation in Afghanistan. The Pakistani establishment will be compelled to divert its energies from their eastern to their northern borders. Loud protests can be anticipated from Pakistan against India’s active military involvement in the region, but the involvement of the United States will restrict Pakistani antipathy to voluble complaints. US officials have, moreover, long been frustrated at what they view as Pakistan's failure to do enough to combat militants along its border with Afghanistan.
An Indian military involvement in Afghanistan will shift the battleground away from Kashmir and the Indian mainland. Targeting the jihadi base will be a huge boost for India’s anti-terrorist operations, especially in Kashmir, both militarily and psychologically.
Until the time Islamic fundamentalist forces are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, India’s battle to contain terrorism in Kashmir will always be a defensive one. This is because ISI and other jihadist forces across the border have the ability to calibrate the level of terrorism in India. India can counter this effectively only if it has the capacity to strategically ratchet up pressure either of Pakistan’s fronts.
Consequences of failure
Some defense analysts have argued that India should not commit itself militarily to Afghanistan because Afghanistan will fall, yet again, to the Taliban as US and NATO forces are likely to pull out soon. Well, this argument ignores the fact that unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is related to the terrorist attacks on the American homeland and winning it is about ensuring US national security and pride. It is clear, and more so from the pronouncements of both presidential candidates, that the US is in Afghanistan for the long haul.
Moreover, the majority of troops in Afghanistan are a part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO mission, mandated by the UN, where a significant share of soldiers and equipment comes from European countries. India must move to reinforce their commitment to see the job done. The consequences of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan will be terrible for India to bear. Clearly, letting US and NATO forces fail in Afghanistan is not an option for the Indian state. There can be no better strategic justification for sending our troops to Afghanistan than to secure our long-term interests.
Some Indian analysts mistakenly contend that this is a war waged by the US against Islamic countries and India will end up being a stooge of the West by sending its troops in Afghanistan. This view ignores the fact that India has been under attack from Pakistan-supported jihadists that have imperilled the Indian state for nearly two decades now. India cannot be dissuaded from framing an appropriate response to terrorism just because this act closely aligns India with the US.
The memory of India’s intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war in the late 1980s animates any discussion on foreign troop deployments. But fears that an Indian deployment in Afghanistan will meet the same fate are unfounded. For in the intervening decades, the Indian Army has successfully fought a similar insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, an Afghan deployment will include the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy and help enhance India’s joint operations capability. It will also enhance their external cooperation capital as they will operate in a truly multinational environment with armed forces from advanced countries.
Like the 13,000 US soldiers under the Operation Enduring Freedom operating independently alongside the NATO-ISAF, the Indian military presence should have an independent command structure. Geographically Indian troops could be deployed in western Afghanistan, allowing US and ISAF forces to concentrate on the provinces adjoining Pakistan.
India’s soft power
The presence of Indian military in Afghanistan and provision of aid for infrastructure development and human resource training in the war-ravaged country are not mutually exclusive options. In any case, the ferocity of the enmity of jihadist elements against the Indian state will not be subdued, if India shuns military deployment in favor of solely executing developmental projects. Moreover India will find it much easier to successfully execute civil projects once it has stabilized the security climate by taking military control of a region. Soft power has to be an important component of any successful counterinsurgency operation; but it has to be augmented by hard power – of having military boots on ground. It will also send a strong message to the local Afghan nationals that India is in there for a long haul, putting lives of its soldiers to risk, and not restricting itself to merely throwing some alms at them, through developmental aid or projects.