In the August 2008 issue of this magazine, Sushant K Singh made a comprehensive case for India to increase its military presence in Afghanistan. Beyond engaging in development projects and training Afghan national security forces, the proposal to deploy combat-ready Indian troops in Afghanistan is based on the simple logic of force fungibility. As the nuclear factor makes it unfeasible for Indian troops to directly attack Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, India should ensure that US troops do so. Since it is in India’s interests that as many US soldiers are committed to operations ‘along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border’, it is sensible for the Indian troops to relieve their US counterparts of duties in areas where they are not actually fighting the taliban — especially in Western and Northern Afghanistan.
India has the capacity to equip, station and supply several divisions of its troops in Afghanistan. Many Afghan political leaders — from President Hamid Karzai to members of the Northern Alliance — are highly likely to welcome India’s decision. Contrary to the myths that make the rounds in the popular media, the Afghan people do not reflexively oppose foreign troops on their soil — remember they welcomed international troops who came to rid the country of Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime in 2002.
Neighbouring countries, including Iran and Tajikistan, will support an Indian military presence in Afghanistan provided their interests are taken into account. So will Russia. And not least, the United States will welcome it — for even if Indian troops do not eventually deploy, the very possibility of their arrival will change Washington’s bargaining terms with the Pakistani military establishment.
What if the Pakistanis retaliate with more terror attacks? Yes, it is highly likely that the military-jihadi complex will attempt to escalate the proxy war against India. While the impact of this escalation is less significant compared to what the Pakistani army might do in response to a ‘surgical strike’ India must be prepared to accept a short-term spurt in terrorist attacks as the cost of this option. The cost can be mitigated — but not eliminated totally — through better intelligence co-operation with the United States and intensification of the internal security mechanisms put in place after last November’s terrorist attack on Mumbai.
But let’s not forget that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex might escalate the proxy war against India even if India doesn’t send troops to Afghanistan. If the Obama administration increases pressure on the Pakistani army to act against its surrogates on both sides of the Durand line, the latter is likely to increase tensions with India — like it did after 26/11 — in the hope of diverting Washington’s attention.
It is in India’s interests to ensure that the United States stays committed to the objectives outlined by President Barack Obama — for the US cannot succeed in that mission unless it transforms the Pakistani state. Now, some analysts have been arguing that the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan for at least the last years. They have been wrong far — as the number of US military personnel, private military contractors and civilian personnel has only increased since then. While much has been made of President Obama’s announcement of the beginning of troop withdrawals in 18 months, there has been a surprising lack of analysis of how the ongoing surge might change the ground realities.
Despite this, it can be argued that the US will pack up and leave if the situation worsens. But if India does not act to keep the US focused, such arguments are gratuitous, sanctimonious and ultimately, self-fulfilling.
On the one hand, India could do nothing and allow the United States and Pakistan to work out a solution, and hope that the outcome of that bargaining will secure India’s interests. On the other, India could choose to indirectly crush the Pakistani military-jihadi complex by militarily supporting the international forces in Afghanistan.
Right strategy, right politics
But democracies rarely function solely by cold logic of reason. Compelling as the case for direct Indian military intervention in Afghanistan may be, political challenges remain on the horizon. Indian governments have rarely provided political backing for strategic foresight, and with a highly risk-averse government in place, crossing the rubicon may prove particularly difficult. Therefore, challenging the political and ideological critiques of India’s military intervention in Afghanistan is essential before troops can be sent to Afghanistan.
A common objection is that collaborating with the United States in Afghanistan is akin to participating in a crusade against Muslims, and as such, has to be eschewed in order not to offend India’s Muslim population. Apart from assuming transnational loyalties of Indian Muslim population — a gross insult in itself — this narrative ignores the fact that the Taliban has shown no compunction in killing fellow Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Indeed, the war in Afghanistan is between the Karzai government, which by all objective measures is a conservative Muslim government, and a rabid and fanatical bunch of ruthless killers with little piety or concern for human life. Far from being anti-Muslim, military intervention in Afghanistan would protect innocent Muslim lives.
Also, while Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, it is ethnically diverse, with Pashtuns — the main support base of the Taliban — comprising only 45 percent of the total population. Pashtun majoritarianism has been resisted by other ethnic groups in Afghanistan — manifested, for instance, in the preponderance of ethnic Tajiks in the erstwhile Northern Alliance. The underlying ethnic and regional dynamics present a far more complex picture and challenge the view that an intervention in Afghanistan will somehow be “anti-Muslim”.
Other commentators recall the circumstances in which the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was forced to withdraw from Sri Lanka to warn against any foreign deployment. This is argument fails to account for the profound contextual difference between the 1980s’ Sri Lanka and today’s Afghanistan.
First, the LTTE did not pose a direct security threat to India — at least to the same extent as the Taliban. Therefore, fighting the LTTE carried less political legitimacy in India particularly in states with historical ties to Sri Lankan Tamils. Second, unlike the LTTE which at one time was covertly supported by Indian intelligence agencies, the Taliban have been antagonistic to India even before they rode to power in Kabul in 1990s. Third, despite its military weakness, the Premadasa government in Colombo had constitutional legitimacy — this left India with no option but to accede to its request to withdraw. India has greater flexibility in Afghanistan and is less likely to be out-manoeuvred by a recalcitrant president. Therefore, as long as the requisite political will exists in India, which, in turn, is predicated upon a clear understanding of the military mission and its requirements, India can escape the quagmire of Sri Lanka.
Indeed, the arguments ranged against India’s military involvement in Afghanistan sound suspiciously similar to those against the India-US nuclear deal: Muslim opposition, acceptance of US hegemony and so on. Political commentators had then questioned the wisdom of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh risking his government on the nuclear deal asking if it was worth staking so much on something whose exact details escaped understanding of all but the few. Yet, it is undeniable that Dr Singh’s firm stand in favour of the nuclear deal and the opportunistic behaviour of parties like the BJP influenced the subsequent general elections. The Indian electorate might not have understood the exact relationship between the nuclear deal and energy security but it rewarded those it saw as risking political capital in securing the national interest.
The sceptics might be right. The aam aadmi might not understand the importance of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan to ensure India’s long-term security. But if the nuclear deal is any indicator, the electorate will reward those willing to take risks in pursuit of the national interest.
It is still early in Dr Singh’s second term as prime minister. The opposition is in disarray with both the Left and the Right still recovering from the serious blow they received in the general elections. With President Obama showing a renewed commitment to Afghanistan, the time to act is now. All that is required is for the UPA government to summon the requisite political will and rally the nation by making a clear military and political case for India’s armed involvement in the Afghanistan. For that, it is imperative that India’s military planners develop and have on the ready a comprehensive, well-thought out policy option involving the deployment of Indian troops in Afghanistan.