With the US military involvement in Afghanistan nearing end by 2014, there are muted voices in India’s strategic community advocating deployment of the Indian military under a UN mandate in Afghanistan. Continuing for over more than a decade now, the Afghan war has perhaps been the longest war in US history. With over 2,500 coalition personnel killed and hundreds of billions spent and no long term solution yet in sight, it is worth asking whether a military involvement in Afghanistan would be in India’s interests.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile and the spread and intensity of attacks by the Taliban and their supporters follow a cyclical pattern. It is now known that even the combined strategic, technological and economic strengths of some of the world’s advanced countries including this century’s lone superpower have not been able to totally neutralise armed irregulars in Afghanistan. A Carnegie report assesses that the Afghan political system’s centre of gravity—the east and the Kabul region—is gravely threatened by a Taliban advance that will take place in the spring of 2013 following the winter lull in fighting, and that 17 out of 34 provinces are likely to be under the control of the Taliban within months of the withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is thus essentially that of a strategic stalemate. Given this prevailing murky ground situation, should India risk an extended military deployment in Afghanistan? The simple answer is No.
The issue that needs to be considered while taking a call on an Indian military deployment in Afghanistan is that of Pakistan’s known complicity in the Afghan problem. It is well known that the documents made available by WikiLeaks in 2010 suggest that Pakistan allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in a secret raid by US Special Forces has further exposed the duplicity and complicity of the Pakistani establishment.
Therefore, the burning issue is can Pakistan be relied to abandon this duplicity should a UN mandated peace keeping force be deployed in AfPak? It would be naïve to be led into this kind of belief. On the contrary, given Pakistan’s known antipathy towards India’s growing clout in Afghanistan, Pakistan may just up the ante in Jammu & Kashmir, where the grit, toil and perseverance demonstrated over the past three decades by the Indian Armed Forces in containing terrorism has now begun to show results. It is time for India to consolidate the gains made in Jammu & Kashmir, instead of allowing itself to be dragged into a proxy war in a foreign land under the facade of a Rising Regional Power.
According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report titled “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” issued on March 29, 2011, over the past decade, the U.S. has spent $ 806 billion in Iraq and $ 444 billion in Afghanistan; at approximately 100 billion dollars a year, besides over 2000 fatalities till date. Can the UN or any other nation afford to commit such massive resources to the Afghan conflict on a recurring basis that is going to remain open ended for several years?
There is no denying the fact that a politically and economically stable Afghanistan is a strategic priority for India. It is also well understood that that a Taliban fundamentalist regime backed by Pakistan would not be in India’s security interests? Afghanistan is also a bridge to the landlocked, resource rich, Central Asian Region (CAR) where India wants to pursue its economic, energy and security interests. All these points are well taken. But the question that remains unanswered is: Which core/vital Indian national security interests stand threatened by ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan that needs to be secured through a hard power projection? None is the obvious answer!!
Therefore, propositions like “a bigger military presence Afghanistan is essential” and “India must shape Afghanistan’s future”, and “an Indian military involvement in Afghanistan will shift the battleground away from Kashmir and the Indian mainland” are untenable. In fact, such a course of action may prove to be counterproductive. As a recent Rand study has observed: “Not only would such an effort require large amounts of money and manpower, it may also inspire Islamabad – which would almost certainly view increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan as a strategic defeat – to strike back at India as a result”.
India must not view Afghanistan through a Pakistani Prism. India’s policy in Afghanistan must be Afghan centric and not Pakistan Centric! Given the prevailing flux, India must pursue what has been aptly called as a “no strings- attached strategy” in Afghanistan, encompassing institution building, capacity enhancement, reconstruction assistance, soft power projection, and outreach to all major Afghan ethnic groups.
Measures that India could take are:
The Afghanistan conflict reflects long-standing rivalries among the different ethnic and tribal groups within the country, but it has long been exacerbated by outside powers seeking to protect or advance their own interests. New Delhi must not complicate matters further by viewing Afghanistan as a battleground between India and Pakistan. Instead, India, as a responsible regional power, should steer Afghanistan towards political stability, security through an inclusive government, economic growth, reconstruction and regional integration, which is what that country needs the most.
Col. Amar Ramdasani, YSM is presently Director, Medium & Short Term Force Structuring (PP& FS), HQ IDS, New Delhi.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.