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Indian Intervention in Afghanistan- A Reality Check

Recently the question of India stepping into the American shoes in Afghanistan when the U.S. and allies withdraw their troops is being debated by many strategic analysts. In particular Nitin Pai and Rohit Pradhan writing in the Pragati January 2010 issue have made a strong case for Indian military intervention in Afghanistan; Dr. Subhash Kapila writing in has focused on the need for India to evolve contingency plans for what he calls “the day after” when Americans pull out.

My take on this issue is a loud no to sending troops although one can understand the strategic imperatives of such a decision. After a pragmatic look at our current capabilities, Indo-Afghan relations, and likely strategic developments in the region, my findings are as follows:

a. Our armed forces are hardly in a position to implement the recently revised ‘cold start’ military doctrine which envisages the possibility of a two front war with China and Pakistan. It also includes pre-emptive neutralisation of terrorist bases across the border without holding ground to prevent it from escalating into a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan. These are tall requirements and our force levels are just adequate to meet our current needs. They are not enough to fully implement the cold start concept on two fronts.

b. Our armed forces have huge deficiencies in basic equipment i.e. artillery guns, tanks etc. Even the small arms are obsolete. Such large scale deficiencies could affect the fighting efficiency. Added to this we have 25% shortage in officer strength in the army. These are cumulative effects of years of our bureaucratic military procurement methods and lack of accountability of defence research. These have managed to keep our armed forces with the bare minimum capability to fight a 20th century war, let alone the 21st century one. Even with immediate remedial measures this situation is unlikely to improve before 2013.

c. For meaningful military intervention in Afghanistan we have to plan forcontaining a belligerent Pakistan while fighting Pak-supported Taliban. Even if Pakistan is contained, for a COIN operation against Taliban in Afghanistan we would require at least 100,000 additional troops. That means raising a field army of at least five divisions.

d. It will be a logistic nightmare to support five divisions in Afghanistan as both air lift and shipping would require strategic support of Iran and CIS countries and probably Russia. It would be an enormously costly affair.

e. To weaken our effort Pakistan has the option to heat up proxy war in J and K front or trigger a shooting war on our western front. So whether we like it or not it would be prudent for India to be militarily prepared to face Pakistan as a proxy in Afghanistan and J &K and for a direct confrontation on our western front, if we embark on war in Afghanistan.

f. Given our nebulous internal security situation, it would be strategically prudent for Pakistan to aggravate it through sponsored terrorism. This could add to our internal woes and distract our attention.

Apart from the security aspects discussed above, there are other considerations. Our political parties are well known to play the minority card at the drop of a hat; so how will New Delhi politically sell the idea of sending an expeditionary force to Afghanistan? And Marxist parties would dub any move to send troops to Afghanistan as reactionary response to satisfy the Americans. New Delhi’s political style in contentious situations is to strike a compromise. If our experience in Sri Lanka, the only overseas operation of Indian forces ,is any guide the coalition in power would try to soften the impact by delaying decision making, and then evolve compromises on force levels and avoid providing clear cut strategic goals to the expeditionary force. This would affect the effectiveness of our forces in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

Indo-Afghan relations are age old and if we have to make a strategic move it should be at a time of our choosing based on our specific requirement and not because the U.S. quits or brings pressure on India to face the flak there. Historic milestones of Indo-Afghan relations are as follows:

a. India had always had strong relations with successive governments in Afghanistan except for the short period when Taliban was controlling the nation. Thanks to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s leadership, during freedom struggle Congress had the support of Pashtuns who populate both sides of Pak-Af border. In fact Pashtuns led by Khan Sahib had boycotted the referendum on partition. So Pakistan got NWFP by default. However, subsequently when we became independent we failed to maintain the rapport with Pashtuns alive perhaps because it was no more politically relevant.

b. American Cold War response to Soviet occupation provided enough incentives for Pakistan to expand its strategic hold in Afghanistan. Pakistan used Pashtuns and other frontier people who were influenced by Wahabi obscurantism to strengthen Afghan insurgents fighting the Soviets forces supporting the pro-Communist regime in Kabul. It is noteworthy that the Afghan regime in this period had enjoyed India’s full support; so in a way Pakistan was indirectly whittling down Indian influence in what it considered as its strategic backyard. When Soviets vacated Pakistan helped the Taliban to occupy this strategic space in the emerging power struggle in Afghanistan after the collapse of the pro-Communist regime there..

c. Indian supported the Northern Alliance (predominantly Uzbek and Tajik militias) which fought the Taliban (composed of mostly of Pakistanis and Pashtuns).But India did not provide any troops though it probably provided arms.

Given this historic backdrop, India’s present non-military involvement in Afghanistan is only a continuation of its policy to keep Afghanistan as a strategic ally. India has constructed some of the strategic border links and rebuilt schools and hospitals in Kabul. Our BRTF men are undertaking the road construction with the limited protection provided by Indian paramilitary. India probably have close intelligence links and liaison with Karzai regime. Although Indian presence is affected by the US sponsored COIN operations it is not part of it. Of course, as India is providing strategic support to Afghanistan in improving vital infrastructure, the U.S and NATO forces are also benefited.

When the US and its allies withdraw and leave Afghanistan to fend for itself Taliban is likely to politically try to gain power. A compromise solution where Taliban share power with Afghan regime is within the realms of possibility. If its cosmetics are right, it could have international support.

But even if there is a compromise arrangement, it is likely to be unstable as there are strong ideological and tribal differences between Taliban and others. So any move by Taliban to militarily usurp power is a strong possibility; it will have the support of Pakistan military and the ISI, though the Pakistan government may play down its direct involvement.

If such hostilities breakout it would be natural for Afghanistan to look for international support. In such a contingency Afghanistan would probably enjoy tacit cooperation and support of Iran (which has its own ideological score to settle with Taliban) and material assistance from the U.S. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, has already given notice of have Russian intentions: “we cannot stand aloof and impartial on what’s going on in the friendly neighbouring countries too.” So Russia could also chip in. But none of them would provide troops.

Of course, there is the China factor. Chinese are making huge investments in Afghanistan and they would probably like a peaceful Afghanistan to consolidate their position. Steve Hynd in his article “China eyes its Afghanistan moves” in Pragati has quotes the deputy general of the China Council for National Policy Studies, Li Qinggong’s view that China would help facilitate “deployment of international peace keeping missions in its land and accelerating its reconstruction process” when the U.S. withdraw military forces. Does this mean Chinese troops could become a part of an international peace keeping force?

If an international force is not constituted, China’s options become limited. China is a strategic ally of Pakistan. So obviously Pakistan could influence the Chinese response. If the Pakistan supported Taliban and India supported Afghan government are in conflict Chinese would be comfortable if Pak-Taliban alliance wins. So China is a factor to contend with in the region, although we may try to wish it away.

India is the regional power that could provide sizable military assistance including troops. While it could easily provide material, political and diplomatic support and probably military equipment to beef up Afghan army to fight Taliban, intervention with Indian troops would not be such an easy task for reasons already discussed.

Beyond providing material assistance and military resources, it is extremely doubtful whether New Delhi would send troops to Afghanistan. If it decides to do so it has to get its act ready in double time. Our “democratic decision making style” is usually to take a plunge and then work out a way to get out of the maze. Such a strategy could be suicidal in Afghanistan if India intervenes without adequate political, military and diplomatic homework.

The moral of the story is simple: anyone getting into the Afghanistan morass will be sucked in as Pakistan, Soviet Union, and the U.S. had experienced. At present India is neither politically nor militarily ready to take the plunge. In spite of it, if India plans to do so it should go with its eyes wide open to bear tremendous human and material cost over at least five years of campaigning. Can we afford this luxury? Any takers?

( The writer, Col R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: Blog: )

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