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Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Worst Idea Ever–Indian Troops In Afghanistan

Indian boots in Afghanistan?

Bidanda Chengappa

US Special Representative for AfPak Richard Holbrooke's recent statement that Pakistan is critical to stabilise Afghanistan has serious implications for Indian security interests. Considering he was also dismissive of New Delhi's concerns over reconciliation with the Taliban, calls for a radical review of India's Afghanistan policy.

New Delhi can no longer afford to kowtow to US policy interests, given Pakistan's insecurity vis a vis India. With the ground being laid for the creeping return of the Taliban to Kabul, India faces a far greater threat to its national security interests from Afghanistan than the US. New Delhi therefore seriously needs to consider the possibility of military deployment in Afghanistan to support and strengthen the US led coalition military efforts against the Taliban terrorists.

India has never flexed its military muscles against Pakistani-sponsored cross border jehadi terrorism —except occasionally for some shallow penetration trans-border commando raids — besides the December 2002 coercive diplomacy through military mobilisation. A sizeable and powerful Indian military presence in Afghanistan could however rattle Pakistan, support /strengthen US /ISAF force levels and help to hit the Taliban harder.

Today President Hamid Karzai is being coerced by Islamabad and Washington to talk to the Taliban, mainly because Washington is dependent on Islamabad for support in logistics, intelligence and operations. Evidently Islamabad's rationale in pursuing such a policy is to ensure that Afghanistan continues to remain under its sphere of influence and a sanctuary for cross border terrorism against India.

For India therefore to curtail Pakistan's capability to foster cross border terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir, the first step would logically be to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. With the US led NATO/ISAF forces making little headway against the Taliban, Indian military participation would certainly contribute to the counter-insurgency effort underway.

It can be argued that Indian involvement should be avoided because the Taliban would massacre our troops deployed there. The Indian experience in Sri Lanka notwithstanding, the Indian Army is not a para-military force that the Taliban can easily slaughter. It did succeed in Somalia where even the US Army Rangers failed to deliver in 1992.

The case for military intervention can be buttressed with the argument that while Western forces have an option to exit Afghanistan, considering their countries are not vulnerable directly to cross border terrorism, India has no such luxury.

It goes without saying that only strict rules of engagement for Indian troops would prevent indirect or direct clashes with Pakistan soldiers to avoid a shooting match between them.

Objections about a shortage of military manpower to secure our territorial interests are equally invalid. India has massive para-military forces trained for precisely these tasks unlike the army which fights wars. The almost 9000 Indian troops deployed on UN peace keeping missions could easily be re-deployed in Afghanistan.

The US picked Pakistan as its primary entry point into landlocked Afghanistan. However after the US-led global war on terror gained momentum in 2001, India's attempt to dilute Pakistan's monopoly as a gateway into Afghanistan began by building a strategic corridor that connects the hinterland of Afghanistan with the Iranian port city of Chahbahar. The 280-km road from Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway to Zaranj on the Afghanistan-Iran border brings the landlocked country 1,000 km closer to the sea. From an Indian security perspective this strategic road implies that New Delhi, with the concurrence of Iran, can transport military logistics overland to support a war fighting role in Afghanistan after reaching it to Chahbahar by sea. That Iran too wants the Americans out of Afghanistan but not at the cost of seeing the Pakistan backed Taliban re-entry is another factor.

Clearly, Afghanistan forms part of India's neighbourhood and New Delhi needs to work against the US and Pakistan's Taliban-centric policy by involving other neighbours like Iran and the Central Asian states to counter Pakistan's strategy in Afghanistan to keep India out as far as possible. Its time India asserted itself as the regional power that it is.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi)

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