Indian troops in Afghanistan?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 24 Apr 2009 1 Comment

In Washington, the new Barack Obama administration and the 111th Congress have been confronted with a very serious situation in Afghanistan.  In the seven years since the winter of 2001, when the US military neatly dislodged the ruling Taliban regime in Kabul, the following has occurred: the Taliban has grown from a routed group to a well-knit terrorist outfit; the Pakistani army, once considered one of the most efficient and disciplined militaries in that region, has withered; Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been converted to the status of “Mayor of Kabul”; the insurgents, terrorists, jihadists and drug warlords have prospered by producing one bumper opium crop after another; Afghanistan and the US-NATO operation there have lost all respect of major neighbouring nations, such as Iran and Russia, because of the huge opium-heroin trafficking that is ravaging these nations through addiction and corruption. 

In his inaugural address, President Obama made it a point to say the United States would “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.” His reference reflects the conclusion of a growing number of members of the US Congress, administration officials and outside experts that the effort - often called America’s “other war” - requires greater national attention.  Indeed, rethinking the Afghan war policy is no longer a luxury in Washington. The situation has already reached the point that “business as usual” will not only not work, but may tear apart alliances and loosen the bond between the few friends that the United States is left with.

Afghan Worries in Washington

In Washington, the process of scratching heads and reaching for thinking caps to formulate the next phase of the Afghan war has already begun.

In a Jan.23 Congressional Research service report, “War in Afghanistan: Strategy, Military Operations, and Issues for Congress,” Catherine Dale, an American specialist in international security, said: “Looking ahead, the US government faces major strategic and operational decisions about its further engagement in the war in Afghanistan. Those decisions may include:

• Clarifying US national interests in Afghanistan and the region;

• Defining clear strategic objectives based on those interests;

• Determining which diplomatic, economic, and military approaches to adopt, and what resources to commit to support those approaches,

• Prioritizing the Afghanistan war versus other national security imperatives including the war in Iraq and preparing to meet potential threats; and

• Helping marshal a coordinated application of international efforts.

While the head-scratching on both banks of the Potomac may continue for a while before a clear and detailed redefinition of US Afghanistan policy emerges, aspects of the new policy have already been made apparent through a series of high-level statements.   For instance, on Jan.28, at a press briefing at the National Press Center in Washington, D.C., Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in Afghanistan a regional approach is critical, including both Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

What Mullen’s statement suggests is that, given the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and the threats that the insurgents, Taliban and jihadists pose to the occupying troops of the US and NATO, Washington will seek the help of not only those who joined the Bush administration’s abstract and unfocused “war on terror,” but also those, such as Iran or Russia, who never endorsed it.

India’s Involvement

Interestingly, Admiral Mullen referred to India, too.  “I also believe that India plays an important role here,” Mullen said.  “India has taken significantly positive steps to invest in Afghanistan, has for some period of time,” he added.  

Following the events of 9/11, India endorsed the “war on terror” and nominally joined the Washington-sponsored misadventure. New Delhi clearly saw this endorsement as a means of bringing India closer to the United States on global strategic issues, and it also served as a message to India’s niggling western neighbour, Pakistan.  At the same time, however, New Delhi found it politically suicidal to send troops or arms and, despite persistent rumors to the contrary, never did so.  

Conflicting reports on this subject have appeared regularly in the regional media suggesting India was under pressure from the United State to send troops to Afghanistan. In June, 2006, Business Recorder, a financial daily published from Pakistan, cited India’s Hyderabad-based news daily, The Deccan Chronicle, to say that the then-Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the then-US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were likely to meet on the sidelines of the International Institute of Strategic Studies-organized Shangri-La conference in Singapore, and Afghanistan would be a major issue for discussion.

That article asserted that the US was particularly concerned about the deteriorating security situation in that country and keen to enlist Indian troops in the onerous task of governing at least Kabul, if not the rest of the country.    The unrest in Kabul has increased the urgency of seeking military co-operation from other countries, with India, according to the sources, being currently on top of the list, it stated.  The article claimed New Delhi has not been averse to sending troops to Afghanistan but has not been able to take a clear-cut political decision on the matter. “Unsure of the domestic reaction to such a move, the government has been toying with a proposal of sending additional battalions of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, ostensibly to give better protection to Indian construction workers in that country,” the article added.

More recently, in September 2008, Pakistani news sources claimed that 10,000 Indian troops were stationed in Afghanistan “under the garb of supervising construction of road Jalalabad-Port Chahbahar project” that has now been completed. This report went on to claim that whereas India has 14 officially declared consulates in Afghanistan, on the ground they have 107 consulates in which 20 intelligence units are based. 

While Islamabad was busy exaggerating the Indian presence in Afghanistan for its own domestic political exigencies, in September 2008, in the lead up to the EU-India summit that took place in Marseille, France, the European Voice ran an op-ed that made an unusual case for engagement between the EU and India in Afghanistan. It argued that the EU should make a joint effort with India to deal with the crisis in Afghanistan. “The present crisis [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] should inject the EU’s strategic dialogue with India with a new sense of urgency — and might be the basis for closer co-operation in the future…  Indeed, this period of turmoil may offer a better opportunity to cement a lasting relationship with India than discussions of shared principles and interests in quieter times.”

Pressure on India for Troops?

The op-ed never mentioned the presence of Indian troops in Afghanistan, but because it was perhaps the only instance where a Western analyst made a case that India has legitimate interests in Afghanistan, some analysts have construed it as an indirect way of urging India to get more materially involved.   

Interestingly, both the United States and India has just issued denials of any plans to send Indian troops to Afghanistan.  In fact, on Aug.6, 2008, exactly a month after a huge blast at the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people in the deadliest suicide car bombing since the American-led invasion began, Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor had ruled out sending troops to Afghanistan. India takes part only in UN- approved / sanctioned military operations, and as the UN has not mandated this action in Afghanistan there is no question of India participating in it, General Kapoor said. He  also stated that India had been providing a degree of development and medical aid to Afghanistan, and would continue to do so in any form it deems fit.

On Nov. 19, 2008, the then-US joint commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, clarified that India had not been approached by the United States to send its troops to the troubled country. “That is not true,” McKiernan said during the course of his interaction with members of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-headquartered think tank for NATO countries. McKiernan said the same question had been posed to him earlier that week in Islamabad, during an interaction with a group of 70 Pakistani parliamentarians.

A shift in India’s outlook?

But by the time 2009 rolled in, it seemed that Indian Army Chief Gen. Kapoor had shifted his position.  On Jan. 14, 2009, the Indian Army Chief was reported to have told the Indian media ahead of the 61st Army Day that an Indian military presence in Afghanistan could give it some strategic depth against Pakistan. However, he added, a decision in this regard would have to come from the political leadership. Gen. Kapoor said that India has been providing “soft assistance” to Afghanistan, and any decision regarding a policy change had to come from political leaders.

When asked by a reporter if an Indian military presence in Afghanistan would “squeeze” Pakistan on its western front, Gen. Kapoor replied: “It can be a factor in the decision.”

Although no decision-making process has begun in either New Delhi or Kabul, the issue of putting Indian troops on Afghan soil is now, finally, a subject of discussion in the public domain.  This is a result of major events that have occurred in the area since July 2008.

Broadly speaking, the following are the reasons for this new thinking:

l. To begin with, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan has deteriorated steadily for the occupying US and NATO troops. It is surmised, for good reason, that the now-strengthened insurgents, Taliban, jihadis and other terrorists will launch a more concerted attack on the foreign troops in the spring of 2009. It is also evident that neither the United States nor NATO has any strategy to deal with this growing menace. It is likely that they will bring in 20,000 to 30,000 new troops to counter the attack, but many more troops will be required on the ground, and this is a requirement that India could meet.

2. The July 7 bombing of the Indian embassy indicated that the jihadis and other terrorists consider Indian efforts in Afghanistan as hostile to their plan to take over the country. American intelligence agencies concluded subsequently that members of Pakistan’s powerful spy service, ISI, helped plan the deadly bombing. Their conclusion was based on intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack, US officials stated. It was the clearest evidence to date that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region and have included India as a target.

3. The Nov. 26-29 attack on Mumbai hotels was also orchestrated from Pakistani soil, although it had all the elements of support from other terrorists who are a part of the international jihadi movement. It is also evident that a section of the Pakistani ISI and a section of the Pakistani military had ‘opened the window’ to let the attack occur. The strike against India and effort to engage India in the overall war on terror was not deterred by India’s unwillingness to date to send troops to Afghanistan.

4. The 218-km road from Zaranj, in southwestern Nimroz province, to Delaram in the Farah province was inaugurated in January 2009. The Zaranj-Delaram Road hooks up Iran to the Ring Road that connects all major cities of Afghanistan. New Delhi expects that this road would allow an alternate route to Kabul via the port India is building at Chahbahar in Iran, facilitating the movement of goods and commodities to and from Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. Although designed to facilitate trade between India and, among other countries, Iran, Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, the route could also enable supply lines to the Indian or other troops engaged in the war on terror in Afghanistan - again, bypassing Pakistan.

During his Jan. 21-22 visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate the Zaranj-Delaram highway, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee held a series of meetings with Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai and Foreign Minister Rangin Dafdar Spanta. Among the subjects of bilateral cooperation discussed during those meetings was the fact that both countries face the “same terrorism from the same source,” apparently a reference to Pakistan. When asked how India and Afghanistan would cooperate to deal with terrorism, Afghan Foreign Minister Spanta said: “We have very little cooperation in security and information sharing. We will increase that.”

5. There is no question that construction of the Gwadar Port on the Makran coast of Baluchistan at a stone’s throw from the Persian Gulf, a joint Sino-Pakistani project, worries India. The project will facilitate the presence of the Chinese navy and includes plans to connect Gwadar to the Karakoram Highway. Already a road is being built to connect Gwadar to Karachi, which, when completed, will provide China access through Pakistan to the Karakoram Highway and beyond.

New Delhi’s concern was reflected in the T S Narayanaswamy Memorial lecture in Chennai on Jan.19 delivered by Indian Naval Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta. On that occasion, Admiral Mehta pointed out that the Gwadar port being built by Pakistan with Chinese assistance on its Baluchistan coast has “serious strategic implications for India.” He said: “Being only 180 nautical miles from the exit of the Straits of Hormuz, Gwadar, being built in Baluchistan coast, would enable Pakistan to take control over the world energy jugular and interdiction of Indian tankers.”

The challenge for India, Mehta stated, was to balance relations with China in such a manner that competition for strategic significance of space in the Indian Ocean leads to cooperation rather than conflict. “The pressure for countries to cooperate in the maritime military domain to ensure smooth flow of energy and commerce on the high seas will grow even further,” he said. 

Talking about “Chinese designs on the Indian Ocean,” Mehta said China had a strategy called ‘String of Pearls,’ by which it seeks to set up bases and outposts across the globe, strategically located to monitor and safeguard energy flows. “Each pearl in the string is a link in a chain of the Chinese maritime presence,” he said. 

“Among other locations, the string moves northwards up to Gwadar deep sea port on Pakistan’s Makran coast. A highway is under construction joining Gwadar with Karachi and there are plans to connect the port with the Karakoram Highway, thus providing China a gateway to Arabian Sea,” he said, adding that this could pose a problem for India.

6. It is widely acknowledged that Kabul, under President Hamid Karzai, is openly solicitous of India’s support to counter the Taliban, insurgents and jihadis who are backed by a section of Pakistan’s ISI and military. President Karzai crossed swords with former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, accusing his administration of not doing enough to protect Afghanistan’s interests.

Although it became evident to New Delhi that under President Asif Ali Zardari, who assumed power in early September 2008, hostility between  Kabul and Islamabad reduced significantly, the Mumbai attack in November demonstrated that the politically-weak Zardari does not have  capability to hold back the virulent anti-India elements within the ISI and Pakistani military.

In addition, India is aware that President Karzai has come under attack from Washington, to date his main protector. It is likely, although by no means certain, that the United States may opt not to back President Karzai in the upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan, now set for late-August. New Delhi realizes that without having a military presence in Afghanistan, India’s input to the upcoming Afghan presidential election will be nominal and, as a result, a new president who is less congenial to India’s interest may be ushered in.  

7. The prospect of a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan - not through military victory, but by wearing out the US and NATO - is not longer imaginary. It is quite likely; and it would have a very negative impact on India and India’s friends in the region, Iran and Russia, for instance. Some in New Delhi believe that letting US and NATO forces fail in Afghanistan is not an acceptable option for the Indian state.

Fresh Discussions

In August 2008, an article by Sushant K. Singh, a commentator associated with London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, or Chatham House, “A bigger military presence is essential... if India is to shape Afghanistan’s future,” appeared on the website, Indian National Interest, powered by World Press.

In his article, Singh states: “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.”

Singh, however, made argument in favor of the Indian military presence in the same article by pointing out: “A significant Indian military presence in Afghanistan will alter the geo-strategic landscape in the extended neighbourhood, 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 the 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.”  Such an Indian military presence, he also notes, will deny Pakistan the strategic depth it seeks by installing a favourable dispensation in Afghanistan. It will also force the Pakistani establishment to divert its energies from their eastern to their northern borders, he adds.

Prior to Singh’s article, and soon after the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the New Delhi-based Business Standard carried an article stating that New Delhi confronts an urgent question: should India send in more forces, even the military, to secure our interests in that volatile country?

The article cited an Indian national daily editorial, which observed:  “After the Kabul bombing, India must come to terms with an important question that it has avoided debating so far. New Delhi cannot continue to expand its economic and diplomatic activity in Afghanistan, while avoiding a commensurate increase in its military presence there. For too long, New Delhi has deferred to Pakistani and American sensitivities about raising India’s strategic profile in Afghanistan.”

The editorial, however, urged caution, pointing out that the concept of ‘Indian security for Indian workers’ is an attractive one for a country proud of its military, but “must be evaluated cautiously, with a clear understanding that Afghanistan is transitioning from insurgency to civil war. Troops are sent into a deteriorating situation only if their presence can transform impending defeat into a realistic chance of victory.   The situation in Afghanistan may have moved beyond that point.”

On Jan. 5, 2009,, a website that addresses strategic issues, posted an item that said India had offered to send 120,000 troops to Afghanistan. The writer qualified the statement by saying that he was not aware at what level the offer had been made, but the Indian Army and Air Force “are down to identifying specific units, formations, and squadrons...”  The writer also said this story was an effort by India to gauge US reaction to a potential offer of troops for Afghanistan.

On Jan.22, Stratfor, a private intelligence group based in the United States, also pointed out in its Geopolitical Diary that “sources in Indian defense circles say there are serious discussions going on among the political circles, and New Delhi is weighing the rather contentious possibility of sending troops to the country to help fight the insurgency.”

Although the induction of Indian troops into Afghanistan is strictly notional as of this writing, it is worth considering the problems it would incur. According to a senior Indian analyst, the exercise would be “militarily foolhardy, politically counterproductive and economically unsustainable.”  

With a good chance of a NATO exit not too far down in the future, it would leave Delhi holding a very messy situation.  In addition, the analyst points out, a military operation of that magnitude requires a secure, firm base from where to project forces. Since that does not exist, it will prove disastrous. Moreover, when operating out of country, India will lose the advantage of internal lines of communications.

The American “war against terrorism” has taken on the hue of an anti-Muslim crusade, this analyst says. With its large Muslim population, New Delhi would antagonize an already agitated minority that would further undermine the already precarious internal security situation.

Undeniably, the Russians, Persians and Chinese have good reason to feel threatened by the projection of NATO into the central Asian region, supported by the machinations of the Saudi-British nexus. At the same time, in the present security environment, chances of intervention by these countries are almost zero.

Further, this analyst argues, the longstanding plinth of non-alignment that has stood Indian diplomacy in very good stead so far will become wobbly. By physically intervening on the side of the US-NATO forces under the circumstances, India may lose the goodwill and support of a number of countries that perceive the presence of NATO in the region as a threat.

In this article, the mission objective of Indian troops deployed to Afghanistan has not been discussed. What is evident, however, is that the purpose of the Indian troop presence in Afghanistan would not be to control Afghanistan - in the present circumstances, an almost impossible task - but to ensure an opportunity to strengthen a non-jihadi government in Kabul. However, the likelihood of failing to attain that objective is real, even if all the ground conditions, such as the supply line, financial requirements and adequate support from foreign troops, remain wholly favourable for India.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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