Sending troops to Afghanistan is a valid strategic option for India.
There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore like an idiot. ~Steven Wright
In two separate op-ed pieces today, former army chief General Shankar Roychowdhury and defence analyst Ajai Shukla try to find ways for India to influence the events in Afghanistan. Roychowdhury suggests that India must guard its long-term strategic interests by undertaking massive training of Afghan National Army. Ajai, in contrast, opines that India should help the US win over large parts of moderate Taliban on to its side, even if it happens to be at the cost of undercutting the current Afghan President, Hamid Karzai.
Both decry the current Indian policy and the level of involvement in Afghanistan as insufficient. But they stop at expounding timid options for India to exercise in that country. Thus they betray a lack of boldness and gumption by refusing to explicitly acknowledge that Indian strategic interests in the region can only be secured by an Indian military involvement in Afghanistan.
As far as Ajai’s argument about arriving at a settlement with moderate Taliban — different from al Qaeda and Quetta Shura — is concerned, the answer comes from Robert Gates.
…Gates plead agnosticism as to whether al-Qaeda would move its headquarters from Pakistan to Afghanistan but said “what’s more important than that, in my view, is the message that it sends that empowers al Qaeda.”The Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, Gates said, represents the “modern epicenter of jihad.” A place “where the Mujahedeen defeated the other superpower,” and in his estimation of the Taliban’s thinking, “they now have the opportunity to defeat a second superpower.”
Defining al-Qaeda as both an ideology and an organization, Gates said their ability to successfully “challenge not only the United States, but NATO — 42 nations and so on” on such a symbolically important battlefield would represent “a hugely empowering message” for an organization whose narrative has suffered much in the eight years since 9/11.[Danger Room]
The case for deploying Indian armed forces in Afghanistan has been made as a cover story in Pragati last year, well before Obama, McChyrstal and 26-11 happened. Nothing much has changed to alter the basic arguments but here is a slightly updated rhetorical version of the case made there.
The litmus test for putting a glass ceiling on Indian involvement is simple. Is India threatened less than the US by the return of Taliban to Afghanistan? The direct and indirect threats emanating from a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to India are far graver and greater than those to the US. If the US were to contemplate only providing infrastructural aid, or negotiate with moderate Taliban or only undertake training of Afghan army, it would be decried as having let down the comity of free nations. Why should India then get away by doing even lesser and then pontificating about playing its legitimate role in bringing stability to this part of the world?
If Taliban were to succeed in Afghanistan, the jehadis will again end up becoming a diplomatic and military tool of the Pakistani military-intelligence complex to be employed against India, and on the Indian mainland. The comparison between an Indian deployment in Afghanistan and maintaining the status quo thus could not be starker. The question that ought to be asked is: Between Indian soldiers and innocent, unarmed civilians, who is better placed to tackle the Taliban jehadis? Should India allow its civilians to be massacred by these jehadis in the hospitals, streets, railways stations and hotels of Mumbai or should our soldiers be pummelling these jehadis in the barren lands of Afghanistan?
As of now, US does have a strategy in Afghanistan and it wants to stay there, but it doesn’t have the troops to resource that strategy. India can help the cause only by providing the proverbial boots on the ground, not by restricting itself to developmental works. Even if India were to run crash recruitment training programmes for the Afghan army, there will be a requirement for trainers, mentors and advisors to guide these newly raised units into combat during their initial tours of duty in Afghanistan. While that level of involvement is just a step short of sending battle-hardened Indian troops into that country, the difference in results on ground between the two will be significantly different in the short to mid-term.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, any level of Indian involvement will invoke a Pakistan veto. It will continue to raise a shindig irrespective of India’s indulgences or abstinences in Afghanistan. But who cares? From drone attacks in FATA to explicit calls about targeting the Quetta Shura, the US is dictated not by Pakistani sensitivities but solely by its own interests.
With the current media hype over the Chinese security threat, India will not be able to spare any military formations earmarked for the Chinese border. If these formations have to be pulled from the Pakistan border, it automatically takes care of the Pakistani bogey of an Indian threat on its Eastern borders restraining it from going the whole hog against the jehadis.
With the decreasing level of violence in J&K, it makes immense sense to move a couple of divisions of battle-hardened, specialist counterinsurgency force, the Rashtriya Rifles to Afghanistan. Besides meeting the internal political goal of demilitarising J&K, it will also shift the battlefield in this proxy war against Pakistan-backed jehadis from Kashmir to Afghanistan. India must not only choose its battles but also choose where and when it wants to fight them.
Finally, if the US is expected to unshackle itself from its traditional mindset of an Atlantic alliance and engage the rising powers of Asia, it is equally incumbent upon India to break free of its underdeveloped, third-world, non-aligned mindset of a previous era. The aphorism about power and responsibility is too worn out and clichéd to be repeated here.