by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th July 08
It’s called “mission creep”… the creeping expansion of objectives, and the resources that are deployed towards a strategic aim. After a bloody week in Afghanistan --- not just for India, but for Afghan civilians and US forces as well --- New Delhi is confronting an urgent question: should India send in more forces, even the military, to secure our interests in that volatile country?
Accelerating that re-evaluation has been media commentary calling for increased military presence. A respected national daily editorially 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.”
This dilemma was at the heart of Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon’s Sunday visit to Kabul, ostensibly to rally morale in the embassy. Fortunately there was no discernible sign of mission creep. Menon assured President Hamid Karzai that India will stand fast in Afghanistan, but the primary responsibility for safeguarding the 4000 Indian doctors, engineers, scientists, executives and labourers there remains with Kabul.
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.
India’s engagement with that country, therefore, must be characterised by the deployment of “soft power”, not the military. The palpable Afghan affection for India flows more from its engagement with Mumbai than with New Delhi. Indian films, music, dance, food, and the peaceful generosity of Indians have transformed our country in Afghan minds into an idyll that far exceeds the reality. This perception has been reinforced by clever aid diplomacy; India has sunk three quarters of a billion dollars into Afghanistan’s medical facilities, educational institutions, public transport, irrigation schemes, even that country’s parliament building.
To now throw troops into what will inevitably become a bloody struggle for power risks smudging India’s benevolent image. Even with the mandate to do no more than safeguard Indian workers and assets in Afghanistan, an enhanced Indian security presence will find its role expanding as the environment becomes more hostile. The very presence of an Indian force will be a magnet for renewed attacks.
Instead, Indian planners should be considering that, perhaps three years along, US and NATO forces may pull out of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai would be history, and Afghanistan itself divided into different zones of control. In that Afghanistan, India’s physical presence may well be reduced to zero. The ITBP would have pulled out; development projects would have shut down; elements politically hostile to India may well control large parts of the country; the embassy and India’s consulates may well have closed shop. This is what happened in 1996; today, only American and European support --- fickle, and already wavering --- prevents a return to that time.
The US and NATO militaries are already losing the battle as they realise too late that the battlefield is not confined to Afghan soil. After the killing of nine US soldiers on Sunday in a Taliban assault on a US post near the Pakistan border, General David McKiernan, the top NATO commander fumed that militants based in Pakistan had staged attacks in Afghanistan “almost every day I have been here.”
Unlike Russia, which faced the same situation in the 1980s --- an insurgency operating from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan --- the US and NATO are making strenuous efforts to shut off Taliban support across the Durand Line. On Saturday, the US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen paid an unscheduled visit to Pakistan. He demanded to meet army chief, General Pervez Kiyani and told him, apparently in the baldest possible terms, that if the Pakistan army was not going to crack down in the NWFP tribal areas, then US and NATO forces in Afghanistan would operate across the border into Pakistan.
But despite those threats, and the occasional cross-border foray, western forces in Afghanistan can hardly influence events in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Only the Pakistan army can do that, but remains unwilling to. General Kiyani drew Admiral Mullen’s attention to the 800 Pakistani soldiers who have already been killed in counter-militancy operations in the NWFP, suggesting that Pakistan had already done enough. (India has lost close to 7000 soldiers in J&K). The army brass in Pakistan --- which will eventually have the final word on this --- has not yet come round to accepting that the military has little choice but to transform the NWFP from a sanctuary to a battlefield.
Without that realisation in Rawalpindi, a couple of years more of rising casualties in Afghanistan could well trigger a US and NATO pullout. India’s actions today must create influence and goodwill that will sustain itself even without a physical presence. New Delhi must play its own hand in The Great Game in Afghanistan, building bridges with every community and spreading developmental aid across different regions. The Afghan government must be urged to provide the security needed for these projects to continue for as long as possible. And if India is forced to pull out in another interregnum of turmoil, we will continue to reap the benefits of a low-key, aid-driven policy.