India has partaken only two international Military interventions beyond wars, routine mandates under United Nations (UN) Peace Keeping operations and the Training Teams, e.g. Bhutan (IMTRAT). In 1988, it successfully quelled a coup d’état attempt in Maldives (‘Operation Cactus’), and between 1987 and 1990 it was involved in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka. Both these interventions involved regions that were in the immediate vicinity and strategic realm of India’s ‘backyard’ and India’s non-involvement could have led to alternative interventions by other foreign powers or outcomes detrimental to India’s influence and interest.
Pakistani Military advisers were active in the Sri Lankan Civil War, much before the arrival of the Indian Armed Forces, and in the Maldivian coup attempt also, the besieged President had sent an SOS to Sri Lanka and Pakistan (both cited concerns on military capability), before finally requesting India. Securing India’s strategic neighbourhood, deterring unfriendly intervention and posturing India’s ‘military capabilities’ were some factors beyond domestic political pressures.
While the lightning reaction of the Maldivian intervention goes down in the annals of history as an exemplary demonstration of India’s prowess in terms of military planning, logistics, jointsmanship and execution, with TIME magazine covering a picture of INS Godavari with the title, ‘Super India ~ The Next Military Power’ ~ the dragged-out Sri Lankan experience of the IPKF was more controversial, complex and full of learnings, as the prolonged stay resulted in change of goalposts and approach. Post the invaluable memories of the IPKF saga, a natural caution on any unilateral Indian military intervention without a United Nations mandate ensued.
In 2003, India had come perilously close to committing its military’s ‘boots on grounds’ in support of the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq. Ironically, India had publicly opposed American unilateralism in Iraq, without the accompanying sanctions of the United Nations Security Council ~ yet 2003 was also the time when the NDA government was assiduously mending and rescripting its relationship with the United States, after the 1998 Pokhran-II sanctions. American President George Bush had prematurely declared ‘mission accomplished’ and Saddam’s Iraqi forces had just been officially disbanded when American pressure was built on India to commit an Indian Army Division towards the Kurdish enclave in the North.
Word leaked out, and the opposition raised a hue and cry against the possible move, even as opinion within the NDA government itself was divided. The sagacious man of destiny, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sensed a crucial lack of consensus.Many emotional reasons were actively bandied at the time ~ from cementing relations with the United States, to getting on the ‘right side of history’, to announcing India’s military arrival on the world stage (beyond regional posturing), investing in securing energy stakes etc., ~ while Vajpayee remained wary, assessing and querying the pros and cons.
Subsequent events were to vindicate Vajpayee’s cautious approach, which ultimately saved Indian troops from getting stuck in the endless, pointless and unimaginably horrific vortex of violence.In hindsight, it is important to introspect if India’s strategic interests would have been served better in committing itself to international combat (which would have been inevitable) and emerged with perceptions of an ‘occupation force’? India would have been perceived as the mercenaries of the new American order, with no clear path of timelines, objectives, command-and-control structure, infrastructural support from other arms and corps, exit strategy etc., everything that was to be a bane for the other international forces, including the US forces.
Even domestically, opinions were raw, wounded and polar- ised with American duplicity on terror, especially when it came to reigning in its own ostensible ‘ally’ in Pakistan. India did well to spurn makebelieve notions of sovereign grandiosity and post-war commercial deals, by resisting the unsustainable war in terms of precious lives, and even financials and morality.Much before Joe Biden walked the talk of leaving the unforgiving swathes of Afghanistan, murmurs for India’s military intervention in Afghanistan had started.
India’s natural and historical affinity with the dispensation in Kabul, as opposed to the Taliban, had led to a rebound and an instinctive preference for Indian troops, as a counter to the Pakistan-supported Taliban. Notwithstanding the logistical challenge, costs, and concerns on the back-up wherewithal for supporting such a military option ~ the basic question of ‘what’s in it for India?’ looms large, with multiple downsides that are obvious.India (or any other nation) has no credibility or equation to enforce any ‘Peace Agreement’ entailing Taliban, especially if it envisages denying Kabul to the Taliban.
The US too is unlikely to guarantee any postevacuation ‘cover’ if its current haste in abandoning Kabul is anything to go by. India must question what its potential ‘occupying status’ as a foreign entity could entail for the Taliban terror ‘nurseries’, and their reaction towards the religio-inspired insurgencies in India? Further, we must consider the possible pernicious role (with considerably more optimised financial resources) that a China or Pakistan could play if there are any portents of Indian ‘boots on ground’ on Afghan soil.
The Afghan envoy to India has already described the situation as ‘very dire’ and ‘very problematic’, and while he has not asked for Indian troops as yet, he did confess, “Should we not get to a stage in the peace process with the Taliban, then maybe a time (will come) where we would be seeking India’s military assistance, more military assistance in the years ahead”.Clearly, Taliban will not stop short of total control of Afghanistan and are well on their path to achieve the same, after having served a $2 trillion bill to the Americans, after outlasting the strongest military and economy in the world.
The hard question is, can an India do (let alone afford) what a Superpower-in-itsprime i.e. USSR in the 1980s, and the USA in the last 20 years could not achieve? Perhaps even more pertinent than sustainability is the question of rationality ~ there are clearly no substantial upsides to the logic of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, except perhaps diplomatic vanity. Besides Afghanistan’s known history as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, India’s own swamped experience of Sri Lanka should make it desist from entertaining any thoughts of ‘boots on ground’ in the quagmire of Afghanistan.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)