Rohit Kumar's Views

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A fatal attraction

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By: Momin Iftikhar Momin

The February 26 attack by a suicide team on a guest room and hotel complex, frequented by Indian officials and workers in the fashionable quarters of Kabul has brought into full glare the dilemmas confronted by the Indian strategic planners overseeing the Afghanistan operations. The issues at stake are the raising of the Indian military profile in Afghanistan and rationalising the political cost for civilian and military casualties that are inevitable to rise as the strategy is proceeded with in earnest. Opportunities beckon; the US is set on a deadline of rolling back its military deployment within five years starting from 2011 and its allies would be dashing for the exit door in an even shorter timeframe. Filling the military vacuum by sending in forces fulfils the ultimate Indian desire of landing a pincer on Pakistan’s western flank but the costs, such an investment could incur, could be staggering.

A measure of the pain that may be confronted was starkly laid out by the Indian military casualties sustained during the latest Kabul attack. Among the total 17 deaths Indian share stood at six; a toll that included two Indian officers of the major rank, an Indo-Tibetan Border Police constable and an embassy staffer from Kandahar Consulate, who, despite attempts to conceal his identity was in all probability a senior RAW operator. That is not all!

In addition to the four casualties inflicted upon the Indian military establishment in Afghanistan, there were six injured military men of unspecified rank that were carried home by the IAF’s Boeing 737-200 aircraft, expeditiously dispatched in the wake of attack. There are no details in the media regarding the identity of these injured army persons or the tasks they were performing in the risk-laden environs of Kabul, but it is manifest that the threat to Indian military-intelligence presence in Afghanistan is escalating. The latest attack was third in a series of bombings targeting the Indian presence in Kabul. In July 2008, a suicide bomber rammed a car full of explosive into the entrance to the Indian Embassy killing more than 50 people including the Defence Attaché. In October 2009, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Indian Embassy extracting a toll of 17.

The perception that the threat to the security of Indian presence in Afghanistan is mounting, is not lost on the planners in the South Block. The hard reality of a strategic failure in Afghanistan, after an investment of almost a decade following the 9/11, is beginning to stare India in the face.

The terrorism card, so successfully played by India in defining the terms of negotiations with Pakistan has failed to stick in Afghanistan. Credibility of the Indian vision of a politico-military balance in Afghanistan has come to be frequently questioned by the US military commanders. There is a growing awareness that dependence on India has been a major reason for landing the US in the quagmire of Afghanistan by clouding its judgment with faulty premises and engineered intelligence. The US commanding general in Afghanistan has obliquely pointed out to the folly of following the Indian urgings. In his assessment of the situation submitted to President Barack Obama in August 2009, General Stanley McChrystal warned that India’s growing influence in the country could “exacerbate regional tensions” and encourage “counter measures” by Pakistan.

Afghanistan has become a test case for India in its attempts at power projection in the region. To circumvent the geographical barriers imposed by the Pakistani landmass, India has invested heavily in building the 218km Zaranj-Delaram Highway to link Southern Afghanistan with the Iranian port city of Chah Bahar. This enables India to bypass Pakistan and transport goods and equipment from Iran to Kabul and across Afghanistan. By committing $1.2 billion towards building infrastructure, India has become a major donor in a war ravaged Afghanistan. There are around 5,000 Indian personnel who have arrived in Afghanistan to engage in the reconstruction effort. Following up the Indian significant presence and taking advantage of the excuse provided by their security concerns, India has inducted around a battalion of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel in Afghanistan. Moreover, to test waters for enhancing the military profile, India has started sending military doctors and education instructors in Afghanistan. The two Indian Army majors killed in the latest Kabul blasts belonged to these two categories.

Despite setbacks, the ambition of placing boots on ground has not lost traction with the hawkish strategic quarters in India. Former Indian Army Chief, General Shankar Roy Chaudhry, has described the military involvement in Afghanistan as “a war of necessity.” General Deepak Kapoor, too, has argued that that the Indian military presence in Afghanistan could give it some strategic depth against Pakistan; saying the Indian military presence in Afghanistan could be used to squeeze Pakistan. C Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian analyst, has expressed similar thoughts. “Why is India’s contribution to Afghan security so low? If countries so far from Afghanistan – like Canada and Australia – have deployed troops there, what is holding back Delhi, such an important neighbour and economic partner of Kabul?” he argues. Sushant K Singh, editor of a strategic affairs journal Pragati, recently wrote: “An Indian military involvement in Afghanistan will shift the battle ground away from Kashmir and the Indian mainland” recommending that the Indian military should operate independently in Afghanistan.

But much lies betwixt the cup and the lip. The envisioned Indian strategy to curtail the Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, envelop it (Pakistan) from the west and find ingress into the energy rich Central Asian Republics lies in tatters. Indian perspective and the intelligence upon which the US has relied so much stands discredited and discarded. It has taken eight long years for the US to know the ropes and finally acknowledge that Indian presence and ambitions, particularly those dreaming of a military presence in Afghanistan are a recipe for grand chaos and disaster.

The Indian developmental work in Afghanistan stands out as a masquerade to screen her naked ambition for dominance in Afghanistan which is unacceptable to the Pashtun majority. Indian presence, seeking to alter the flow of history and tradition, is bound to result into a backlash. In case the Indian administration dares to land a military contingent into Afghanistan, its disastrous foray into Sri Lanka with Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987 shall certainly appear to be much milder in comparison.

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