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India must deploy troops in Afghanistan

October 13, 2009 14:35 IST
The recent attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and the possibility that there will be more attacks on its projects in Afghanistan must make India seriously consider sending its troops there, writes Harsh V Pant.

The suicide bombing in Kabul last week when a car packed with explosives blew up beside the Indian embassy, leaving at least a dozen dead in what India's foreign secretary said was an attack on the embassy compound was the second such strike in as many years further underlining the challenges India faces as it expands its influence in its neighbourhood. Though none of the staff from the Indian embassy was hurt, the blast ended up killing at least 17 people and wounding scores of other ordinary Afghans including one guard from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

The blast was similar in most ways to the one that had struck the Indian embassy on July 7 last year that left 60 dead including a foreign service officer and a defence attache at the embassy. Subsequent investigations made it clear that that dastardly attack was the brainchild of the Pakistan-based Haqqani group, with possible participation of some of that country's intelligence agents.

The same story is being repeated again with the Afghan envoy to the US himself pointing out the involvement of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence in the latest attack on the Indian embassy.

This is the first time that a top Afghan official has blamed the ISI for the terror strike. It is clear that forces who are not sympathetic to Indian involvement in Afghanistan are upping the ante and are doing their best to force India out of Afghanistan as well to rupture the burgeoning India-Afghanistan relations.

It was only a few days back that a 202-km-long transmission line was completed to deliver electricity to Kabul, demonstrating to the world impressive gains India has made over the last few years in helping Afghanistan despite deteriorating security situation in that nation.

But last Thursday's attack once again reinforces the challenging environment in which Indian personnel are working in Afghanistan to deliver humanitarian assistance as well as helping in nation building projects in myriad ways. India is building roads, proving medical facilities, helping with educational programmes in an effort to develop and enhance long-term local Afghan capabilities.

Toward this end, it has been a deliberate policy of India to refrain from giving its support a military dimension and so India's support programme has been civilian in its overall orientation. It is not a surprise therefore that India remains one of the most admired and loved countries for ordinary Afghans even as Western observers influenced by a propaganda campaign of Pakistan have viewed Indian involvement as problematic in so far Pakistan is able to claim that India's involvement is aimed at undercutting Pakistan's influence. India's attempt at leveraging its soft power in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly risky.

Though the security revamp undertaken after last year's attack has indisputably improved protection at the embassy, this latest attempt underscores the fact that as Indian profile in Afghanistan increases so will the attempts to demoralise civilians undertaking developmental and humanitarian works.

India must brace itself for a challenging time ahead, especially as the perception gains ground that the Taliban are on a rebound with a heightened sense of political uncertainty in Washington as the Barack Obama administration vacillates in accepting the advice of its military commanders to put more troops on the ground.

The debate in Washington shows no signs of coming to an early end with prominent Democrats openly talking of a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and military commanders suggesting that such a strategy is a recipe for disaster as the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would take the US back to square one where Al Qaeda would regain the space to launch attacks on the West.

For India there can be no question of scaling back its development works in Afghanistan. If anything such attacks should strengthen India's resolve to carry on with its assistance to its neighbour. But time has come for India to achieve some clarity on its strategic objectives vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan is the most important frontier in combating terrorism targeted against India, then how long can Indian continue with its present policy trajectory whereby its civilians keep getting killed in pursuit of its developmental objectives with one of the most powerful militaries sitting idly by.

There is a general consensus in India that it should not send troops to Afghanistan. Yet beyond this there is little debate about what policy options it has if greater turbulence in Af-Pak region spills over into India. The traditional Indian stance that while it is happy to help the Afghan government in its reconstruction efforts, it will not be directly engaged in security operations is increasingly becoming harder to sustain.

The time has come for India to seriously consider deploying troops in Afghanistan. India is threatened much more than the US by the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. The consequence of abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan State and a moderate Pakistan will be greater pressure on Indian security.

The brunt of escalating terrorism will be borne by India, which already has been described as 'the sponge that protects' the West. A hurried US withdrawal with the Taliban still posing a threat to Afghanistan will have serious implications for India.

The ISI would be emboldened to set up terrorist attacks against India once it is satisfied that the Taliban would provide it strategic depth in Afghanistan and the jihadis will again end up becoming a diplomatic and military instrument of the Pakistani military-intelligence complex to be used against India and the Indians wherever possible.

It is true that Indian involvement in Afghanistan is seen by the West as provocative, especially as Pakistan uses the Indian involvement bogey to shield its own ineffectiveness in tackling the Taliban and Al Qaeda. However, that will always be the case.

Even now when India is focused on developmental assistance Pakistan keeps harping on India's role in Afghanistan, accusing Indian embassy in Kabul of spreading anti-Pakistani propaganda and Indian consulates in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad as means for Delhi to improve intelligence-gathering against it.

Whatever India will do in Afghanistan Pakistan will view it in worst possible light, so Pakistan's reaction to Indian involvement can't really be a measure of what strategy India should be adopting.

The US does need help in putting into action its Af-Pak strategy that has been on hold for lack of troops, something that its close allies are not willing to help it with. Even the United Kingdom's resolve is wearing thin. India should take this opportunity to re-define its strategy and demonstrate its role as a security provider in the region.

It need not send its troops into Afghanistan but rather start helping out with training the Afghan army.

The Afghan national army is far from being an effective organisation ready to take on battle hardened Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Indian military trainers can provide the necessary guidance. This will also allow India to fight the jihadis in Afghanistan rather than in its streets.

There is also a larger issue at stake here. The Indian elite talks of India as a rising power in the international system. The world is waiting to see what that rise implies in real terms. If India can't tackle challenges in its own backyard or at least contribute to bringing stability in the region, it is difficult to see how it can play the role of a global stakeholder.

If India wants the world to recognise it as a global power, then the time has come for India to step up to the plate and the first step in that direction is to respond to the latest attack in Kabul with greater military engagement to support its developmental and political presence in Afghanistan.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London, and is currently a visiting professor at IIM-Bangalore.

Also read: India's role in the Great Game in Afghanistan
'Indian efforts in Afghanistan irking Pakistan'
'India has a legitimate interest in Af-Pak'

Harsh V Pant