My op-ed in the Indian Express: Bring the troops back

The case for India to scale down its UN peacekeeping contributions

Sushant K Singh and I argue that controversy in Congo is a wake-up call for India to review its policy on UN peacekeeping. A slightly edited version of the following appears in today’s Indian Express.

A recent investigation by the BBC’s Panorama found that Indian peacekeepers were among those engaged in smuggling drugs, arms, gold and ivory at the UN mission in Congo. In a recently released report, UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) found three army personnel guilty of minor charges but did not find evidence on the more serious ones. (Indian Express, 11 June).

To be sure, Indian blue helmets were not the only black sheep. But the fact that India finds some of its troops in the dock along with those of the Pakistani army should provide little comfort to defenders of India’s continued involvement in the poorly equipped, poorly mandated and poorly governed operations that characterise UN peacekeeping.

In response, the Indian government has reflexively tried to put a brave face over the allegations, pointing out that the offences are trivial, and that disciplinary action will be taken against those found guilty. Now, the UN itself has little incentive to pursue the allegations aggressively. Given that there is more demand for peacekeepers than its member nations are willing to supply, it is hardly likely to do anything that will embarrass countries—most of them from the developing world—that do contribute troops. So it was perhaps the outcry over the Congo episode that compelled it to announce that “the same (Indian) peacekeepers will not be accepted in future missions”.

In fact, the entire business of UN peacekeeping suffers both from big power apathy and from international red-tape. In the now infamous case of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Major General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN peacekeeping contingent, complained that “the poorer contingents showed up ‘bare-assed’ and demanded that the United Nations suit them up”. That’s not all. It was first time that the Canadian general was out in real combat!

Pakistan (10,629), Bangladesh (9,047) and India (8,964) are three largest contributors to UN peacekeeping contingents. In contrast, the United States contributes 297 personnel, of which only 13 are combat troops. Before China began to attract criticism for backing repressive regimes in Africa, it had only a few hundred troops serving under the UN flag. It now has 1,978, several hundred of who are in Sudan, where Beijing has strategic interests. On the other hand, in January 2007, TIME magazine’s Michael Elliott wrote that “there are reportedly 4,000 Chinese (non-UN) troops there protecting Beijing’s oil interests.”

More Indian troops have died in the line of their UN duties than from any other country. But India’s embassy in Washington, DC, says on its website: “India has risked the lives of its soldiers in peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations, not for any strategic gain, but in the service of an ideal. India’s ideal was, and remains, strengthening the world body, and international peace and security.”

That the Indian government should take pride in risking the lives of Indian soldiers in the “service of an ideal” is appalling. But it is merely a manifestation of a policy that has lost its moorings and today serves the corporate interests of official bureaucracies, not India’s national interests.

So what has India gained—apart from bragging rights—for being one of the largest troop contributors to the UN? Well, risking lives to service ideals certainly didn’t count for much when it came to the bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Nor does it count for much in India’s economic diplomacy—veto power at the Security Council is far more useful than 9000 troops in the world’s forgotten war zones. Arguably, income from UN peacekeeping duties was a source of hard currency when India was starved of foreign exchange. With foreign exchange reserves at US$300 billion and growing, this is no longer valid.

From the perspective of the armed forces, it is argued that UN peacekeeping postings provide combat experience, international experience and financial rewards for the personnel involved. Examine them closely and you find that these don’t hold up either.

With so much action on India’s frontiers the case to send a few thousand troops to Africa for combat exposure is inexplicable. Moreover, units posted for UN duties have three times as many officers as comparable units back home. This, at a time when the armed forces are complaining of acute shortages of officers.

UN peacekeeping does provide international exposure—unfortunately not the sort that is useful to India. Corruption cases might be exceptions, but Indian troops need more of the kind of exposure that comes from joint exercises with the armed forces of the United States, Britain, Japan and ASEAN. Such exposure will not only create the personal networks, system interoperability and joint operating procedures but also assist in military modernisation.

It might even have been acceptable to allow Indian soldiers to derive financial benefits if UN contingents had anything like the quality, discipline and governance that exist at home. Poorly defined rules of engagement, unclear chains of command, a hodge-podge of personnel and equipment from assorted ‘developing countries’ have bred a culture that allows and covers up errant behaviour. This risks eroding the professional ethos of our armed forces. Moreover, it makes our armed forces appear, by association, as mercenary force in for easy money.

India’s economic and geopolitical profile has charged far ahead of its peacekeeping policy. It is timely for a transformed India to review its policy on foreign troop deployments in the light of its national interests.

In order to give the issue the attention it demands, India should immediately suspend all further UN deployments. This should be followed by a graduated withdrawal of all Indian troops operating under the UN flag. There might be a case for a small, token presence, in carefully chosen theatres.

It is time for India to stop seeing foreign troop deployments as “risking lives in the service of an ideal.” Rather, they should be seen as being tightly coupled with vital foreign policy objectives, like for instance, securing India’s construction crews in Afghanistan. As India’s economic interests expand globally, it is likely that the need for such deployments will increase.

16 thoughts on “My op-ed in the Indian Express: Bring the troops back”

  1. An appalling argument! India’s obsession with “arriving at the world stage” is the reason for this degrading “whats in it for us” attitude of its thinkers.

    If merely sending troops to world’s war zones can save lives, India should dispatch as many as it can afford to spare. If it makes it mercenary, why don’t we serve for free?

  2. Nitin, did this appear in print? I don’t see the article highlighted on the paper’s portal.

  3. “merely a manifestation of a policy that has lost its moorings and today serves the corporate interests of official bureaucracies”

    Sounds like a left wing rant! 🙂

    Why would Clooney pay a visit without that ‘service of the ideal?’

    The argument is decent but I am not sure how 9000 soliders, mainly non-officer corp, can degrade the entire Bharatiya army and surely not all of them are in Congo getting corrupted (or corrupting others).

    While it’s bad to hear those stories of Congo, I wonder if that same BBC carried stories of the help that Indian soldiers provide trying to control peace between warring armies and protecting the innocent women and children caught in the middle.

    The valid question, that you ask, is what is India getting in return?

    BTW, congratulations for getting published in IE under Pragati!

  4. Oldtimer,

    Yes, it appears on their website as well as in the print edition. There’s no link to it from their main page…you have to go to the op-ed section to find it. Here’s the link.

    Chandra,

    Thanks.

    I thought that phrase describes the left wing. You have a point that the Beeb won’t feature good things…but that’s the nature of the media business right? It’s the bad news that’s news. Be that as it may, our argument is that we should take these seriously.

    We can debate about whether the risk of corruption spreading is serious or not. But the operative question really is—why even take that risk, when the benefits are non-existent. We believe that there should be a serious debate on this question, because at this time, the we are sending troops because that’s what we’ve always done.

  5. Nitin, about 127 Indian troops have died in UN peacekeeping operations (UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, 2008). This is just 5% of the total. Considering that India is the third largest contributor of troops, I don’t see the number dying as being especially high. Canada lost 114 too.

    Secondly, the reason for low troop contribution by ‘western’ nations is because developing nations appear neutral in conflict situations. Forces from these countries appear less threatening to a nation than ones from the United States or Russia would. For example, in December of 2005, Eritrea expelled all American, Russian, European, and Canadian personnel from the peacekeeping mission on their border with Ethopia. (wiki)

    Third, people choose the profession of arms mostly to protect those who can’t fight for themselves. An Army exists to further national interests, sure, but it is also used to fulfil your nation’s commitment to peacekeeping. It is one of the obligations we have. If you don’t fulfill your obligations, your nation loses honour. Regardless of what the West does, I would rather have Indian troops fighting to save millions from starvation in Somalia, especially when it does not adversely affect the country’s military preparedness. And our soldiers do get valuable experience in working with armies from other nations, different regions and weather conditions, and different types of operations.

    Also, The way you phrase your statement about how the government “takes pride in risking the lives of Indian soldiers in the service of an ideal”, you make it sound like the Indian government sends the Indian soldiers to UNPK missions for them to die. I disagree. These men are professionals. They know the hazards associated with the profession they have chosen. And they are more than competent enough to handle these hazards.

    Lastly, the West (especially the US) does send troops for peacekeeping duties. For instance, wiki states that “At its height, KFOR troops numbered 50,000 and came from 30 different NATO/Non-NATO nations.” The nations contributing the most to KFOR then included the United Kingdom (19000 troops), the United States (7000), France (7000), Germany (6000), Italy (5000), Russia (3000), The Netherlands (2000), Ukraine (1300), and Spain (1200). That list tilts heavily in favour of developed nations and the Indian contingent was very small (800 troops). Admittedly, KFOR is not a UN mission, but it is still a non-NATO peacekeeping mission.

    In any case, I’m not defending the actions of developed nations vis-a-vis UNPK ops. All I am saying is that the Indian commitment should not change depending on what the US or UK do.

  6. Mihir,

    Thanks for the thoughtful rebuttal.

    I don’t see the number dying as being especially high. Canada lost 114 too.

    My position is even a single casualty is one too many if it is not in the interests of the nation. You should read it with the next sentence, where we write that the Indian embassy takes pride that our participation is in the service of an “ideal”. So we’ve taken the highest casualties for this ideal…and achieved what?

    Secondly, the reason for low troop contribution by ‘western’ nations is because developing nations appear neutral in conflict situations.

    Sure. Let the UN recruit troops from Nepal, Fiji or Nigeria.

    Third, people choose the profession of arms mostly to protect those who can’t fight for themselves. An Army exists to further national interests, sure, but it is also used to fulfil your nation’s commitment to peacekeeping. It is one of the obligations we have. If you don’t fulfill your obligations, your nation loses honour.

    I completely disagree. India has no such obligations. The only obligation the Indian state has is to promote the well-being of its own citizens. To the extent that use of force (and power projection) is necessary for that, it should do it. I’m completely supportive of sending troops to support construction in Afghanistan, stabilisation in the Maldives, humanitarian relief in the Indian Ocean region, and why, if necessary anywhere where India’s interests are stake.

    you make it sound like the Indian government sends the Indian soldiers to UNPK missions for them to die. I disagree. These men are professionals. They know the hazards associated with the profession they have chosen. And they are more than competent enough to handle these hazards.

    Sure. I think the troops themselves would be strong supporters of participation in UN duties, as this is in the bureaucratic and personal interests of the army and its officers. It is, however, not in the institutional interests of the army, and certainly not in India’s national interests.

    Lastly, the West (especially the US) does send troops for peacekeeping duties. Admittedly, KFOR is not a UN mission, but it is still a non-NATO peacekeeping mission.

    They did it because it was in their interests. For all the criticism that is levelled against IPKF, I support the thinking and strategic rationale behind that operation. Do note that my argument is against participating in UNPKO rather than peacekeeping itself.

    All I am saying is that the Indian commitment should not change depending on what the US or UK do.

    The US and UK might be doing what they are doing for good reason. If the reasons are good, then we would do well to learn from them.

    That said, our argument is not based on what the great powers are doing—rather that these deployments don’t serve the national interest, and second, that there is something rotten about the UNPKO that is all the more reason to steer clear of.

  7. Nitin,

    Offtopic:

    I’m looking for comprehensive information on India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and how they align or collide with American interests. Much appreciate pointers.

  8. Oldtimer,

    One aspect of that might appear in next month’s Pragati. There’s no comprehensive account of this that I know of, but between IDSA, IPCS and ORF you can find a lot of information.

  9. Nitin, just in case you haven’t seen it there is a rebuttal to this in IE by an Anit Mukherjee apparently pursing PhD at SAIS, Johns Hopkins…

  10. Chandra,

    Thanks for the tip. Anit’s rebuttal can be found here”. He said he would be doing a rebuttal and it’s nice to see that debate is picking up. Btw, he is a former army officer.

    We will address his points in a coming post.

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