Shovels are insufficient

Guns are necessary

The attack on Indian officials in Kabul on February 26th was no ordinary one—it was almost certainly an operation ordered by the ISI and carried out by one or the other of its errand boys. If the ‘taliban’ wanted to merely attack Indian nationals they could have picked any of the hundreds of civilians and aid-workers spread across the country. That they chose the particular hotel in Kabul, and at what appears to be a particular time, suggests that the targeting was deliberate. When, while storming the guest house, one of the attackers shouted “where is the director?” he wasn’t asking for Mahesh Bhatt.

Pakistan has escalated the proxy war against India in Afghanistan. How should, and how will India respond?

Right from the time when Indian aid workers first came under attack in November 2005, The Acorn has argued that India must both increase its development activities as well as increase its military presence in Afghanistan. India cannot fight this war with shovels alone. Then in August 2008 after Pakistan escalated the proxy war to yet another level, Pragati argued that India should consider sending combat troops to Afghanistan. And when it became clear that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani had decided to continue on the path of escalation of the proxy war both in Afghanistan and on Indian soil, we advocated that India must send combat troops to Afghanistan.

The February 26th attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan reveal that the criticism that sending troops will cause Pakistan to escalate violence was misplaced. On the contrary, absent an Indian response, Pakistan will continue to escalate until India suspends its development activities, disengages from political engagement of the Afghan government and completely pulls out of Afghanistan. And then it will shift the main theatre of the proxy war back to Jammu & Kashmir.

Given the nature of the game, India’s immediate response must be a tit-for-tat attack against Pakistani interests. That should be followed by a strengthening of the number, quality and terms of engagement troops providing security to Indian installations, projects and personnel. But even this will fall short of what is really required—combat troops on missions that support the Hamid Karzai government.

But how will India respond? It is quite likely that the Indian government will want to continue the development projects but enhance the number of paramilitary troops that provide security. It is also likely to increase intelligence co-operation with Iran and Russia, and might even attempt to bolster the anti-taliban and anti-Pakistan groups (of which there is no shortage). While all this might give India some tactical options in the proxy war, it will lack effective strategic levers unless the UPA government is willing to take some bold steps.

Tailpiece: Richard Holbrooke, who made a reasonable point when he said that it is too early to jump to conclusions, should have known better than to speak too soon. He has himself to blame not merely for angering mourners but for losing credibility by appearing to exonerate the ISI too early. Now he’s had to eat a humble pakora.

23 thoughts on “Shovels are insufficient”

  1. One argument against sending troops to any foreign country is to guard against the risk of local population turning against them. Army personnel, Indian or otherwise aren’t paragons of civility . Even within India, In assam and JnK there have been cases of army men misbehaving with women and inviting local wrath.

    When a man in uniform commits an offence, the anger is not directed at the person but at the uniform he is wearing. And since the individual is an agent of a country, it paints the country in a bad light.I would assume that part of the anger directed at America is due to the antics of their personnel posted in different countries.( not just killing of civilians) .

    Unfortunately, in India life is cheap, be it civilians or servicemen, thats the only reason we have been able to sacrifice so many soldiers in Kashmir or at Siachen, without causing a ripple in public opinion.

    Therefore, I would argue that to build on the goodwill that India seems to enjoy among the Afghan population it would be better to stick to development assistance, even at the risk of more attacks on our citizens. A few thousand Indian soldiers would not make a material difference to the 1,00,000 NATO forces already there.

  2. I had hoped that we would be able to choose when to enter Afghanistan (2011/12). It does not seem that we have the luxury.

  3. Hindusthan’s military presense in Afghanistan, when it comes, might be constrained by our politicians to take on defensive roles. That’s useless.

    I think it should be a mix of offensive action in conjunction with covert operations.

    Most likely we will be there for a very long time. (The Afghans themselves seem unable to maintain their peace.)

    That’s the only thing that makes sense now. A permanent Hindu (Ah! The uses of the term “Indian”!)presense in Afghanistan that is non-intrusive wrt the Afghan tribes and that assures protection not just to our people there but to locals themselves – seems the way to go.

    Hopefully, there are backroom negotiations that are on with friendly tribes.

    This can continue until Pakistan implodes and that’s another challenge waiting.

  4. I hear there is significant Baloch presence in Afghanistan as well.

    That will be interesting, if we are smart enough…

  5. Good article. I agree shovels ain’t enough and guns are necessary.

    But I don’t think India should send in the military. Three reasons. First it is a logistical nightmare. You have to go via Pak or Iran and neither country would be willing. Second we do not want an IPKF 2.0 in our hands. Although things are “different” here from SL troop presence always leads to bitter relations. Third, most importantly, such attacks can be deterred by brutal retaliation through asymmetric warfare which is alao a much less costly option than sending in the cavalry!

  6. I agree with you that India should take a ‘tit for tat’ approach, but will India do anything like that? We have seen the response from the PM Manmohan Singh. “We will not be deterred by such acts and will continue our development work.” Well said, except that he has not made any commitment to fight this second proxy war. It took one Lal Bahadur Shastri to take the battle to the perpetrators of the first proxy war. What has the present government done except passing dossiers after dossiers of evidence, which Pakistan treats as piece of third rate literature?

    Yes, I believe, as you do, that India must take armed action to deter a such blatant attacks. If not anything, provide such armed protection so that the attackers are killed before they kill Indian workers and those Afghans who are working with Indians. But will this government do it? Can it do anything more than sending another dossier, be pleased with themselves and smile like Cheshire cat?

  7. There are number of problems in sending troops. Firstly, the government in Afghanistan must permit Indian forces to carry out offensive operation. We need to remember the Afghan venture would not be like a UN peace-keeping mission. Secondly, Afghanistan is a land-locked country. Access to the countrybecomes a key issue. We cannot have over-flights over Pak. So we may need the co-operation of one of the CIS countries bordering Afghanistan or Iran. Then the next question is logistics. How are we going to keep up regular supply of essentials, equipment, etc to over troops. And in the event of casualties, how are we going to evacuate them? Then, of course the question which needs to be answered is the capabilities of the troops to operate in a hostile alien environment, the political will. We cannot be seen to creating either a Vietnam or Lanka for ourselves.

  8. Well if news reports, I see right now, are even half true, the Indian response is going to be centered around some or all of the following:
    a) Talk to the Taliban
    b) Engage the ISI
    c) scale down development work/presense in Afghanistan
    d) put the medical mission on hold
    e) stay committed to Afghanistan! (Of course how this will be done will forever be secret)

    Isn’t it about time we developed a foreign policy based on strategic interests rather than specific individuals? The same team that created harakiri in Sharm el Sheikh is assembled for action again. What else can one expect from them?

  9. @Dara,
    Could you please link the news reports that you saw for all those things that you mentioned ? Engaging the ISI/Talking to the Taliban might as s well be summed up in one word – surrender.

    Its very clear that India has basically lost out yet again in AfPak – 9/11 briefly turned the tide but we are well on our way back to square 1.

    Every time I hear MMS saying that “dialogue” is the only way forward… i keep thinking what sort of further concessions to Pakistan,he has already made up in his mind.

    Isn’t it about time we developed a foreign policy based on strategic interests rather than specific individuals? The same team that created harakiri in Sharm el Sheikh is assembled for action again. What else can one expect from them?
    As Agent Smith would say… that is the sound of India’s foreign policy failure.

  10. First, American retreat in Afghanistan is a strategic pivot moment in history. It’s impact will be felt across the world and for decades.Let’s not see this from the AfPak prism alone

    Second, India’s decade-long engagement in Afghanistan was predicated on America winning its war in AfPak. This was a sensible bet in the aftermath of 9/11, however the astonishing American defeat there has changed the facts on the ground. American defeat in Afghanistan is its own, not India’s. All it does is return us to the blighty 90s

    Third, when facts change, so should strategy

    Fourth, that we are at war with Pakistan is crystal clear. That we should fight this war on favorable terrain, at times of our choosing is elementary war theory. Afghanistan at this time is neither

    Fifth, the worst outcome of all would be for India to fail in whatever it tries to do — all on its own — in Kabul. That outcome — which is quite probable — will be correctly seen as India losing to Pakistan. This is strategically unacceptable. In other words, the gains from doubling down in Afghanistan are few and the risks way too high

    Best regards

  11. Siva,

    It was this morning on Headlines Today, repeatedly around noon or so. I know I shouldn’t have rushed with it but it was upsetting. By evening the spotlight is only on putting the medical mission on hold.

    I too feel it is as good as printing Government visiting cards giving the address as “Soft State”. I guess will wait another day to see if this is repeated or be grateful for small mercies. Perhaps I was too quick off the starting block.

    Personally I do have a soft corner for the good doctor, but I think he has two weaknesses. Has no clue how to handle Pakistan and exhibits a misplaced zeal to go down in history as someone who turned around Indo Pak relations.

  12. Red,

    You make very valid points.

    Yet, we have known now for many months that the USA is just marking time and making space and creating conditions for a face saving retreat. Where was the need for the PM to say then, just a few days ago about rededicating efforts in Afghanistan and not being cowed down? That is what is disturbing. If the US leaving Afghanistan also leaves us in the lurch, surely this is what should be under discussion. Not silly talk about not being cowed down and re-dedication of effort…..lets leave that kind of bluster to Radio Pakistan and Pak TV.

    The sad fact is India lost this round to Pakistan when it miscalculated US resolve and refused to take the hint that it was an unwanted guest in Afghanistan. Having decided that it would still persevere in devlopment activity in Afghanistan, in spite of that, it should have planned and taken into account the odds for and against, operating alone in the region.

    This what I mean by not having a foreign policy that is forward looking and built on sensible strategies and planning rather than on personalities.

  13. Latest news is that the Indian Medical Mission in Afghanistan has been temporarily suspended. Darn! I didn’t think that the Indian resolve would be this fragile.

    True, the massacre was cruelest one ever. Killing doctors… if this were not a decent forum, I would have unleashed a barrage of abuse at the terrorists.

    We need to show that we have the resolve to fight it out. We need to ramp up our intelligence apparatus. I feel that India really go the full length and provide “diplomatic and political” support to the Balochis.

  14. If US can talk to the “good” Taleban after 8 years of war and billions of dollars down the rathole, why can’t India? Looks like Taleban groups are gonna be part of the Afghan govt in the future (I don’t think they will take over the whole govt though, it’s not gonna be 90s all over again) so why not talk to them to gain some leverage. After all some of them are deeply suspicious (if not outright bitter) with the ISI after the “arrests” like those of Baradar and other “killings” of their own.

    With regard to talking to the ISI glad that someone finally realized they are the only centers of power. If at all India is gonna talk, mite as well talk to Army and ISI, and not the toothless “civilian” govt.

  15. Looks like Taleban groups are gonna be part of the Afghan govt in the future (I don’t think they will take over the whole govt though, it’s not gonna be 90s all over again) so why not talk to them to gain some leverage

    It will not straightaway be that way – but the Taliban will eventually take over all of Afghanistan. the only reason Karzai is in power today is because the US is propping him up – once they start leaving he has to think of getting asylum either in the US or India – there is no way he will be left alive after the Taliban take over.

    so why not talk to them to gain some leverage. After all some of them are deeply suspicious (if not outright bitter) with the ISI after the “arrests” like those of Baradar and other “killings” of their own.
    Excuse me, it is they who have the leverage – not us. We have ZERO influence on them – and which ever group comes into power will have the blessings of Pakistan – the US will make sure of that before leaving.

    With regard to talking to the ISI glad that someone finally realized they are the only centers of power. If at all India is gonna talk, mite as well talk to Army and ISI, and not the toothless “civilian” govt.
    “Talking” to the ISI instead of the civilian Govt ? They have been “talking” to us if you have not noticed – the last round of talks was held in the German Bakery at Pune.it is just that we dont have a reply for them.

    “Talking” is for surrender monkeys.

  16. @Primary Red.
    I agree with most of your sentiments –

    First, American retreat in Afghanistan is a strategic pivot moment in history. It’s impact will be felt across the world and for decades.Let’s not see this from the AfPak prism alone

    Absolutely. Obama has made it his mission to manage the decline of American power – he has accepted America’s decline from day one. When American war efforts were flailing in Iraq, India should have woken up.

    Second, India’s decade-long engagement in Afghanistan was predicated on America winning its war in AfPak. This was a sensible bet in the aftermath of 9/11
    Wrong. Here I completely disagree with you. India should have predicted that America would eventually quit – at the very least, India should have prepared for it.

    America has never won an asymmetric war – it was soundly defeated in Vietnam. It has managed to somehow save face in Iraq – but this too mainly happened because the Iraqi Army was upto the task and inspite of their bitter divisions, Iraqis have a sense of nationhood. That is not the case in Afghanistan.

    America’s Afghan defeat should have been predicted. The “victors” like Karzai were there not because of any popular support but because of US support. Besides the fact that the Taliban would be given safe haven in Pakistan should have been a foregone conclusion.

    Unless India could know with 100% certainty that the US would take the war into Pakistan and directly confront the Paki MJC, it should have definitely hedged on whether the US was going to stay or not.

    Let’s face it – India didnt/couldnt pro-actively help the US to root out the Taliban. That being the case, it is pretty dumb that we did not prepare for America’s exit.

    however the astonishing American defeat there has changed the facts on the ground. American defeat in Afghanistan is its own, not India’s. All it does is return us to the blighty 90s
    It is India’s defeat as well – the US is a declining power and has chosen to take its lumps and go back – on the other hand, there is no “going back” for us.

    Fifth, the worst outcome of all would be for India to fail in whatever it tries to do — all on its own — in Kabul. That outcome — which is quite probable — will be correctly seen as India losing to Pakistan. This is strategically unacceptable. In other words, the gains from doubling down in Afghanistan are few and the risks way too high

    I am sorry but we have already failed. It is only a question of when a Taliban group that is blessed by Pakistan is going to officially take over – not if.

    We already have lost to Pakistan whether we “double down” or not – that decision should have been made in 2001 after the Parliament attacks – we effectively allowed America to promote Pakistan’s interests in the region. We lost way back in 2001 itself.

    The Taliban returning back to power is not going to change the situation drastically. India is still a soft state and it is going to suffer from more terrorist attacks than what has already taken place.

    Since Indians have shown that they can take any amount of casualties caused by terrorism, they should be ok with a few more terrorist attacks.

  17. @ NS

    You always talk with ur enemies! US is talking with Iran does not mean it’s “surrender”!

    As I’ve said many of these Taleban groups have become disillusioned with ISI. India should exploit that and use them as pawns in the coming “great game”.

    What u are saying is Pak will be the king. And India can’t and shouldn’t do anything about it! Be fatalistic about it and hope (and pray?) for the best. Great!!

    Taleban won’t be back in power for a long long time. This is not the 90s as Ive said b4.

  18. @Arvi,
    Let’s go over your interesting comments
    As I’ve said many of these Taleban groups have become disillusioned with ISI. India should exploit that and use them as pawns in the coming “great game”.
    What you fail to account for is that the Taliban is a Pakistani creation. Armed, funded and philosophically indoctrinated by them. These groups are ultimately disposable as and when Pakistan sees it fit.

    Why do you think the Pakistanis thew these idiots under the bus ? Simply because they could. Even while disposing them of, the ISI made sure that it did not touch the Haqqani network or any of the related terror groups who ARE indisposable to the ISI

    I fail to see how India can use these angry Taliban as “pawns”. I fail to see how the Taliban would let themselves to be pawns of India or for that matter any one else. India has so far sat on its back for the last 10 years and to suddenly say that we are going to fight a covert war with a pacifist PM like MMS okaying this beggars belief.

    What u are saying is Pak will be the king. And India can’t and shouldn’t do anything about it! Be fatalistic about it and hope (and pray?) for the best. Great!!

    They already are king. Otherwise ACORN would not be talking about it – otherwise, we would not have a post that says “Shovels are insufficient”. They have already beaten us in this game. May be it is your hurt ego or pride that does not allow you to see it.

    Also, if you have not realized we have done NOTHING as of date. We are passive spectators when it comes to AfPak deferring to the United States which is effectively propogating Pakistani interests.

    For God’s sakes, we were coerced into talking with Pakistan after 26/11 even though Pakistan has only escalated its jihadist war against us … what was the logic behind that sudden turn around? What was the objective of these “talks”… what exactly was achieved by these talks ?

    It is not merely enough to say “TALK TO YOUR ENEMIES” – what is your objective behind these talks ? What exactly is going to make Pakistan change its behaviour of killing Indians like sacrificial lambs.?

    Unless you answer these questions with honesty, you have to admit that these “talks” which have been going on forever are basically a failure and an admission of Indian incompetence. We cannot impose our will on the situation nor influence it – i am not sure we even want to do such things.

    We were expecting the US to secure India’s national interests – instead it is securing Pakistan’s – we are not READY to get our hands dirty.

    Taleban won’t be back in power for a long long time. This is not the 90s as Ive said b4.
    We will see what happens – no one can predict the future – from my vantage point, Pakistan has just forced the United States to leave. It is a great victory for them as much as i hate to admit it.

    It will take some time for them to get their favorites back in power but the Pakis are kingmakers when it comes to Afghanistan.

    The London Conference basically was the US throwing its hands up and saying to the Pakis – “you win- now show us how to get out of here .”

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