Why we need a policy on overseas military deployments

Knee-jerkism is dangerous

Manu Pubby reports on the details of the MV Suez-PNS Babur-INS Godavari business in the Indian Express.

Pictures and videos of the encounter — which have been shared with Pakistan — show that Babur was deliberately tailing the Godavari so close that it brushed past the Indian warship’s aft. As the Pakistani warship — which was described by government sources as a “history-sheeter” with two earlier incidents of risky behaviour at sea — tangled with the INS Godavari, its crew shouted anti-India slogans.

One of the first warships that responded, officials said, was PNS Babur, which is part of CTF 151. The Pakistani warship declared that it was proceeding to escort the Suez. As per the laws of the sea, the other warships in the region then continued on their patrols, staying on alert for other piracy attempts.

However, late on Wednesday, apparently after repeated reports on Indian TV that a Pakistani naval ship had reached the Suez while India was “taking no action” and “letting down” its citizens on board, the government directed the Indian Navy to send in a warship to “establish contact” with the Suez, sources said.

The directive meant pulling the Godavari off its regular mission, and putting the warships of India and Pakistan in close proximity on the high seas — a situation that has the potential of turning tense.

As it turned out, the Suez, which already had several Pakistani commados on board, failed to respond to multiple attempts by the Godavari to get in touch.

Afterward, as the Indian warship sought to disengage and return to its original escort duties, the Babur brushed across its aft. [IE]

The behaviour of the Pakistani naval ship and its crew is appalling, but hardly comes as a surprise. It is unlikely that the Pakistani navy would wish to share brownie points with its Indian counterpart, not least when the entire MV Suez affair was largely a Pakistani one. But the juvenile manner in which the Pakistani navy conducted itself presents a counter-point to the conventional wisdom we come across about the Pakistani armed forces being “professional” outfits. That is, if Syed Saleem Shehzad’s final revelations about the Pakistani navy, al-Qaeda and PNS Mehran have not already provided that counter-point.

What is more worrisome is the sheer ad-hocism that passes off as New Delhi’s policy on maritime security. After having stayed in the background over MV Suez (justifiably, in my opinion) and abdicating crisis management at home (inexcusably), did the Indian government think that getting INS Godavari to participate in the victory lap would redeem its failings? Apparently, it thought so. In so doing, it put three other merchant ships (carrying 21 Indian sailors) at risk and created the conditions for the ugly incident involving PNS Babur.

These are the wages of the lack of a policy on overseas military deployments. The Indian government is pretending that a dogmatic insistence (via Pragmatic Euphony) on “we will only send troops under UN flag” is its policy. It is not. However, because of this pretense, India’s policy is reactive, knee-jerk and triggered by media outrage. You might remember that the Indian navy was allowed to conduct anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia after the Indian media played up a hostage crisis involving an Indian captain.

That move should have been followed up with careful consideration of the motivations, goals, strategies and capacities India will bring to bear in overseas military operations. We have consistently advocated the need for this. [For instance, see posts 1 2, op-eds 1 2 and policy briefs 1 2] Unfortunately, neither the government’s security establishment nor the UPA government’s political leadership thinks it necessary.

As the previous post argued, India needs to immediately set up a Maritime Security Management Task Force to steward policy in the urgent, but limited area of maritime security. In parallel, the National Security Council ought to be deliberating on a broader policy on overseas military deployments. So what if the domestic political context isn’t ready for such a proposal at this time? Domestic political contexts do, after all, change.

The paradox of proximity

Having a fragile state in the neighbourhood makes it important for you to intervene, but there are structural constraints to your ability to do so

My paper, The Paradox of Proximity – India’s approach to fragility in the neighbourhood is the first of a series of papers published by New York University’s Center for International Cooperation on rising non-Western powers’ policies towards fragile states. It was prepared with inputs from Sushant K Singh, my Takshashila colleague.

From the introduction:
The risks posed by fragile states have moved to the centre-stage of Western security consciousness only in recent years, fundamentally as the result of globalisation and precipitously due to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The threats posed by fragile states to the Western countries are palpable and proximate—for instance, in the form of terrorist plots, influx of refugees and organised crime—but their origins of the threats are relatively remote and distant. Western policymakers and publics, therefore, enjoy a certain geographical and temporal insulation, not only allowing for detached analysis but also allowing a broader range of policy options.

It is different for India. Both its immediate and its extended neighbourhoods consist of several states that in the turbulence of transition, contending with institutional weaknesses, political fragility and governance failure. For India, history and proximity turn what might have been largely matters of foreign policy into a number of inter-connected issues of domestic politics.

It is nearly impossible for India’s policymakers to detach the approach towards a nearby fragile state from a panoply of domestic political considerations. From a security perspective, the range and intensity of threats increases with proximity; but so too, the number of domestic political constituencies that have a stake in the game. Even within the Indian government, neighbourhood policy is shaped by a large number of agencies across federal, state and sometimes even district levels. Given that domestic policy outcomes in parliamentary democracies like India are generally political resultants of the complex interplay of political forces, there are limitations on the timeliness, coherence and effectiveness of India’s response.

Therein lies the paradox of proximity: having a fragile state in the neighbourhood makes it important for you to intervene, but there are structural constraints to your ability to do so.

This essay examines motivations, constraints and processes that shape India’s policy towards fragile states. It aims to show that addressing state fragility in the vicinity is a vastly more challenging project than managing risks emanating from distant ones. It begins with an overview of India’s contemporary motivations for engagement and intervention in the turbulent geopolitics of southern Asia. It identifies the various types of interventions India has engaged and attempts to derive the underlying features of India’s approach. The policy process is discussed next, analysing how drivers, constraints and players affect decision-making. We conclude with a brief assessment of how India’s policy towards fragile states, both proximate and distant, might change as India becomes a middle-income country with global interests.

Download it in PDF

Why India should send troops to Afghanistan

It’s about strategy, not popularity

There is often a negative correlation between popularity and good policy: what is popular is often not good policy, and vice versa. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy. For instance, the Times of India thinks nothing of publishing an op-ed article titled “Call Pakistan’s bluff”, in other words, “Let’s attack them and see if they respond with nuclear weapons”. It seems unimportant to consider the question of “what if they press the red button first”.

Since no political leader will accept such a policy recommendation, perhaps writing and publishing it just serves the purpose of playing to the galleries. (Forget newspaper columns, even the FICCI task force report on national security & terrorism identifies surgical strikes, all-out war and ‘leveraging the water issue’ as among the hard options for the Indian government’s consideration.)

Now there is every reason for India to invest in capabilities to carry out a number of military missions across its borders, including for conventional warfare under the shadow of nuclear weapons. But any recommendation that India ought to carry out a direct military retaliation in response to a future terrorist attack is not only so irresponsible as to make it a non-serious option. It is also strategically unsound, because nothing serves the interests of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex more than an old-fashioned war with India.

Despite all its shortcomings, the “let’s strike Pakistan” option is popular, at least among some pundits, in college canteens and in most middle-class drawing rooms. But you have only to mention the idea of sending Indian troops to Afghanistan that suddenly you end up on the other end of the popularity-policy correlation. You begin to hear “What if the Pakistanis retaliate with more terror attacks?”, “What will the ‘Muslim world’ say?”, “It won’t be popular with Indian Muslims”, “Remember IPKF!” and “Why should we become footsoldiers of the Americans?”. [Some of which were reflected in the very interesting open discussion thread on this blog last week]

The proposal to deploy Indian troops in Afghanistan is based on the simple logic of force fungibility. That since it is not feasible for Indian troops to directly attack Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, India should ensure that US troops do so. Since it is in India’s interests that as many US soldiers are committed to operations ‘along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border’, it is sensible to relieve US troops of duties in areas where they are not actually fighting the taliban—especially in Western and Northern Afghanistan.

India has the capacity to equip, station and supply several divisions of its troops in Afghanistan. Many Afghan political leaders—from President Hamid Karzai to the Northern Alliance—are highly likely to welcome India’s decision. Neighbouring countries, including Iran and Tajikistan, will support an Indian military presence in Afghanistan provided their interests are taken into account. And not least, the United States will welcome it—for even if Indian troops do not eventually deploy, the very possibility of their deployment will change Washington’s bargaining terms with Kayani & Co.

What if the Pakistanis retaliate with more terror attacks? This is the most serious question. It is highly likely that the military-jihadi complex will escalate the proxy war against India. While the impact of this escalation is less significant compared to what the Pakistani army might do in response to a ‘surgical strike’ it is must be accepted as the cost of the option. The cost can be mitigated—but not eliminated totally—through better intelligence co-operation with the United States and intensification of the internal security mechanisms put in place after 26/11.

But let’s not forget that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex might escalate the proxy war against India even if India doesn’t send troops to Afghanistan. If you think otherwise, you haven’t been reading the news since the 1980s. (You should make up for it by reading Praveen Swami’s book).

In fact, ensuring that the United States stays committed to the objectives outlined by President Barack Obama is ultimately in India’s interests—for the US cannot succeed in that mission unless it transforms the Pakistani state. Now, it can be argued that the US will pack up and leave if the situation gets too hairy, but if India doesn’t do anything to keep the US focused, such arguments are gratuitous, sanctimonious and ultimately, self-fulfilling.

The real options are to do nothing, and allow the United States and Pakistan to work out a solution and hope that the outcome of that bargaining will secure India’s interests. Or to eschew both pusillanimity and grandstanding and indirectly crush the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. As for popularity, it’s a question of timing. If the Indian government had announced that “we will go to Afghanistan” on November 28th, 2008, few would have raised their hands in objection. For that reason, it is imperative that India’s military planners develop and have on the ready a comprehensive, well-thought out policy option involving the stationing of Indian troops in Afghanistan.

The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

Some species are better extinct

How the LTTE damaged the Sri Lankan Tamil cause

More than a generation has grown up without knowing what the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987 was all about. Shekhar Gupta does well to remind us just why there is no need to shed any tears for the LTTE:

Bipin Joshi and I had many conversations on this subsequently, particularly after he took over as army chief (and where he died, tragically, of a heart attack while still in service). He still argued he was right in his description of the LTTE. If they were not macho and irrational, he said, why would they defend Jaffna against a full-fledged army in a conventional manner, a battle they were destined to lose — which they did. No clever, well-led guerrilla force would commit such a blunder, you can’t create a Stalingrad with sneak and ambush, he would say. The LTTE’s (ultimately) disastrous defence of Jaffna, he said, was the starkest example of this cruel, macho irrationality that cared little for human life, theirs or the enemy’s.

In this moment of the LTTE’s destruction and defeat you can’t but reflect on that. What kind of people take on an entire nation’s modern army, in the face of total worldwide opprobrium to their terrorist ways and unmindful of the plight of the Tamils whose cause they professed to be fighting for? Only people driven by violent madness, militaristic fascism, the suicide-bomber cult, for whom killing is not a means to the end, but the very purpose of living. Over two and a half decades, the LTTE has killed literally tens of thousands, a majority of them Tamil. They invented the human bomb and used one to kill the one man (Rajiv Gandhi) who staked his name and reputation and his country’s might and resources to find for their fellow Tamils a peaceful and just settlement. But obviously, that is not what the LTTE and its megalomaniac supremo had wanted. All they wanted was killing, killing and more killing. For Prabhakaran, peace talks were just a cynical tactic to recover, regroup and rearm whenever the going got tough. When the IPKF, under Lt Gen Amar Kalkat, had got the better of him decisively and controlled all inhabited areas, driving him into his Kilinochchi dugout (from which the Sri Lankans have just prised him out) he made common cause with President Premadasa, one of the cruellest and most pathologically anti-Tamil Sinhala leaders ever. Together they got rid of the IPKF — with help from a sudden turn in Tamil Nadu politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat and the arrival in power, in Delhi and Chennai, respectively, of a hopelessly lily-livered V.P. Singh and a Karunanidhi almost as cynical as Vaiko is now. That done, Premadasa too was blown up by a teenaged LTTE human bomb, and how bomb and target got into such close proximity is a story too sordid to be told in a family newspaper even in these permissive times. [IE]

The Five Hundred Swamis of a Thousand Directions

The Indian East Company

Rajendra Chola’s eleventh century naval expedition across the Bay of Bengal and the conquest of Southeast Asian kingdoms was, according to John Keay, one of “those rare examples of Indian aggression beyond the frontiers of the subcontinent”. The question that intrigues historians is just why did the Cholas embark on such a venture?

The ready answer is booty, for many of the Chola military expeditions involved securing wealth from conquered territories that would be generously given away to their subjects. But there is another angle, arising from the links between the Chola state and commercial interests of the merchant guilds. That’s where the Five Hundred Swamis of Aihole, or disai ayirattu ainnurruvar (the five hundred of a thousand directions) enter the scene.

Geoff Wade argues that “there seems little doubt that the Chola attacks waged on Southeast Asia port polities in 1025 and again in the 1070s, as well as the occupation of Sri Lanka in 1080, were all intended to expand the commercial interests of the polity’s merchants and thereby of the polity itself.” According to this theory, the Chola expedition was intended to break the Srivijaya empire’s hold over the straits of Malacca, to advance the interests of the Five Hundred Swamis.

The Five Hundred Swamis were established in Aihole, in the Raichur doab of what is now Karnataka, and had a second base at Pudukottai in Chola kingdom. An “supra-regional” association of itinerant merchants, it followed the conquering Chola armies, first in peninsular India, and then to their overseas forays.

So what became of them? According to some historians, the present day Lingayat community of Karnataka has its roots in the guild of the five hundred of a thousand directions.

Related Link: The Trading World of the Tamil Merchant, by Kanakalatha Mukund, via Google Books; Guilds in ancient India, on Kamat’s Potpourri

Saying no to the USS Kitty Hawk

The irony of Gorshkov

The latest angle to the ups and downs of securing a second aircraft carrier for the Indian navy is the speculation that the United States intends to offer the USS Kitty Hawk, a 53-year old vessel that is up for decommissioning from the US Navy.

Image: Stratfor
The American offer is interesting for three reasons: first, it offers India greater bargaining power with Russia in the negotiations over the delivery of Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). Second, it offers the Indian navy capabilities to operate and train its personnel on an American platform. And third, it could improve India’s maritime power projection capabilities to a relatively greater extent.

The integration of this huge American ship into the Indian navy, however, is likely to pose its own set of problems. From the type of aircraft that can fly off it, to operational processes, to the logistics and docking arrangements, there are a whole range of operational issues that need to be addressed. And in addition to all the usual problems related to the purchase of second-hand equipment (the Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1955), the possibility that the United States might insist upon an “end-user clause”, requiring US clearance before offensive operations seriously undermines the case for its purchase.

But the main reason to reject the American offer may lie elsewhere. The Kitty Hawk at a full displacement load of over 80,000 tons, it is three times larger than Viraat and almost twice as that of Gorshkov. It is also about a third longer than Viraat, but can carry seven times as many aircraft (70 against 12). There is no doubt that the Kitty Hawk is in itself an attractive alternative to Gorshkov or an addition to the fleet. The problem though, lies in the relevance of aircraft carriers in future naval combat. [See this interview with John Arquilla in MIT Technology Review]

China and Pakistan are investing in a submarine based fleet. Iran is investing in small, fast armed vessels. And they are also investing in anti-ship missiles. The latter are improving in range and capability, and are fairly accessible to even smaller states and non-state actors in the region. In naval conflicts of the future, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The other way of looking at it is that the benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier—and the complement of frigates and destroyers that form part of the task force—will diminish over time, while costs will increase or stay the same. A bigger aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and will cause a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed. [Moreover, as India’s missile capabilities have come of age, they can increasingly replace carrier-based aircraft, just as they are replacing land-based ones]

The person who recognised this and developed a naval strategy that put a lot of weight in submarines was, ironically, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergei Gorshkov. While India has bought a ship named after him, China and Pakistan have bought his logic.

This is not to say that the Indian navy doesn’t need aircraft carriers—it does. There are conceivable scenarios where aircraft carriers can be decisive, though not all of them involve actual combat. The point is that the role of carriers is diminishing in the 21st century naval battlefield, and hence smaller, perhaps, is better.

(Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta) denied reports that the United States had offered to gift India its Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which is due for decommissioning. Even if the offer were made, India would not accept it, he said, because the ship was “too old, too big.” [The Hindu]

Related Link: Information Dissemination on ‘A strange solution for India’s Russia Problem’

Update: A version of this post appears on the South Asia Monitor, an online publication of the Contemporary Studies Society, New Delhi

On the front foot

When will India step out?

Captain Bharat Verma’s latest opinion piece in the Indian Defence Review (available online on Rediff) covers a lot of ground. He advocates a muscular approach to internal security and purposeful geopolitical power projection, through a mix of ‘carrot and stick’.

One point he makes is that India can only be a great power “if instead of being an inward looking nation, New Delhi’s footprints extend outwards”. That’s an important one. Unlike European states or China, India has historically never been an expansionist power. The territorial ambitions of Indian emperors have generally been limited to the Indian subcontinent. It is easier for states with an expansionist historical tradition to appreciate the value of power projection.

In its reluctance to get on the front foot, India, in some ways is like the United States. During a recent conversation, C Raja Mohan noted that the British government had to mount a public information campaign (including employing MI6) to get the United States to enter the Second World War. It took America almost four decades—from around 1900 when it acquired the capacity of a great power to the 1940s when it entered the war—to ‘shoulder its share of global responsibility’. President Woodrow Wilson might have been instrumental in establishing the League of Nations after the First World War, but the US Congress refused to let the deal go through. The US too, until that time, had an inward looking culture. It took Pearl Harbour for that to change.

Perhaps it is to be expected that like the US, India will take time to get onto the front foot. Let’s hope it won’t need a Pearl Harbour.