Will India send 15,000 troops to Afghanistan? Time is ripe for concerted action against Pakistan’s terror

Media reports emanating from Washington, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are all talking about New Delhi planning to send 15,000 troops to Afghanistan. Not only is the text exactly the same in all these reports, as if a press release was handed out by someone, they also refer to deliberations at a “close-door round table at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars”. So does the Woodrow Wilson International Centre hold press briefs after close-door discussions?

The report further talks of a veteran Indian military scholar having “visited Washington DC, and tried to convince the Donald Trump administration to allocate India an official role in Afghanistan”. One wonders if this leak was inspired by Washington and then picked up by Pakistan and India, or if it was inspired by Islamabad for testing possibilities and then picked up by Washington — which has wanted Indian troops to be deployed in Afghanistan for several years — and later picked up by Indian media?

India has direct channels of communication with Washington and Kabul, as also Islamabad, so where has this spoof come from? Moreover, India doesn’t need a veteran military scholar to convince the Trump administration (or any other nation) to allocate it an official role in Afghanistan or anywhere else. India and Afghanistan are both sovereign nations — and joint signatories to the India Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement, 2011, whose four pillars are “political and security cooperation; trade and economic cooperation; capacity development and education; and social, cultural, civil society and people-to-people relations”.

The report, quoting unnamed diplomatic sources, states that India’s NSA Ajit Doval is planning to rush to Afghanistan to cash on the latest wave of terror attacks and to make an official offer of sending Indian troops to defend Afghan government leaders. Doval recently met his Afghan counterpart, and asked the Afghan government to deliver an official invitation to New Delhi to dispatch troops.

On 28 May, just two days before Kabul was attacked, the Afghan Pajhwok news agency from Washington reported that India could send its troops to Afghanistan under a “UN mission”. The Pajhwok dispatch published in Outlook Afghanistan quoted a “prominent Indian defence expert” as telling a Washington audience on 18 May that “New Delhi could perhaps be persuaded to send up to a division of Indian troops — around 15,000 in total — to Afghanistan under a United Nations Peacekeeping mission”.

Technically, India can position troops anywhere in the world with the concurrence of the host country and no one else. India has sent a peacekeeping force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka under a joint accord in the past. India and Afghanistan have a strategic partnership agreement, which includes security cooperation, but it is not a defence pact. Afghanistan has never made a request for Indian military troops either, and to say that the Afghan government would make such a request to “protect its leaders” is a derogatory suggestion, one that implies the Afghan National Security Forces cannot protect their government leaders.

Despite the ghastly terrorist attacks last week, Kabul has been conscious of Pakistan’s sensitivities to having an Indian presence in Afghanistan. There is also the issue of costs that will come from maintaining such a force in Afghanistan, because in all probability, Pakistan will not allow flights over its territory in doing so.

But as mentioned, India can position troops anywhere if it serves its national interests, irrespective of costs. Of course, the question also remains what would be the task of such a force — certainly not to protect political leaders — so would it be to guard Kabul?

The mention of the UN Mission in Afghanistan is a misnomer. If this was feasible, and such a force is required on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to stop Islamabad from exporting terror, the US would have ensured so a decade ago. A UN force can be so positioned when two warring parties agree. Here Afghanistan is at the receiving end and Pakistan continues to insist it has no role to play in terror attacks in Afghanistan, and that the country itself is a victim of terror — ironically a hypothesis backed by both China and the US.

Additionally, Washington’s role in Afghanistan also continues to be ambiguous. Incidentally, when the Barack Obama administration had announced a withdrawal/thinning out of US-NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2009, the Central Asian Republics (CAR) wanted a UN force deployed on the Af-Pak border, to stop Pakistani terror flowing into CAR through Afghanistan.

Having said that, however, while the report does appear to be hogwash, and any decisions would have to be taken jointly between India and Afghanistan, the latter does need an effective industrial security force. This would, among other things, also help mine the trillion dollar-plus minerals Afghanistan has. India should help Afghanistan in establishing such a force in addition to the military assistance that it is rendering.

But most important is countering the proxy that Pakistan is waging with impunity against India, Afghanistan, and now Iran. The latter has already warned Pakistan that it will hit terrorist sanctuaries inside Pakistan if it does not confront those carrying out cross-border raids inside Iran. According to the chief of Iranian armed forces, the border area on the Pakistani side has turned into a haven and training ground for “Saudi-hired terrorists, who enjoy US endorsement”.

In this era of hybrid war, there are no rules, no regulations, and Pakistan’s hands are dirty in the extreme. In February 2012, a high-level team of Sri Lankan officials reportedly visited Pakistan after the latter requested expertise to combat Baluch freedom fighters the same way Colombo combated LTTE.

While India, Afghanistan and Iran would logically have been discussing the terrorist menace that Pakistan is, time is more than ripe for the three nations to join hands and respond in a concerted fashion to Islamabad’s hybrid war irrespective of the games being played by China and the US. This trilateral response should not be construed as just a conventional attack; it must be at the hybrid plane.

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