History is replete with instances of foreign armies entering Kabul vertically, and ending their journey horizontally to Afghan graveyards.
The most enduring feature of Indian history was perhaps succinctly scripted in a few stanzas by Nobel-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore in his work Gitanjali: “Keho nahi jane, kaar ahovane,/ koto manusher dhara/ durbar srote elo kotha hote/ samudre holo hara”. (Nobody knows from where or on whose invitation such a vast stream of human heads have come, only to be lost in the sea.)
That’s the history of demography in India’s geography, constituting a magnet to all outsiders who came to India. The water civilisation of India made people from comparatively arid zones and desert terrains with scant water resources permanent residents. They never left India to go back to the place where they came from.
This indicates India’s raditional position and worldview. India was always on defence, and never went for the “first offence”. Militarily, or through war by any other means. Hence, when US President Donald Trump tries to put pressure on India to send its troops to Afghanistan, supported by a few prominent Indian citizens, it throws up an unforeseen challenge, and makes the situation grim for New Delhi. In this writer’s view, if New Delhi does succumb to such pressure and sends its armed forces into landlocked Afghanistan, it would become a strategic blunder that would imperil India’s own security and be detrimental to its supreme national interest.
Just consider. Why should India, in the first place, send its soldiers into Afghanistan? How would it serve India’s purposes, Afghanistan’s goals, or the mutual interest of India and Afghanistan? Afghanistan is, after all, already a friendly country! Has Afghanistan asked for our intervention and the deployment of foreign troops to combat an emergency situation like Sri Lanka and then the Maldives had done in the late 1980s? If not, then if Indian soldiers are deployed to Kabul, at the behest of a third party such as the United States, the move could well backfire, and embroil this country in a conflict not of its choosing. This may also get us entangled in a conflict with our friends in Afghanistan, and its various ethnic groups. Remember, even at the best of times, Afghanistan is a turbulent territory of war or civil war of various shades and varieties.
The question here is: What could be the defined mandate for the Indian troops? Embassy security? Or something else? To fight local Afghan, or non-Afghan outsiders? Policing? Training the military or paramilitary? Counter-insurgency ops? Against whom? Where, and for how long?
It might be instructive at this juncture to turn the pages of history. It would be wise to remember that Afghans have ruled large tracts of India and its people for several hundred years. Their descendants are citizens of independent India. But no descendants of Indians are Afghan citizens. Second, for hundreds of years, Afghanistan’s terrain has stayed difficult, desolate, challenging and under-developed, with poor communications and transport, forming formidable challenges to every outsider fighting the fighters of Kabul. Third, Afghanistan today is a sad story of having the largest number of poverty-stricken widows, physically disabled and orphans owing to the unending violence. Fourth, any outsider with a gun in Kabul’s soil, however bona fide or benign, is bound to be, as in the past, seen as the common enemy of all tribes and groups of Afghanistan, who are known to instantly turn a civil war into a war; uniting against foreigners on their soil. Hence, even a friendly Indian in uniform, with a gun, will surely turn into a sworn foe for the whole of Afghanistan.
History is replete with instances of foreign armies entering Kabul vertically, and ending their journey horizontally to Afghan graveyards. The troops commanded and controlled by London’s East India Company to the forces of the former Soviet Union, and then to the troops of 50 nations led by the United States, who entered Afghanistan as victors, left vanquished — humiliated, facing ignominy, destruction and death. So much so that the US now seems keen to follow the policy initiated by the late President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 for withdrawal from Vietnam: “We are not about to send American boys 9,000-10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Another US President, George W. Bush, had also famously declared in 2001 that he intended “to alter the geostrategic framework of the Middle East” through his “freedom agenda”. He did. But future generations “will deal with the consequences, which so far have proved disastrous”.
From India’s history, however, one example will suffice. In 1838, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was still alive, but the over-ambitious British East India Company wanted to change Kabul’s regime with the Maharaja’s help. Like the late 20th and 21st century world powers, the British cooked up a cause of action to subjugate Afghans in 1838-1839. Seeing the content of “truth”, even an Englishman could not resist the temptation to describe thus: The British governor general Auckland’s remark about Kabul emir Dost Muhammad’s “unprovoked attack upon our ancient ally” is comparable “for truthfulness with the wolf’s complaint in the fable against the lamb”.
After more than two years of war, conspiracy, bribing and ultimate withdrawal from Kabul, the British faced their share of unprecedented disaster. Of the 16,500 men, on their return journey towards India, “struggling through the stinging snow of the winter and a constant shower of bullets from the Afghans” the “retreat became a rout, and the rout a massacre”. All were destroyed; except one Dr Brydon who reached Jalalabad on January 13, 1842.
Coming back to the 21st century, assuming India sends 10,000 troops to Afghanistan, will it not overstretch its own logistics and manpower? Is not the Indian Army deployed on too many fronts already? Can it afford to enter a landlocked country which does not even have a border with India? At least the British could advance and retreat without going through a third country. But in India’s case, all the logistics will heavily depend on Iran and three of Afghanistan’s northern neighbours; Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Except the air route, Kabul and New Delhi have no other connectivity!
One also needs to learn two lessons from two eras. In the 1840s, the British Army was maintained in Afghanistan at a huge cost, entailing a heavy drain on the resources of India, which in turn increased prices of articles of common consumption. And in the 21st century, according to Military Balance 2005-2006: “Extended commitments in Afghanistan... have forced the Pentagon to reconsider its manning strategy to ensure operational sustainability. Reportedly, the percentage of Americans willing to consider Army service has dropped from 11 per cent in 2004 to seven per cent in 2005... Prolonged use of reserve soldiers has affected small businesses, resulted in job losses and economic hardship for the families of those deployed”.
Should we then push our soldiers into a foreign valley of death? British-led Indian troops fought for their cause across the globe, killing lakhs of people. Independent India must not get carried away at the behest of foreigners to serve their interest, instead of India’s own national interest. That is not done. India’s soldiers are there mainly to protect India. New Delhi already has too many live fronts open!