July 9, 2008armydefenceForeign AffairsIndiainternational relationsmilitarypeacekeepingSecurityUNUnited Nations

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

The case for India to scale down its UN peacekeeping contributions

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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 BBCs 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.

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