March 5, 2010Foreign AffairsSecurity

Shovels are insufficient

Guns are necessary

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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.

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