India is a regional power without a plan
Delhi has complicated its own future options and lost allies who don’t view it as a credible partnerby Harsh V Pant
Five Indian soldiers were killed Tuesday in the Poonch sector of disputed Jammu and Kashmir. So much for the new round of round of India-Pakistan rapprochement that was supposed to follow Nawaz Sharif’s election as Pakistan’s prime minister.
The Indian Minister of Defence pointed the finger at “approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms,” only to change it two days later to suggest that a specialist group of the Pakistan Army was behind the attack and that no attack on the Indian Army is possible without the help of the Pakistani Army. Pakistan denied the charge.
This incident is the latest symptom of the rapid and recent deterioration in India’s regional security environment. The number of infiltration attempts from the Pakistani side of Kashmir has doubled so far this year compared to the same period last year. And the focus of terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan is gradually shifting to India.
Just days ago, suicide bombers targeted the Indian consulate in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, killing nine people and wounding 21. This was the third attack on an Indian mission in Afghanistan in the past five years, after the Indian embassy in Kabul was bombed in 2008 and 2009. The problem is exacerbated as terrorist groups grow emboldened by the impending departure of Western forces from Afghanistan.
Yet Indian policy makers have given little indication that they comprehend the magnitude of the challenges they face. They need to catch up fast, because such attacks will only accelerate in the face of perceived diffidence from Delhi, with potentially serious consequences for the politics of national security in India.
Over the last decade, India’s regional policy, despite the nation’s self-image as a rising regional and global power, has been unusually dependent on the actions of other actors. Until very recently, there was a widespread belief in the Indian policy making community that the American presence in the region would continue and this would be enough to secure Indian interests.
Never mind that this was a strange position to take for a proud member of the non-aligned movement that bemoans U.S. use of military power. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is candid in requesting the U.S. not to leave Afghanistan as he knows full well that stepping up India’s security role in Afghanistan would be tantamount to political suicide.
Worse, India seems to have been unprepared for the possibility that the U.S. really would withdraw. Now as Western forces draw down, Delhi is at a loss how to respond to the new strategic environment.
The lack of coherence in Indian foreign policy means Delhi is always reactive. First it makes Washington the sole focus of its outreach to Kabul and then petulantly complaining about American unreliability. One the one hand, India signals to the U.S. that it views a long-term American presence in Afghanistan as integral to its regional security. On the other, it seeks better relations with the Iranians, who want to see a full and complete U.S. withdrawal from the region.
Even as India signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan promising to enhance its role in Afghan security sector, it has reduced its economic footprint in the country. Sometimes India declares that unless Pakistan takes credible action against terrorist organisations operating from its soil, there will be no engagement with Islamabad. At other times, with no intervening change in Pakistani behaviour, Delhi signals its willingness to improve relations.
All this indecision has costs, especially in a democracy where the public increasingly expects a plan to address mounting security threats to Indian citizens. The unfolding response to this week’s attack shows this. Delhi lodged a strong protest over the attack to Pakistan’s Deputy High Commission in India. But the public mood on cooperation with Pakistan has soured.
This will constrain Delhi’s ability to negotiate with Islamabad on areas where until recently it seemed some agreement might be possible, such as a demarcation of the border in Sir Creek, one of the less controversial disputes. As a political matter, Delhi will only be able to push forward with that kind of diplomatic priority if leaders demonstrate that they have a strategy for ensuring Indian security.
Delhi has not only complicated its own future options but it has also lost allies who are having difficulty in viewing India as a credible partner in the emerging strategic realities in the region. As the Western forces prepare to leave Afghanistan in the coming year, India stands at a crossroads, keen to preserve its interests in Afghanistan but refusing to step up its role as a regional security provider.
India needs to recognise that there is no short-cut to a major power status. Unless it articulates its own strategy, its weaknesses will continue to provoke its adversaries, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Harsh V Pant is a professor of defence studies at King’s College, London. This article was published in The Wall Street Journal on August 8.
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