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Keep the troops there

Should India withdraw its troops from UN peacekeeping forces?

Written by Anitmukherjee |
July 12, 2008 1:55:18 am

Should India withdraw its troops from UN peacekeeping forces? In a thought-provoking op-ed in these pages, Nitin Pai and Sushant Singh, argue, for a number of reasons, that India should scale down its participation in UN peacekeeping operations. The authors deserve to be complimented for starting a debate on an issue that’s considered the founding principle for deployment of the military on foreign soil. Indeed, the internalisation of operating under the ‘blue-helmet’ concept is so strong within the military, that few imagine operating outside our borders without UN authorisation. For instance, in the debate on whether to deploy Indian troops in Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, one of the key demands was to do so under a UN mandate. However, before coming to hasty conclusions about the utility of participating in UN ops, we need to consider what’s at stake here

First, the authors find it hard to justify the death of Indian peacekeepers in the ‘service of an ideal’. On the contrary, an ideal justifies everything — from fighting for one’s country, exposing corruption in the badlands of Bihar or dying to bring peace in the Congo. It was to ‘serve an ideal’ that our forefathers fought for our freedom against colonial oppression. India’s participation in peacekeeping operations began under an ideal that was propagated by Nehru and earned it global goodwill with the conduct of the Indian army in Korea, Gaza and in numerous missions in Africa. If there are no ideals to serve, then no cause is worth fighting and dying for.

Second, the authors contend that despite being one of the largest troop contributors to the UN, we have not been suitably rewarded with a UN Security Council seat. But the reasons for not getting a seat in the Security Council lie elsewhere— namely in great power politics and the difficulty is redesigning the Council to reflect contemporary global powers. Participation in peacekeeping operations does not hurt the case for India. Exactly the opposite. The goodwill earned through the high rates of participation and sacrifices made by Indian soldiers will only help in securing India’s place on the high table. When — and not if — the Security Council does reform, India has a stronger case by virtue of participating in these missions.

Third, the authors advise that instead of gaining the sort of exposure that comes from UN missions, the Indian military would be better served by working on bilateral or multilateral exercises with the UK, Japan, ASEAN and others. However it need not be an ‘either/or’ choice — India has the capability and the capacity to do both, as it is currently doing, and participating in one does not adversely impact participating in the other. On the contrary, it enhances its ability to operate in a wider spectrum of operations — a capability that most other militaries envy.

Fourth, the authors dismiss the enhanced pay for soldiers participating at UN missions as indicative of a ‘mercenary force’. That is a little unfair, especially in this day and age in India, when money is emerging as one of the most powerful gods in our pantheon. A typical jawan serving in these missions earns, approximately, four times his monthly pay. Why should this opportunity be denied, especially since tenure with the UN does not come easily and involves a very strict selection process which makes it a much coveted posting. For instance, Col Kushar Thakur, Commanding Officer of 18 Grenadiers, after successfully capturing Tiger Hill during the Kargil war, asked for and obtained, a UN mission to Sierra Leone as a reward for his battalion. Finally, at a time when the three service chiefs are approaching the Defense Minister with regard to the pay commission, there is nothing immoral, unlike what some defense journalists have claimed recently, with soldiers expecting a better future for their children based on the sacrifices they make today.

Besides these rebuttals, there are three other points pertinent to this discussion. First, the authors ignore the ‘soft power’ that accrues to India by participating in these missions. Other than the local population of host nations, a number of international aid workers speak highly of their interaction with the Indian military in the bushes of Africa. Indeed the Indian army’s own extensive experience with counterinsurgency makes them uniquely qualified to undertake such missions, an expertise that most other armies lack. If there is a failure it is in the inability of the diplomats to take advantage of the goodwill and the inability of the military to build upon its regional expertise. Second, if the logic applied by the by authors is taken to its reasonable conclusion then India should pull its diplomats, police services and civil servants out of all UN assignments, and let that body atrophy! Finally, as the authors rightly contend, UN peacekeeping does suffer from the “apathy of great powers”, but if India is thinking of itself as a potential great power then perhaps not sinking into the same apathy would be one way to distinguish itself as a “different” type of power. On the whole, the authors deserve compliments for focussing attention on the participation and performance of Indian troops in peacekeeping operations. As some veterans have pointed out, Indian forces are ill-equipped to take on these sorts of missions and there is a need to perhaps create sector stores to augment units deployed on such missions. However, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is probably a bad idea.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC

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