Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, while interacting with the press at the wreath laying ceremony commemorating the 1971 victory anniversary at Amar Jawan Jyoti, said, "We have made it clear that if there is a UN resolution and if there is UN flag and a UN mission, then as per India's policy to operate under UN flag, we will participate."
Just back from his US trip where the United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter must have filled him in on ISIS and the clear and present danger it poses, the Indian defence minister is on the go. He must also be suitably enthused by the naval might on display for the array of brass lined up on the INS Vikramaditya.
He sensibly took care to temper his enthusiasm for operations against the ISIS with a caveat, saying “that depends on whether UN takes a resolution”.
A UN resolution certainly appears to be in the works. US Secretary of State John Kerry has just left Moscow after working out the roadmap for resolving the Syrian conflict with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
There is an international conference lined up, to be followed by another round in Geneva for the actors on the ground in Syria, including members of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Clearly, Russian intervention, to include an oblique reference to nuclear weapons by President Putin, has energized the international community.
There are two dimensions to the unfolding game. One lies in addressing the fighting between the Russia-supported Assad regime and the US-supported rebels. The second and more daunting prospect is dealing with the ISIS. Rationally, the first should precede the second.
It is not clear what Parrikar has in mind. If he is referring to the first then it can be reasonably backed. After all, the conflict has seen 250000 deaths and over 10 million displaced or refugees. Halting the fighting politically and bringing in UN peacekeeping forces for overseeing the ceasefire and follow-up political arrangements can only be taken as urgent and necessary.
Indian participation can easily be seen as facilitating the above. It is, after all, on top of the table of UN peacekeeping contributors alongside Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It would also be in keeping with this tradition and its national security stakes including a voice in the Security Council. As it is, Indian blue helmets are already in close vicinity of the fighting in Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
However, Parrikar appears to have had the second in mind – military operations against the ISIS albeit under a UN flag. There are two aspects to this: the UN-mandated operation and the foe, ISIS.
This takes one back a decade and half when the prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was propositioned by president Bush to dispatch Indian troops to Iraq. A sagacious Vajpayee declined. History appears to have vindicated his decision. Now, India appears to have again been propositioned – perhaps covertly by the US. The media question could well have been planted so that the defence minister could let off a trial balloon, suitably cushioned, to test waters.
If that be the case, he would need reminding that when India did not join the earlier ‘coalition of the willing’, it should think twice before joining another to clean up the wreck the earlier coalition left behind.
It can easily be seen why India might like to sign up. It wishes to be on the high table. It makes up with military might what it lacks in diplomatic heft. Especially where ‘boots on ground’ matter, it is streets ahead of all armies. Since cleaning out the ISIS would require troops, It is also easily understood why the US may look to India.
Diplomatically, India would not like to be left out where its neighbour Pakistan might make a gain. Saudi Arabia has just announced a military alliance against terrorism of 34 Muslim states, primarily Sunni and including Pakistan. It is early to gauge whether this might indicate an emerging military push against ISIS. However, from another Saudi Arabia-led alliance’s showing in the Yemen conflict, staying aloof from this venture may in retrospect prove sensible at a later date.
The manner in which the media campaign has shaped up since Russia joined the fray and the Paris attacks occurred makes it difficult to argue against participating in wrapping up the ISIS. India is determined to place itself in the same corner as those fighting the ISIS under the garb of fighting terrorism. Soon after the Paris attacks it invited the French President for gracing the next Republic Day parade.
The latest volte face in its Pakistan policy, evident in the ‘secret’ meeting in Bangkok between the two national security advisers, also indicates an urge to transcend South Asia. It is readying to export its military surplus. The China threat that rationalised expansion in line with the US’s pivot towards Asia is all but forgotten. The US has reverted to West Asia, and has India on its coattails.
There are internal political reasons that should not be discounted. The deep wellsprings of cultural nationalism are watered by a belief of Muslim domination of Hindus over the last millennium. Here is an opportunity for Hindu power to stride across Muslim lands. The internal political utility of such projection would be in suitably cowing India’s Muslims, their red rag.
The rationale would be their susceptibility to outside blandishment towards terrorism – witnessed over the last two decades through their hobnobbing with Pakistan’s ISI. This necessitates tackling the problem at its origin. Watch this argument being trotted out over the following months by closet right wing strategists.
Words of caution
That said, anticipatory arguments against premature commitment to military adventurism are in order. The ISIS is all that the western media says, and more. It is an ogre. It is however not a monolith. The West and Russia have good reasons to want to get rid of it. Its rise shows up their underside.
The West has flirted with radical Islam not only for strategic heft against Soviet Union initially, but also in this case against Assad. Russia has trampled Chechnya and the Russians in the ISIS is a blowback brewing. The ISIS is resident in an Iraqi Sunni populace with its own political and strategic moorings. To add to complexity, a proportion of its funding is from Arab sources alienated from their feudal regimes to an extent that cosmetic elections as the latest one in Saudi Arabia are simply too late salvage.
A military roll back of ISIS, even with the powers on the same page, would be to address symptoms. This means that just as ISIS succeeded Al Qaeda, there would be another new kid on the block. The military way as currently underway does not lend confidence that it is sufficiently cognizant of the laws of war. Incessant bombing of populated areas is on. It is hard to believe that the ISIS is sitting out in the desert without its human shields.
The shooting down of the Russian jet by its prospective ally Turkey in this war suggests an inability of any coalition to undertake operations. The UN could lend its resolution as cover, it is not capable of handling operations. A lead nation or a combination of nations will therefore take the bite and drag India under the UN flag into a conflict not of its making.
It is apparent that photo opportunities of the kind Prime Minister Modi is indulging in -- such as those showing him aboard IAF choppers providing relief in Chennai or onboard an aircraft carrier -- are being taken too seriously. Overconfidence in the military also calls for a warning. A brass that could not convince its political leadership that a combined commanders’ conference is not like a political party’s jamboree is not one that can be relied on to pull off peace enforcement half a continent away.
The only positive spin one can make of the statement is that India is perhaps under pressure from the USA to sign up for an impending ‘Coalition of the Willing II’, which it rightly wishes to avoid. Therefore, its insistence on UN resolution, which in the circumstance of peace enforcement in Iraq or Syria may be difficult to come by.