To any half-competent historian, the idea that Afghanistan is a land of untameable savages where order cannot be restored —a favourite trope of Western reportage — is nonsense. If India intends to be taken seriously as a regional power, a status it often seeks, it also needs to be a provider of collective security

“Legs and arms protruding from the snow, Europeans and Hindustanis half-buried, horses and camels all dead,” Subedar Sita Ram chronicled the annihilation of the imperial British garrison which began to march out of Kabul in the high winter of 1842. Perched in the hills, Sita Ram recorded, Afghan tribesmen shot at the British forces, leaving them “as helpless as a handcuffed prisoner”. “The men fought like gods, not like men”, he concluded. “But, alas!, alas!, who can withstand fate”?

Five thousand soldiers, and some 15,000 camp-followers —many women and children — had marched out of Kabul. Pop history holds just one, surgeon William Brydon, survived; the real number was a few hundred. For fifteen months, Sita Ram served as a slave, sold in the bazaar for Rs 240; the wives and children of other soldiers never saw their homeland again.

Early this month, Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, used a visit to New Delhi to privately press a request for at least a Brigade — perhaps even a Division —of Indian troops to be deployed in a peacekeeping role, ahead of a peace deal with the Taliban which is expected to lead to the final withdrawal of United States forces. Kabul, diplomatic sources said, hopes to put together a multinational framework, perhaps United Nations-led, for this troop deployment.

To most in India’s strategic establishment, the idea appears insane: From the decimation of Britain’s 1842 army, which included thousands of Indians, to the grinding down of Soviet Union in 1979-1989, and the morass the United States has descended into since 9/11, intervention in Afghanistan hasn’t had happy outcomes.

For India, though, failure to intervene will also have costs —key among them, the risk that southern Afghanistan could become a safe haven for jihadists, and that protracted insurgency could eventually destabilise the West Asian states on India depends for its energy security. Put simply, Indian troops in Afghanistan might be an insane idea — but this insane idea needs to be considered very, very seriously.

Idea Finds Few Takers

To understand why Afghanistan’s calls for Indian troops are becoming louder, one has to turn to the agreement now being hammered out between Taliban negotiators and United States diplomats in Doha. The deal is expected to include guarantees the Islamist insurgents will scale down violence — but bitter experience has taught Afghans to suspect the Taliban will resile on their word the minute the United States vacates its military bases.

New Delhi’s long-standing allies in Afghanistan’s north — who India, along with Iran and Russia funded and armed through their long, bitter battle against the Taliban until 9/11 — see an Indian Army as insurance against their cities being overrun by proxies for the Pakistan Army.

Few Indian military analysts see deployment in Afghanistan as sustainable. There is, critically, just no way to provide logistical support to an Indian garrison. The only workable route is through Iran’s Chabahar port, connecting by rail and road to the city of Herat. The route has been used by India before, to provide both civilian and military aid to Afghanistan — but with Iran-United States hostilities rising, the route may not be a reliable one.

Vivek Chadha, a former army officer now working at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analysis in New Delhi, says that, decades after India’s ill-fated intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987-1990, the country just doesn’t have the logistical and technological means to support a counter-insurgency mission in a third country.

The Indian Air Force just isn’t equipped to provide cover for forces operating in hostile environments out-of-theatre; surveillance assets are limited; independent intelligence capacity almost non-existent.

“Experience also teaches us,” Chadha argues, “that missions like these tend to snowball. We’ll send troops; they’ll be attacked by Pakistan’s proxies, and we’ll have to send more troops to protect them.”

India’s partners in sustaining the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have worked, in recent years, to make their peace with the Islamist insurgency. Iran’s intelligence services have long enjoyed a robust tactical relationship with the Taliban — using them to harry the United States, on the one hand, while at once arming and equipping Shi’a proxies opposed to the insurgents. In the event of a Taliban effort to capture power, Tehran would likely back its opponents — but at arm’s length, as it did in the 1990s.

For its part, Russia sees the Taliban as an ally against the Islamic State on the borders of its central Asian allies. Afghan authorities have bitterly complained that Russia is providing covert military assistance to Taliban units operating in the country’s north — a claim Moscow denies. Beijing, similarly, has cultivated close links to the Taliban, in return for help with jihadists seeking to target Xinjiang province.

The United States, of course, doesn’t care deeply about the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for jihadists: the country protected from the immediate fallout by sheer distance, and capable of operating against targets using its global network of bases.

New Delhi, though, just doesn’t have the option of relying on the Taliban’s goodwill. Even though Taliban negotiators have reached out to New Delhi, seeking diplomatic engagement, the group remains deeply enmeshed with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. It also has disturbing links with a welter of anti-India jihadist groups — ranging from the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, to al-Qaeda’s Indian subcontinent unit.

Al-Qaeda’s last subcontinent chief, Uttar Pradesh-born jihadist Sana-ul-Haq, was in the company of Taliban when he was killed in a drone strike, intelligence sources note.

But against this counter-terrorism concerns, New Delhi must weigh the costs — in cash and blood — of a physical presence in Afghanistan, which are likely substantial. The question will be: Are a few terrorists really worth the enormous financial burdens and risks which come with committing troops overseas?

India's Status As A Regional Power 

The answer will, of course, lie partly in what kind of multinational framework is stitched together to secure Afghanistan once the United States withdraws — and how much pressure there is on Pakistan to abide by it. The signs, for now, aren’t heartening. President Donald Trump’s government seems content to hand over management of a post-deal Afghanistan to Islamabad, and is already working to ease sanctions imposed by the multinational Financial Action Task Force.

But New Delhi also needs to ask itself a harder question: If India intends to be taken seriously as a regional power, a status it often seeks, it also needs to be a provider of collective security. For decades, New Delhi’s sought a seat at the global high table, but has shied away from the responsibilities that come with it. India was conspicuously absent, even in a humanitarian role, from helping its West Asian allies push back against the Islamic State. New Delhi’s silence on the Rohingya crisis, similarly, led neighbours Bangladesh and Myanmar, similarly, to turn to China to mediate.

To any half-competent historian, the idea that Afghanistan is a land of untameable savages where order cannot be restored —a favourite trope of Western reportage — is nonsense. For more than 2,500 years, Afghanistan was a stable and prosperous part of one empire or the other, from the Kushans to the Persians. The Soviet war of 1979-1989, or the United States post-9/11 war, failed because of errors in planning and execution, not some mystical property of the Afghan soil.

New Delhi has the opportunity here to bring something genuinely new to the table on what multinational peacekeeping should look like the insurgency-torn which litter Asia, and what the global order to govern them should be. Even if New Delhi turns its back on Afghanistan, it’s going to face similar challenges again — perhaps sooner than it imagines. The time to stop dithering, and prepare for the challenge, is now.