Burden worth taking

Burden worth taking

Making friends among the international community at the cost of some sacrifice is in our absolute national interest.

On April 9, Lt Col Mahipal Singh, Naib Subedar Shiv Kumar and three other ranks of the Indian contingent to the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan lost their lives in an ambush by unknown rebels. It was a tragic event. Rebels in this area of conflict often target South Sudanese movement both military and civilian.

Obviously, there are elements who do not wish to see South Sudan stabilise as the newest nation of the world. There may also well be people who would not like to see India cultivating political and economic interests in oil rich South Sudan.  Those are the conflict mongers the international community needs to defeat. Indian troops escorting a UN convoy carrying tools of development were trying to do just that.

The incident has prompted some people to question the very wisdom of risking Indian lives  in the process of taking some body else’s chestnuts out of a fire that does not threaten  Indian interests. An in-depth analysis of the positives and negatives of India’s involvement in UN peace keeping operations (UNPKO) is being sought. The questions being raised are (a) Are Indian lives being put at risk without justification? (b) Is there any strategic dividend for India in contributing to UN peace keeping operations? And (C) does India have a strategic policy perspective to this involvement?

Let us begin by recalling that India has been a leading provider of military resource for UN mandated peacekeeping operations and other humanitarian needs across the world. Starting with Korea and through Somalia, India today deploys nearly 9,000 military and civil personnel in nine UN missions.

Also, that our casualties at 153 are the highest among contributing countries indicating  our willingness to undertake risky operations.This however must be seen in conjunction with the fact that with our dedication to duty, our impartiality, our training, our ability to befriend people and our sense of compassion towards the victims of conflict, we are the most sought after contributor not by the UN or the western decision makers at the UN but by the nations that seek such help, themselves. Our soldiers do us proud and the international goodwill they earn for India is indeed very substantial.

The U N Secretary General has publicly acknowledged as much.
India is a big country and aspires to a permanent seat at the UN high table. It is only befitting for an emerging political, economic and military power to take responsibility for international peace and development. Great nations do not run away from responsibility just because of a few casualties. To argue that our soldiers are exposed to danger in situations bereft of our own national interest will be myopic.

World peace is very much in our national interest. Making friends among the international community by earning their gratitude and goodwill at the cost of some sacrifice is in our absolute national interest. India is an important stake holder in world peace.

Rational conditionalities

True, that permanent membership of the UN Security Council will not come merely by demonstrating international responsibility through participation in UNPKO but it certainly helps our claim.  India does have a clear strategic perspective on participation in UNPKO. Our participation is predicated by several rational conditionalities: consent of parties to the conflict, impartiality of the peacekeepers, and the use of force by lightly armed peacekeepers only in self-defense. India refuses to support partisan interest as in Iraq and India’s priorities lie nearer home.

Our humanitarian and developmental aid in Afghanistan is one example. Africa is important to the Indian strategic interest – the East African coastline is within India’s ‘near abroad,’ Africa accounts for about a fifth of Indian oil imports, and trade ties are rapidly expanding.  Africa is the key to India’s energy security calculus. We need friends in Africa.

 It is true that participation in UNPKO does not afford much tactical or operational learning experience to Indian troops. In fact our own experience and expertise offers much more to contingents from other countries to learn from.

Our troops do however receive the benefit of exposure to other armies, their operating procedures, latest technology in weapon systems and communication equipment and above all, to diverse international military culture. This prepares India for possible joint operations with other militaries. In the increasingly more complex world of tomorrow this interoperability will stand us in good stead.

The developed west shies away from the risk of body bags coming home.  The UNPKO in Somalia in the 1990s so seriously mauled the US forces that its troops now fight only under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation flag, and so do most western and developed countries. Italy pulled out its troops from Somalia when it had just one soldier killed.

They find it difficult to justify casualties in UN peace keeping operations.
That is their internal dilemma.  No wonder the international community is openly critical of their attitude.

This is however not to suggest that all is well with the way UNPKO are planned and put in place. All is indeed not well in how western nations hold all the aces at the decision making level and even Russia and China monopolise the second rung of the planning and control mechanism.

It is diabolic that those who face the bullet have little say in deciding the rules of engagement or the timing of induction. There is urgent need for real stake holders to also be the decision makers or principle advisors to the Security Council.

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