Thursday, July 26, 2007

Indian Military Bases Abroad : An Introductory Critique

This post is in response to two articles which appeared in The Times of India, 17 July 2007, titled, "Indian forces get foothold in Central Asia" and "India closely watching energy interests" by Rajat Pandit.

The two articles talk of quiet efforts by the Indian state to acquire military bases in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan. The story in focus mentions that, "...India is preparing to deploy at least one squadron of Mi-17 helicopters at the Ayni airbase in Tajikistan. This will be its 'first real military outpost' on foreign shores and give New Delhi 'strategic reach' in energy-rich Central Asia." Ayni military air field is 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the country's capital, Dushanbe. Refer to the map below for the exact location, Ayni is more on the Afghan-Uzbekistan border rather far away from Pakistan.

Three reasons can be discerned from the articles as to why India should seek a military base in the region: 1. India has growing energy interests in the region; 2. Gives New Delhi 'strategic reach'; 3. To keep tabs on "any anti-Indian activity" in the terrorism-infested Pakistan-Afghanistan region. The article assesses the past prescribed policy of not seeking bases abroad due to a, "...conservatism [that] was part of the idealism...[of the past]" giving way now " a realism...driven both by...threats...needs of an emerging power." In the authors opinion "...this military outpost [will be used] for intelligence-gathering and surveillance operations".

Tajikistan acquires importance for India as only a narrow strip of Afghani land (Wakhan Corridor) separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. The Wakhan corridor, at places only about 10 kilometers wide, has an interesting history and owes its Afghan belonging to The Great Game era when three important powers (Czarist Russia, British Colonial India and the Chinese empire) competed for influence. The Wakhan corrridor was given to Afghanistan so as to create a buffer between the Russian colonial empire and British India.

And before we spill more milk than necessary it would be educative to take cognizances of the fact that the Tajik government has denied plans for an Indian base!

Rajat Pandit is an old hand in The Times of India and has been writing on military and strategic issues as long as I can remember. Pandit's writing makes this idea of a foreign base smack of an inferiority complex, a sort of devious (the article begins..."Quietly, very quietly...") bravado about the secret evil Indian desire, similar to a feeling of incredulity when such high politics is discussed over cups of tea in road side Indian tea stalls.

The issue of 'military out post[s]' on foreign shores is an idea that appears abhorable, precisely because most foreign military forces are seen as occupying forces and whatever little good-will the nation might earn through softer policies (building roads, hospitals and such infrastructural links) translates into a disgust and a loathing that many American bases around the world are classical testimonies of.

Does Rajat Pandit have a short memory or is it us that suffer from selective amnesia? Do we forget that the gratitude with which the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was invited to Sri Lanka by the Lankan government to fight the Indian trained Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)? The result was a maiming and a ridiculous farce that has perhaps never been seen before nor repeated thereafter. The Indian trained Tamil Tiger Force routed and harassed the IPKF for most of its stay. That ambition of the Indian state was a direct result of the Indira Doctrine (Named after Indira Gandhi during whose time the doctrine was espoused and asserted New Delhi’s regional overlordship which South Asia neighbors were expected to accept without demur).

We will consider what Pandit has to say regarding the utility of bases abroad:"... a full-fledged base in the future...will... give India the option to even rapidly 'insert' its special forces into nearby areas if its interests are threatened, as they were during the hijack of IC-814 to Kandahar in December 1999."

The expression of a 'military post at the moment' being turned into a full fledged base in the future is the stuff of the Indian strategists wet dreams and the construction of the sentence catches its improbability. Getting to firmer grounds, it would be note worthy if we actually conducted a thought experiment with regard to the Kandahar type situation and the rapid 'insertion' of special forces to 'protect' Indian interests. The 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines Kathmandu-Delhi flight made halts at Amritsar-Lahore-Dubai till it finally taxied in Kandahar, Afghanistan under a Taliban regime where the exchange of hostages and the prisoners took place.

Does Pandit think that special forces in Tajikistan using the base will be able to rescue such a flight! The flight first landed in Amritsar which is in India and being on the border with Pakistan is probably equipped with better security and in its own territory the Indian state failed to stop the plane and these dreamers talk of using special forces in a Kandahar type situation? Either we have our priorities grossly misplaced or Pandit is one of those analysts who sits and fantasizes about a more masculine and powerful India carrying a stick around to police the 'extended neighborhood' in his effort to dispel the boredom and lack of action a researcher is plagued with due to his profession.

The '... quiet sense of satisfaction...[on part of the Defense Ministry and the IAF]' that Pandit writes about is an ambition rooted in the western security discourse without taking in account the real and ideological cost to the Indian brand. The Indian state in its extended neighborhood enjoys a benign reputation, owing to the lack of hard power engagement with this area and also as a softer alternative to the growing Chinese military might. A lot of this good will in the extended neighborhood is earned out of cultural (Hindu/Buddhist in South East Asia; Islam in Central Asia) attractiveness. We only need to contrast Indian image in our immediate neighborhood (Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka) five years ago to actually realize the futility of naked force. Our soft power potential remains our crucial strength. Any application of hard power resources is going to boomerang on the influence we have.

It is important to bear in mind the lessons learnt from the experience of military bases in the past. Globally only the United States, France and Russia are the significant countries which actually have military bases abroad. The French are present in Francophone Africa on request of the ex-French colonies. The Russians are grudged and hated wherever they have a base. The Americans hold onto their bases only with the help of a pliant political system (Japan) or client regimes in Saudi Arabia and other locations. The Chinese deride and scorn the practice of military bases as a colonial idea and view it as occupation and hegemony. Significantly, the Chinese do not have bases and yet their influence (North East Asia-Central Asia) based on hard or soft resources only increases with the growth in national strength supported by interesting diplomacy.

The Costs

Bases create suspicion and resentment among local populations, much as the Soviet forces faced after liberating Eastern Europe in World War II. A recent example is the 9/11 attacks, partly due to the U.S. decision to leave behind bases in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states after the first Gulf War. Much as the Roman Empire tried to use its military power to buttress its weakening economic and political hold over its colonies, the uses of bases in our era is losing idea and a proposition that is slowly losing relevance. Another significant cost is the strategic over-reach this trajectory takes imposing heavy expenses on the protection and maintainence of these bases. One base is just a start, all regions in the world are significant and with increase in national power and interests (as power increases so does the area of core interest), the acquiring of bases promises to be a spiraling demand.


A foreign military outpost in the long run is more harmful than beneficial. Apart from the local and regional resentments it might give rise to, it would be important to also re-consider this dictum of 'great powers' need strategic reach being interpreted in physical terms. Even when it comes to securing Indian energy interests, it is a worth while question to pose that for how long and how many military bases do we require to get what we seek from nations? Is this the imaginative peak of our diplomacy? I do not mean to discredit or debunk the sheer power which flows out of such a military presence but my argument remains that we need to be more creative and think in more imaginative terms the future of Indian diplomacy as well our power projection!

Indians consistently tout the fact that India has never invaded and has only been invaded, we also emphasize our non-violent nature by advertising Gautam Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi in the same breath but when it comes to areas where we can actually make a difference, our fall back options are largely imitative of the previous era. It is important to understand that a Great Power is one which apart from the attributes of hard power also offers something new and different to the world, an ideological basis to its ambitions and claims. The Colonial era offered enlightenment and modernity (White Man's Burden) as its justifying ideology and the United States offers democracy, free enterprise. The Chinese have come to the centerstage with their own world view, of enlightened dictatorship (a Confucian tradition) and a non occupying, non military base seeking great power. Whether such claims are true or merely superficial is irrelevant but what is crucial is the ability to offer an alternative world view. The moral tone of Indian foreign policy for most of the existence of Modern India, offers us a viable alternative to chart that discourse as also practice it. The moral element in Indian foreign policy should not mean to let down defenses rather it would mean that salience on the use of force will be avoided and such appearances of great power status like 'military bases' will be avoided. And as an alternative to seeking a military presence, India ought to expand its influence through infrastructural activities.

1 comment:

Omair said...


As you know I tend to be more of a hawk on these issues, and think that Nehru's strategy was misplaced in one crucial regard: hard power is important.

That said, I tend to agree with your analysis that a military base at the present juncture in a Central Asian country seems both premature and liable to be counterproductive. A much more organic picture of our expanding leverage revolves on the increasing number of naval exercises we are conducting with ASEAN nations and other countries. Consequently we were among the first to be able to offer help after after the tsunami. Unfortunately we still have a way to go along that route.

Secondly we retain a great image in areas such as Central Asia, parts of Africa and West Asia that we are in danger of losing because we have been unsuccessful in operationalising the good image. This is a second important negative legacy of Nehru's politics that the foreign policy deliberations and decisions are almost exclusively in the hands of the PM and the MEA. We have little discussion of them in public. In Nehru's time some of this was overcome simply because he was a much more engaged leader, but it's downside was spectacularly revealed in 1962. Whether we have bases or not is less important than how the decision was made, and how our foreign policy is handled.