Blunting the sword’s edge

The argument is, should the military be doing the relief and rescue work?

India and Indians are basking in the glory of our military’s accomplishments – in April alone, in Yemen and Nepal, in two very different situations. And why not? The capability, commitment and dedication that our soldiers and officers have shown in saving – not killing – people, has made the Indian military an ‘Army of Saviours’, the true ‘Army of God’, if you will. We are receiving praise from around the world for that, and we think we are achieving greater influence, a core foreign policy goal.

And thanks to Climate Change, in the 21st century, there is likely to be more natural disasters than major wars, expected to be of increasing severity as the century progresses, especially in the sub-continent and Indian Ocean Region. Therefore, India will be called upon repeatedly to conduct large-scale rescue and relief operations. The Indian military is well-equipped to do the job. But, surely, somebody in the armed forces must be asking, “Wait a minute. Our primary mission is training for and fighting wars. Isn’t the sword’s edge being blunted by being called in each time there’s a disaster somewhere, to fill in for the failures of civil administrations?”

The argument is not that India should not help its own people or its neighbours in distress. The argument is, should it be the military doing it? The easy answer is, yes, because the military is the only organization that has the discipline, the dedication and the equipment to do the job. But we must take a hard look at the question and come up with some new answers.

For one, we have done peace-keeping around the world for decades, starting from Korea in the 1950s. What has it got us? We are still pleading for a seat in the UN Security Council. The Indian military’s Operation Cactus saved Maumoon Gayoom’s government and family in Maldives in 1988. Now, an anti-India sentiment pervades Gayoom’s protégé’s government – recall the GMR airport row and the arrest of the pro-India former president Mohammed Nasheed. And just in December last, when the Maldives was reeling under a water crisis, the Indian military rushed water to the island by C-17s and Il-76s, tanker ships and desalination plants.

Humanitarian assistance, disaster relief help, etc., get us some immediate gratitude, but international relations do not proceed for long on that basis. Only a naïve Manmohan Singh could go and tell George Bush that “Indians love you and are grateful for the civil nuclear deal”, and then proceed to fulfil every American wish, in that fit of gratefulness. In contrast, India went to Sri Lanka in 1987 to assist that country against the LTTE. What did we get? The LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi; the Lankans derided the Indian High Commissioner, the late J.N. Dixit, calling him ‘Viceroy’ (Dixit, of course, did not mind), and went on to become ‘friends’ with Pakistan and China. What worked there was the 'small country vs big brother’ mentality, a balancing behaviour, not a grateful neighbour.

Far more worrisome are the effects these humanitarian missions can have on the military itself. For one, the fact that the Indian military is currently able to perform these missions is by sheer chance and not by plan. Decades of ad hocism and negligence in defence procurements have meant that we have a lot of sea and airlift capabilities – the C-130s, the C-17s, etc – and we are able to operate at distance from our shores. Except, we can’t prosecute a war because while we bought all these ‘force multipliers’ we ‘forgot’ to buy the ‘force’ itself, the fighters and weaponry. We must ask ourselves, are we happy to do all these humanitarian missions simply because we can’t do the other thing? As former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once said, “Intentions change with capabilities.” If we had, instead, built a capability to take out Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi or Hafiz Saeed, would we be rather doing that?

And, after a dozen humanitarian missions, what will happen if a field commander develops an Arjuna-like predicament on a future battlefield, and begins to think: “Yesterday, I was saving the lives of these very neighbours. Today, I am being asked to kill them. I do not want to”.

It’s all a good thing to bask in the ‘glory’, even if much of it is our own creation, with jingoistic television channels not just tom-tomming at the top of their voices how India is aiding Nepal but crossing all lines of decency and hounding Nepal’s PM to spell out exactly how grateful he was to India for saving his country just as he came out of a relief camp where he was heckled for his government’s perceived incompetence in dealing with the tragedy (now, that won’t endear us to Mr Koirala’s government and win us his geopolitical friendship, will it?). But it is far more important to stop and think in what direction our military’s capabilities and doctrines are evolving, even if only to conclude that preparing for and conducting humanitarian missions and disaster relief will be the primary task of the military in the 21st century. Perhaps this is the face of superpowerdom in the 21st century.

( Source : dc )
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