India and the 'Global NATO': Expectations and Reservations

26 Jan, 2009    ·   2790

Sonali Huria outlines the problems that a India-NATO partnership is likely to pose

NATO is gradually transforming from a Eurocentric military alliance into a global politico-military organization. Michael Ruhle, Deputy Head of the NATO Secretary General's Policy Planning Unit, at a recently concluded India-NATO dialogue in New Delhi, stated that the cataclysmic events of 9/11 caused NATO to realize that to effectively deal with new security threats in a rapidly globalizing world, it would have to step outside the confines of the transatlantic community and construct a participatory framework of partnerships between itself and non-member states in different geographic regions, with similar democratic values and security interests.

The biggest challenge NATO has on its hands at present is Afghanistan, where the US and NATO forces are overstretched, with a spiraling body count and are faced not only with potent anti-America sentiment, but also a strong, resurgent Taliban. State-building in Afghanistan has become more important today, and any chance for achieving 'success,' hinges on how far the international community will be willing to engage itself - both militarily and for the purpose of building Afghanistan's public institutions and state structures.

It is against this backdrop that India has become a valuable potential ally for NATO, which sees India as an anchor state in the South Asian region - a liberal democracy with shared security concerns. Additionally, India's contribution to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the goodwill it enjoys among the local Afghan population makes it a partner of choice for NATO.

A section in India argues for a formal NATO-India partnership and military engagement by India in Afghanistan on several grounds. First, working closely with NATO will make India a key global actor, securing for it an important role in shaping the future course of international relations by addressing issues of global and regional concern ranging from international terrorism to climate change and energy security, and in turn hasten its advent onto the world stage as a power to reckon with. Second, India, cannot afford to remain a mute spectator to the goings-on within its neighbourhood. It continues to be victimized by cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan's territory (as was amply demonstrated by the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks). Further, the spread of the influence of the Taliban to Pakistan's western borders, threatens to destabilize not only Pakistan, but the entire region as well. Third, India cannot expect to have a growing economic and diplomatic profile within South Asia, while shying away from proactively addressing the region's security problems.

Despite the above seemingly common areas for cooperation between the two however, there are substantial problems in forging such a partnership in Afghanistan, especially military. First, any move to send Indian troops into Afghanistan will be met by stiff domestic opposition, especially since the IPKF debacle still lingers on in the nation's political memory. Second, since local public sentiment in Afghanistan against foreign presence is at an all-time high, the presence of Indian troops in the region, even if they are not engaged in counter-insurgency operations, is likely to make them vulnerable to terrorist attacks - a cost that the political configuration at the centre can ill-afford, especially with general elections round the corner.

Third, India, a non-aligned state, might find itself willy-nilly aligning its foreign policy to suit NATO's interests, which is primarily an American-led military alliance. Additionally, a geographical enlargement of the NATO into South Asia and its partnership with India in particular, is likely to and perhaps already is generating considerable worry and suspicion among India's neighbours, particularly, Pakistan. Former Pakistani Army Chief, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, is reported to have told the Dawn that Pakistan will "have to…achieve greater understanding and cooperation with China, Russia, Iran and other friendly countries of the region to strengthen (its) national security which is being threatened by the encirclement policy being followed by the US, India, NATO and the European Union."

Fourth, India is likely to face problems in operationalizing any formal India-NATO partnership. Will such a partnership be an ad-hoc relationship limited to an engagement in Afghanistan or will it involve India becoming a formal member of the alliance? India will also face the problem of a lack of geographical access to Afghanistan. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the US will be willing to get India on board at a time when it is largely dependent on Pakistan for routing supplies to its forces in Afghanistan, and therefore, remains sensitive to Pakistan's concerns about India's involvement in Afghanistan.

Therefore, any substantial military involvement in Afghanistan is likely to be counter-productive and will only seek to undermine and harm India's interests. While no meaningful partnership between NATO and India can be forged without addressing the above-stated problems; the two can engage at other levels, however. India has already extended training facilities to US soldiers at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) in Mizoram, which specializes in unconventional, especially guerrilla warfare. This facility can be extended to NATO troops as well. Additionally, they can work towards greater cooperation in the area of intelligence sharing. This is as far as the relations between the two can and should go.