Expanding India’s Peacekeeping Footprint
Peacekeeping is not the primary job of a military, but only the military can do it. It is no wonder peacekeeping is yet another feather in the Indian military’s beret. In the Army’s holding high the flag, it has contributed to the image of India, for long a leading Troop Contributing Country (TCC).
However, in light of India being a Rising Power, is there a case for upping its participation in the UN’s peacekeeping agenda, particularly in light of a ‘New Agenda for Peace’? What might be the contours of such a step up on India’s part?
Here I take up two ideas on how India can up its act. The first is through leveraging its forte, military professionalism, with a turn to ‘robust peacekeeping’ without the usual caveats. Second is in imagining peace interventions for crafting of innovative UN politico-military action, exercising India’s military forte.
Today, UN peacekeeping is at a plateau. Military-strategic developments stemming from the global geopolitical flux have naturally impacted UN peacekeeping. For its part, the UN has responded with a shift towards a ‘political first’ conflict resolution strategy. The place of UN peacekeeping in conflict resolution is supportive and enabling.
The stand-off in the UN Security Council has led to no peacekeeping missions being authorized lately, while peacekeeping missions underway are facing calls for drawdown and exit. The Council appears to be leaning on Special Political Missions, under the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, for mediated solutions, rather than relying on boots on ground overseen by the Department of Peace Operations.
This is a departure from the post-Cold War practice in which a multidimensional peacekeeping arrangement, with an intrinsic military component, was usually inserted into conflict zones. The reduced scope for peacekeeping deployment opens possibilities of thinking on how to make peacekeepers pertinent in the extant milieu.
Peacekeeping can be visualized as a triangle with its three vertices depicting respectively peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Peacekeeping deployment was to provide a modicum of stability on the ground for early peacebuilding to progress, even as a negotiated agreement is arrived at through peacemaking initiatives. The assumption is that peacekeeper presence would instill confidence in the conflict parties on the peacemaking table, while enabling the international community fulfill an obligation of protection of civilians (POC) through provisioning security and early recovery.
This is a necessarily time-consuming approach. It exposes the peacekeeping operation to vagaries of the ground situation, including resumption of violence and tenacity of spoilers. Besides endangering personnel security, the mission mandate of POC gets impacted.
Robust Peacekeeping has been visualized as answer. This involves the UN military component in applying military force below the strategic consent threshold. Even so, there is a reasonable reluctance among some TCCs to take up ‘stabilization’ and extension of state authority tasks that involve ‘robust peacekeeping’ or the taming of armed groups through application of military force. On their part, TCCs have been skeptical of the political heft behind peacemaking, wanting more to be done politically so that the military is left only with deterring spoilers rather than taking them out militarily.
Fluid security situations have led to the external military forces, from the regional bloc or from their strategic partners, being inducted into mission areas. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the UN stabilization mission there turned to a Force Intervention Brigade in the 2010s and, lately, to a regional force of the East African Community. Likewise in the UN mission in South Sudan, a regional intervention force was envisaged in the revitalized peace agreement to support the return of peace.
Capable of offensive action, these forces are to whittle recalcitrant armed groups. Their action sometimes increases threat to deployed peacekeepers, with the violent actors unable to make out a distinction between the UN and the supportive forces. For instance, in Mali, successive French military operations, Operations Serval and Berkhane, till recently, operated along-side the Mission there; inadvertently increasing the risk to the deployed peacekeepers, making the Mali mission tote up the highest casualty figures.
The UN has responded with a heightened thrust on force protection by implementing recommendations in the report of General Santos Cruz, and shifting to the hitherto-taboo topic of operationalisation of the intelligence cycle. Not only are Mission Headquarters more dynamic but leaders better selected and trained. Missions have energized information analysis and sharing. Contingent equipping and training are priority.
Such improvements can potentially engender a greater ability and willingness to take on a combat role on part of peacekeepers – when warranted and in line with mission mandate. Reservations on robust peacekeeping could – and should - be selectively and progressively shed.
A turn to robust peacekeeping
India could consider a taking to robust peacekeeping with a greater sense of ownership. It would strengthen the UN’s hand in stabilization tasks. This is not advocacy of default use of force, as much as a configuration of force and willingness to use force. While such posture serves to deter, resort to military force must remain the last resort.
An ability to negotiate with the conflict parties and recalcitrant armed groups at the tactical level must be intrinsic with such a force. While the mission’s political and civil affairs resources are available, contingents must also have an ability to negotiate its way through hotspots. This presupposes knowledge of the human terrain and a felicity with the local language. Contingents would require to be duly equipped in requisite soft skills, for which specialized training could be imparted prior.
From their counter insurgency spells of duty, Indian military contingents are familiar with conflict environments and are well-versed in fraternization and community interaction. Indian contingents are in a position materially and morally to take to combat, though after due exercise of outreach that prevents such resort in first place. Needless to add, proportionality and discrimination must inform all military action. This is of a piece with the contribution of the Indian brigade in DRC, where it has resorted to tactical level action against rebels, including through heliborne operations.
Since robust action potentially puts troops in harm’s way, India must lobby for staff representation in the intelligence and operations branches of Force Headquarters, besides a fair share of leadership positions. Its battalion groups must have a balance of enablers, as Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance subunits, such as drones, besides potent firepower assets as attack helicopters. Alongside, it must have language and culture specialists, enrolled through the Short Service commission and Agnipath scheme.
Innovating Preventive Deployment
As behooves an aspirant member of the Security Council, India must contribute ideationally to expand the scope of UN’s relevance in the emerging world. It could do this by backing opportunities for showcasing its military prowess in the interests of the international community. For now, India’s bilateral and multilateral participation in military exercises with strategic partners and regional organisations is commendable. It must enlarge this to increasing the ambit of peacekeeping in terms of preventive deployment.
The UN has been emphasizing conflict prevention for decades now. Conflict prevention-related peacemaking – preventive diplomacy - could use the muscle of preventive deployment to enhance its efficacy prior to, at the cusp of and on the outbreak of conflict.
India could place such capability at the disposal of the UN, either stand-alone or jointly with like-minded member states. Hypothetical illustrations of the scope of the innovation are in order.
Take, for instance, the circumstance that obtained a decade ago, when Gaddafi’s forces were threatening genocide in Benghazi. The standoff led to intervention of the Western powers, and the rest is history. If a UN member state had made standby forces available for speedy deployment at Benghazi in a preventive mode, history might have been different. India was then at the horse-shoe table and could have inserted the option in Security Council deliberations directly, timely.
Take the circumstance preceding the Ukraine War. It was known for almost a month prior that the war would likely break out after the Winter Olympics. If a set of member states close to both sides were to have proactively offere a preventive deployment force, it is plausible that the Russo-Ukraine War could have been prevented. This could also have also been made available at a later juncture when the two sides proceeded with a few rounds of talks in the early period of the conflict. India was yet again in the Security Council during the period, allowing it a greater voice, enough to drum up a coalition of like-minded countries for a preventive deployment.
Another counter-factual illustration may help sell the possibilities and potential of preventive deployment. The period preceding the departure of the United States (US)-led West from Afghanistan witnessed protracted negotiations at Doha with the Taliban. Post-conflict stability through insertion of a preventive deployment force under aegis of a regional organisation, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, with the blessing of the Council, could have been thought through alongside. In the event, the UN special envoy, present at the side-lines of the talks was left with little to do.
India’s out-of-region capability is visible in its evacuation of citizens from foreign shores, such as from Ukraine and most recently from Sudan. This implies that it has the reach for also inserting troops with like alacrity. Its contribution to the UN Standby Arrangements System can be dusted up to facilitate such deployment on a short fuse.
Having the capability is not enough. There must be a willingness to offer it through diplomatic mobilization at the Security Council. Admittedly, India has a foreign policy that respects sovereignty of states and is mindful against external interference in internal affairs of states. Some conflict scenarios, that otherwise lend themselves to preventive deployment, can plausibly be viewed as internal matters. India is rightly wary of breaching the principle of non-interference. A case to point is its non-participation in the UN-African Union’s hybrid mission in Darfur.
However, it is evident that what begins in the domestic sphere often speedily spills over - and exponentially at that. India’s acceptability across a wide spectrum of the international community as a fair broker allows for a step-up to a larger role. Shibboleths should not hold India back. It must act the part of Voice of the Global South.
It cannot continue being counted as merely another prominent TCC, a club that also has Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. To break-out, India has to offer a capability for the UN that places it in a footing of its own and appropriate to its changed stature as an ‘emerged power’.
India must obviously retain a modicum of control over such deployment of its troops, for which a special envoy could be nominated for interfacing with the conflict parties, the mission and the regional stakeholders. A more active embassy, with additional staffing in such conflict zones, will help the ministry monitor and align the political prong of UN strategy with the military prong. The appointment of a permanent defence attaché at the Permanent Mission of India in New York needs being done, as also one to the African Union.
The ongoing geopolitical stand-off threatens to relegate the UN system. The UN is the most significant and legitimate multilateral forum. The UN’s continued efficacy is in the Indian national interest. A member state as India that aspires to a global role, needs to step up to such a role. It will not be conferred on it by any strategic partner. Toting up the backing of the P5 for having India as an equal partner is not enough.
Imagination precedes innovation. Indian diplomacy that emphasizes multilateralism could use innovative ideas. The greater integration in the higher national security structure and higher defence management over past two decades allows for felicity in using the tools available – diplomacy and military.
Active participation in peacemaking, including conflict prevention, is necessary. This has largely been monopoly of the usual penholders in the Council and their First World allies. Offering a preventive deployment capability to the UN would enhance India’s profile, strengthening its peacemaking presence.
Additionally, peacebuilding could also see greater Indian financial contribution. Indian-origin International Non-Governmental Organisations should become a more visible and sought-after presence in conflict zones. The scope of bilateral developmental assistance and lines of credit could be expanded by a distinctive Indian aid agency, with working hands from an Indian ‘peace corps’ equivalent organisation.
India must bring innovative ideas to the table and a capability to back these up. Peacekeeping forte is not enough. Breaking out of the box requires participation in doctrine evolution and proactive partnering in peacemaking and peacebuilding. Though there is no call for India to be the global policeman, assisting the populace caught up in conflicts is eminently in the spirit of the slogan: ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. With international politics heading towards a deadlock, India must spot an opportunity for itself in the refurbishment of multilateralism, enabling the UN to reemerge as the principal forum.