While the ad hoc decision-making process currently in place has yielded some successes in military missions overseas, due in part to fortuitous circumstances and able on-the-ground leadership, there is a need to establish a serious policy dialogue regarding the role and interactions of the political, diplomatic, and military establishments in such crisis situations.
This point came out clearly during a recent book discussion on ‘Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military’ by Sushant Singh, Associate Editor at the Indian Express, who has considerable experience with the Indian army and as a military observer with the United Nations. The discussion at Observer Research Foundation on April 7, 2017 was chaired by Dr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF.
Singh’s book focuses on three missions carried out by the Indian military in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone, and uses insights gained from the detailed study of these particular operations to draw broader policy recommendations. The two primary takeaways highlighted by Singh were the need for policy clarity during military intervention overseas and for declassification of military records.
Dr. Joshi highlighted the fact that India enjoys considerable international goodwill and trust, which must be built upon with competent politico-military thinking when India is called upon to intervene abroad.
The discussants brought unique perspectives on India’s overseas military operations. AK Banerjee, former High Commissioner of India to the Maldives during the time of Operation Cactus in 1988, shared his experience on the ground, as well as insights on India’s duty to help a friendly democratic nation in its neighbourhood. Smita Prakash, News Editor at Asian News International, stressed the need for more accounts of overseas operations, particularly from the perspective of the on the ground and behind-the-scenes decision makers.
All panellists emphasised the importance of coordination between the various institutions involved when the Indian military takes on sensitive overseas operations. In particular, the discussion brought up the organisational aspects of decision making in such challenging circumstances, requiring coordination between diplomatic, military and political spheres.
In the three missions included in the book, the common theme is that operational success requires clear policy guidelines and a command structure that is conducive to efficient decision-making in times of crisis. Sushant Singh stressed that the need of the hour, as India’s military capabilities and aspirations increase, is for greater discussion in the public domain so that various entities involved, including the armed forces and diplomatic corps, are better prepared to handle future crises.
Since the book itself relies predominantly on personal accounts, the discussion also served to underscore the importance of declassification of military records in order to facilitate more informed dialogue in the public domain about India’s overseas military interventions. Such records do not exist for the Maldives operation, and are classified in the case of the Sri Lankan operation. This impedes the informed study of the past that may serve to habilitate better preparedness as India augments its military capacity. The overarching narrative of the discussion was that there is a need to learn from history in order to better prepare for India’s increasing security role, and this requires military records in the public domain in order to facilitate policy making and contingency planning for future situations during which India decides to use military force overseas.
The discussion also highlighted the challenges faced by the armed forces in varied institutional contexts. In the case of captive Indian peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone, Singh pointed out the particular challenges of working with a multilateral organisation. He noted that operational difficulties often arise in situations where the United Nations will only take ownership of an operation ex post facto contingent on its success. Singh emphasised that India has increasingly taken account of the risky nature of such operations and accordingly turned down several proposed UN missions of low national strategic interest.
In the question and answer session that followed the event, a diverse range of issues were raised, including the human rights dimensions of India’s military operations overseas, improvements in the capabilities and processes employed by the successful parachute brigade deployed in the Maldives operation, and public perception and government treatment of troops deployed overseas. The speakers as well as audience members with knowledge of the Maldives mission stressed that it was a well-executed yet under-appreciated operation. Comments also emphasised that the Indian forces, in comparison with other nations’ militaries, uses minimal force in its overseas missions so as to minimise collateral damage. In the context of the discussion about human rights violations during such missions, former ambassador Banerjee recounted an anecdote about efforts made by the Indian forces to respect the local culture and customs during their mission in the Maldives.
Overall, the discussion shed light on critical policy issues through its focus on three specific missions carried out by Indian armed forces overseas. Across the case studies, the presentation’s central thesis revolved around the need for greater policy clarity on organizational and leadership structure to facilitate decision-making under pressure. Such time-sensitive situations often arise when India finds itself involved in the affairs of a sovereign nation that requires external military intervention.
This report is prepared by Aparajita Das, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi