At that point, cool heads in New Delhi probably will see that India’s rapid move into Afghanistan was based on the wrong but understandable conclusion that Washington meant to defeat its 9/11 attackers. Undone by US-NATO fecklessness, they will also see that what once was a glittering economic and diplomatic opportunity has been transformed into a potentially war-causing question of national honor, willpower and prestige.
If India leaves Afghanistan, there’s no way to avoid having the Taliban, Pakistan and all the Muslim world perceive the common-sense Indian departure as anything but a victory for Islam over Allah’s polytheist enemies. Unavoidably, India’s Afghan withdrawal will be seen as a triumph for Pakistan that restores its strategic depth; as an act that puts a huge dent in New Delhi’s oft-stated ambition to be a regional superpower; as a signal to India’s growing Islamist militant movement and its foreign backers that Hindu power is not invincible; and, by Beijing, as a sign of India’s lack of resolve at a time of rising Indo-Chinese tensions.
It’s nice to think that when this no-win situation becomes clear, New Delhi and its generals will have the thick-skin and toughness to decide the Afghan game is not worth the candle. (And that their counterparts in Islamabad are adult enough to forego public gloating.) For New Delhi, realism dictates that a major military effort in Afghanistan is not sustainable, and that it isn’t worth introducing the massive Indian force needed to try to protect India’s Afghan investment only to fail and perhaps set in motion events that could potentially lead to a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan.
Sadly, few governments in history have ever had the courage to get out of quagmires while the going was good. The US surged in Iraq and Afghanistan and still lost both wars, for example, and Russia is now losing its second war in the North Caucasus. At day’s end, the need of both New Delhi and Islamabad to save face and protect their strategic interests may well lead to the brink of a nuclear disaster over Afghanistan, which, to paraphrase Bismarck, probably isn’t worth the bones of one Indian grenadier.
Michael Scheuer is the author of ‘Imperial Hubris’ and former chief of the CIA’s Bin Laden Issue Station. He writes regularly for Non-intervention.com