US Boots-on-the-Ground in India?: Focus on Afghanistan
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 20 Sep , 2021

The US Administration is embarrassed by its capitulation to Taliban (signing a peace treaty with Taliban at Doha, February 2020, to allow withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan), the sudden collapse of the US trained and equipped Afghan Army, USA’s $2-trillion-plus investment over 20 years in Afghanistan vanishing, and its precipitous withdrawal following Taliban’s rapid capture of Kabul. USA appears to be reduced to retrieving its domestic and international “face” by striking at terrorists in Afghanistan, and needs a base from which to do this.

The idea of a staging area in India for over-the-horizon US forces was articulated during a US Congressional hearing by Republican Mark Green asking Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “Considering rumours of ISI’s support for the Taliban, have you guys reached out to India as a possible staging area for the over-the-horizon forces? I’m talking about northwest India as a potential because we all know Qatar and Doha, the other places, are just a little bit too far … Kuwait, all of that. What about northwest India? And have you reached out — have you thought about that?”. Blinken responded that he would “rather take that up in a different setting”, and that the US Administration is “deeply engaged” with New Delhi.  

The matter-of-fact tone of Green’s question indicates that US Congressmen assume that India, being USA’s subordinate strategic partner and signatory to LEMOA and CISMOA, cannot refuse USA’s request for a military base.

India has had concerns that LEMOA could commit it to hosting U.S. troops at its bases, or draw it into a military alliance with the United States and undermine its traditional autonomy. That USA sought to allay this concern may be seen from Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and his counterpart US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter both stressing that the agreement does not allow for US bases to be set up on Indian soil nor for troops to be stationed there.

However, USA has gauged India’s political establishment. This is evidenced by the US strategic mindset expressed by Benjamin Schwartz, former India country director at the Pentagon: “What the signing of this [LEMOA] shows is that the Modi government is willing to take and suffer the short-term political criticism of signing these things for the longer-term benefit of building the defense relationship with the United States” .

USA establishing a military base in India will simultaneously save face, maintain its regional hegemony, and establish its superiority in the strategic partnership. What better place is there in “northwest India” other than Kashmir or Ladakh for US military operations in Afghanistan?

Going a bit beyond Benjamin Schwartz, it may obliquely even suit the politics of the ruling Indian establishment to divert attention from domestic problems.

Strategic consequences

Troops and military hardware located in a US military base are an attractive target for politically insane Islamists. Pakistan, Taliban, or a non-state entity like ISIS or Al Qaeda, deliberately or mistakenly attacking a US base on Indian territory, would constitute an attack on USA, and lead to armed conflict if not war, centred in India.

With LEMOA and CISMOA signed, and BECA all but signed, USA would expect US-India joint military operations launched from Indian soil, against the attacker. The world is witness to US president George Bush initiating military action in Iraq, based upon unsubstantiated accusations of WMD. An attack on a US military base would certainly draw retaliation against the attacker.

If USA’s India base is attacked, the India-US strategic partnership would at the very least lead to up-scaling USA’s military infrastructure at the base, and extend to active involvement of India’s armed forces. This would almost certainly escalate into conflict with Pakistan, which is sure of China’s diplomatic support, and of the latter raising the threat levels for India along the length of the Himalayas, to divert India’s military attention and stretch its resources. Apart from the problems for India’s military, this will have a devastating, possibly irreversible, effect on India’s economy, already hit hard by the Pandemic coming on top of disastrous previous decisions.

During USA’s 20-years occupation of Afghanistan, its attacks on Taliban and Al Qaeda resulted in huge loss of life and property of ordinary Afghanis who were unconnected with terrorists. These losses were explained away as “collateral damage”, often not even acknowledged, leave alone regretted. Strikes against terrorists launched from a US base on Indian soil cannot be any more accurate than US attacks launched from Bagram and other erstwhile US bases inside Afghanistan. Such “collateral damage” on Afghani civilians will vitiate India’s relationship as a major stakeholder of peace and stability, with the Afghani public, and its diplomatic position with Afghanistan.

Further, US intention of striking at terrorists “in and around Afghanistan” from its base in India, is ominous, especially the word “around”. It could mean that US forces would unilaterally acquire targets (persons, terrorist hideouts, etc) at their discretion. India’s accountability for attacks launched by US forces from Indian territory, would be unavoidable.

The lines are being drawn. Senator Green spoke of rumours of ISI supporting Taliban. However, news of heavy casualties among Pakistani regular troops assisting Taliban in attacking Panjshir, confirms Pakistan’s support, whatever its statements. Iran applauded Taliban’s victory even if only because USA was humbled, is about to get full SCO membership with China, Russia and Central Asian Republics, and joint Iran-Russia-China maritime exercises are planned in the Persian Gulf.

Further, the recent formation of AUKUS has caused China no little disquiet. India already being a member of USA-Australia-Japan-India QUAD, China is wary of India becoming the “sixth eye” of the western powers existing Five Eyes (USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). With PM Modi joining a QUAD summit meeting in Washington on 24 September, and meeting with US president Biden separately, Afghanistan will be in sharp focus.

In this emerging scenario, USA seeking a military base in India is certain. Some may opine that the foregoing is an unlikely scenario, but strategic good sense dictates that India must think-through the consequences of acceding to a US military base in India.


India is a sovereign democratic Republic, with complete power and authority over its territorial and material assets, independence and integrity of political and economic policy, and ownership, control & jurisdiction over all its national assets and properties.

Starting 1950, Indian foreign policy has sought to leverage India’s strategic autonomy in order to safeguard sovereign rights and promote national interests. However, weakening of India’s strategic autonomy began with India’s New Economic Policy 1991 crafted by FM Dr.Manmohan Singh.  

Empowered by Article 73, PM Dr. Manmohan Singh went ahead with signing a strategic partnership agreement with USA in 2005, without discussion in the Indian Parliament. Thus, subordination to US foreign policy took shape under the stewardship of PM Dr. Manmohan Singh, with drafting the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), signed in 2016 as LEMOA.

In June 2018, USA told India, by then under the stewardship of PM Narendra Modi, to cut oil imports from Iran “to zero” by 4 November, or face sanctions without waivers. This had obvious adverse economic effects for India. In 2019, in continuing subjugation to US diktat, India also stopped oil imports from Venezuela for the same reason, and suffered further economic loss.

India’s subordinate status in its strategic partnership with USA is the sad reality. However, from being USA’s subordinate strategic partner, allowing a US military base will lower India’s status to that of USA’s vassal state. Allowing a US military base on Indian territory could well be the final nail in the coffin of India’s political sovereignty.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin on freedom and security, the nation which trades sovereignty for security does not deserve nor will ever receive either.

In the context of USA’s request for a military base in India, it is worth emulating PM Vajpayee. In July 2003, US president George Bush requested India to send 17,000 Indian troops to assist US troops in Iraq. Although some of his cabinet colleagues were in favour of sending Indian troops, political and public opinion was intensely hostile to the proposal. PM Vajpayee refused the US request, insisting that the decision must be based on national consensus, thus showing his commendable respect for the people and the principles of democracy.

A US base established in India may send a message of India’s strategic subordination to USA, and its political and military helplessness to the world. It will certainly compromise India’s aspiration to a permanent seat in UNSC, and India’s ambition to be recognized as a leading regional power.

In its attempts to contain China’s expansionist strategy, India must not fall into the trap of losing its traditional autonomy or compromising its sovereignty.  

With Vajpayee-like maturity, the sovereign democratic Republic of India should quote the Parrikar-Carter meeting of 2016, and diplomatically yet unequivocally, reject USA’s call for a military base on Indian territory.

References hyperlinked in the text:

1. Lalit K Jha; “US enquires for over-the-horizon capabilities in northwest India for Afghanistan”;

<>; Outlook; 14.9.2021.

2. “India and US agree to share Military bases: Your 10-point guide to New Deal”; <>; 30.8.2016.

3. Aritra Banerjee; “Beijing Anxious; Fears India Could Become US’ ‘Sixth Eye’ To ‘Checkmate’ Chinese PLA Navy In Indo-Pacific”; <>; Eurasian Times; 17.9.2021.

4. “US need for Indian troops in Iraq: Moment of decision and of truth”;  <>; Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India; July 14, 2003.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen S G Vombatkere

retired as major general after 35 years in the Indian military, from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ.

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6 thoughts on “US Boots-on-the-Ground in India?: Focus on Afghanistan

  1. I am a strong believer in not depending on any foreign power to defend oneself. So US is not an exception. Even Japan retains the nuclear option as they do not expect the US to sacrifice Los Angeles for Tokyo!

    India must continue to stand on its own feet and be militarily strong to take on both China and Pakistan. But at issue is, what is wrong with leveraging on the strength of the only superpower in this world when both our interests coincide? History has shown that most states have done this one time or another, ie. using an external power to balance against a threat. Of course there must be clear and definable benefits when providing base facilities. Even during the recent Galwan clashes, US readily provided intelligence support which came in very handy to our military planners.

    More importantly, we must address the key issues, how is India going to tackle the 5 challenges that I mentioned earlier. Does not look very promising when it took 30 years for us to be “bullied” by a weaker state before PM Modi responded like the Israeli way! Overlooked is that such decisive action by India may not be possible without an accommodating US.

    India is often described as a weak state by many writers, until PM Modi came along. But, we have been very accommodating to our immediate smaller neighbours as compared to other big countries. The most recent example of this is when PM Modi invited all SAARC states to his inauguration and tried to reset relations with Pakistan, setting his priorities. But small states by their very nature avoid being too dependent on one big state and tend to adopt a policy of “balancing” against the big neighbour with an external power so as to extract maximum benefits. This is the sad state of affairs in South Asia. The other hurdle is the Pakistani defeatist approach to relations with India. Until the Pakistan problem is resolved, limited progress can be achieved within South Asia. I don’t think we can solve the Pakistani problem on our own!

  2. US is believed to be, arguably, the most powerful entity, militarily, economically, and technologically. It is strong, because of its alliances. US has never won a war on its own.
    It is also true, that in the eyes of its decision makers, ‘a friend in need, is no friend of mine’.
    With that background, can anyone trust US, and count on their support, when chips are down? I don’t think so!
    Most countries in US orbit are the ones who have no choice. So, the author’s use of ‘subservient’ relationship, is very appropriate. Any of the countries in alliance with the US, continue to build their strength, and use their relationship as a deterrent, against potential threats to their sovereignty.
    In case of India, the only source of such a threat is China.
    One is compelled to ask, if India does get involved in a serious war with China, how much meaningful deterrence would the US provide?
    In my view, negligible, if any!
    On the other hand, India could be a regional big power, by building lasting alliances with its neighbours. Unfortunately, we have treated all our neighbours like trivial, meaningless entities, not worthy of our attention; and ended up having unfriendly relations with all of them.
    Does it not make sense to mend fences with our neighbours, and be strong together, instead of going half way around the world, and begging to be considered a trivial junior partner in the power play?

  3. This author (like many Indians) is still having the traditional mindset of NO NO to foreign troops in their soil. This has to change as the current security environment is clearly different and more challenging for India. Reasons:
    a. We have two nuclear powers colluding to destroy and dismember India.
    b. Terrorism is used as a tool to bleed and disrupt normal life in India
    c. POK is still with Pakistan and only god knows when India can recover them
    d. Similar situation wrt China who is sitting on Aksai Chin and claiming more of India!
    e. Continued “bullying” by a much smaller and weaker power such as Pakistan for the last 3 decades. We must ask how was this possible??? Support from China of course, so when are we ever going to learn and what’s wrong with getting support from the US

    If assisting US with bases to launch strike into Afghanistan were to help India in some of the 5 challenges listed above, facing us, why not??? Otherwise, we can only continue to dream of recovering lost lands. This is especially given the gross mis management of the economy, the corruption and politiking within the Indian System, we will never ever be able to catch up with China economically or militarily.

    We will continue to be a second rate power with grossly over rated aspirations of becoming a global power. Anyway, we must ask this fundamental question; has Japan hosting US forces reduced their sovereignty in any way, we can ask this same question with respect to South Korea, UK, Germany etc etc etc,
    Hope that we can get our priority right.

    Both the Trump and Biden administrations are very transactional when it comes to international relations and India must capitalise on this. With closer military and political engagement, private investment from the US will flow automatically assisting us to catch up with China and balance against the alliance between Pakistan and China.

    On hindsight, actually leading the non aligned movement screwed us BIG time – don’t need any elaboration!

  4. A very timely warning. As. Gen Vombetkere says: “India’s subordinate status in its strategic partnership with USA is the sad reality. However, from being USA’s subordinate strategic partner, allowing a US military base will lower India’s status.”
    One hopes that political expediency will not outweigh long-term national security interests.

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