Small Wars Journal

India and UN Peacekeeping: Declining Interest with Grave Implications

Fri, 07/13/2012 - 8:34am

India is one of the most important supporters of UN-led peacekeeping operations (UNPKOs). Over 100,000 Indian military and police personnel have rotated through service in 40 of the UN’s 65 peacekeeping missions and in April 2012, 8,133 Indian peacekeepers were serving in 9 separate UNPKOs across the globe. From the first days of UN peacekeeping, India has been an eager and prized contributor to help tackle the world’s second-order international security issues; for its early expeditionary capabilities to rapidly deploy competent forces abroad – a legacy of its colonial past – as well as generally being seen outside South Asia as a non-threatening nation. Today, the foundational premise for Indian involvement is changing. As India’s ambitions and might grow, sentimental legacy attachments to the UN and to UNPKOs are eroding in favor of more hard-headed assessments of the costs of participating in today’s complex operations relative to their tangible benefits to the Indian strategic interest.


Indian participation in UNPKOs has evolved with peacekeeping itself. UNPKOs have multiplied since the end of the Cold War, but the number of willing and able troop contributors remains scarce. Before 1990, the UN had authorized only 18 of today’s 65 peace operations, the majority being fact-finding or observer missions to observe truce violations. Today, in addition to their expanded number, missions are significantly more dangerous and complex. Core peacekeeping tasks now includes peacebuilding requiring vastly expanded civil-military activity, as well as “peace enforcement” that authorizes the use of force under Chapter VII and actively confronts armed belligerents. Despite these growing demands, Western troop contributions have fallen to below 2 percent of total deployed forces, compared to 25 percent during the Cold War.

In this environment, Indian troops are prized for their historical ability to deploy and sustain themselves with all associated equipment and training, and their willingness to bear risk in complex and dangerous missions. Especially today, the traditional benefits that troop contributors derive from UNPKOs are not necessarily relevant in India’s case, especially the access to better training, and the opportunity to subsidize defense costs. India does see UNPKOs as a means to reward select units with the substantially higher salaries, but in net terms UNPKOs may constitute more a burden than a relief on the Indian armed forces, with minimal impact on the total defense budget. However, peacekeeping remains highly ingrained in the Indian Army’s ethos. A peacekeeping training center has been opened near New Delhi, and peacekeeper positions are highly coveted with involvement subject to strict selection and vetting procedures – the 18th Grenadiers for example requested and received deployment with UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone as a reward for their hard-fought capture of the pivotal Tiger Hill during the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999.

As important as their relative competence, Indian troop contingents are prized for their willingness to deploy to risky theaters and act robustly in dangerous missions. India was one of the largest participants in the UN’s first attempt at peace enforcement in the ONUC mission in 1960s Congo, participated in Somalia during its fragmentation in the 1990s, and maintained support when others did not as in the UNAMIR missions in Rwanda. Indian soldiers also fall into the very narrow bracket of troop contributing countries willing and able to act kinetically – as in UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone in the early 2000s and more recently MONUSCO in the DR Congo, where Indian units were amongst those “operating with unprecedented force” for a UN mission.[1]

India’s experience with ONUC in 1960s Congo set the tone for its future participation. At the time, Congo was totally unprepared for Belgian withdrawal and its transition to independence. The UN deployed to assist at a time with a real risk of civil war after the secession of the Katanga province, a mutiny against the government by the Congolese armed forces, and the threat of state collapse after the assassination of Congolese PM Patrice Lumumba. The deployment was the largest and most complex UNPKO to that date and would not be repeated for several decades after. ONUC’s tasks included not just traditional peacekeeping roles such as securing the withdrawal of Belgian forces, but also policing to restore law and order, the disarmament of combatants, the training of Congolese security forces, and the expulsion of foreign mercenaries fighting in Katanga – by force if necessary. India held many reservations about ONUC but once committed, was one of the strongest backers of the mission, contributing one of the largest and most capable contingents, and strongly advocating for the use of force. India’s then UN ambassador Krishna Menon ridiculed the UNSC’s inclination to authorize force only in self-defense arguing, “If there was no question of using force, why did the Security Council… send 20,000 armed troops to the Congo? They were not going to play in a tournament. If the idea was not to use force, then engineers, scientists, parsons and preachers would have gone.”[2]

The attitude was reflected in the conduct of Indian forces. UNSCR 161 mandated “force, if necessary, under the last resort” but the 4,700-strong Indian brigade group and several Indian B1 Canberra light bombers engaged in open combat against Katangan and mercenary forces. A notable caveat for deployment had been that Indian forces would remain in their own units under their command structure and not be mixed with other contingents, allowing Indian commanders significant discretion in the conduct of their forces.[3] Indian officers often stated that their men “were straining at the leash” to “finally settle the Katanga problem” and many units deployed looking to fight, choosing to interpret the rules of engagement as allowing offensive action in “self defense.”[4] Indian aircraft helped enforced the UN’s first de-facto “no-fly zone” and carried out some of the first air attacks in UN history – bombing Katangan airfields and later providing close air support during the battle for Elizabethville. Indian Army forces, particularly soldiers from its Gorkha regiments, participated in several large-scale battles and tipped the military balance in several instances; the Gorkha deployment to Kamina is generally regarded as the high water mark of Katangan military success.

While ONUC set the tone for India’s willingness to support the use of force, the UNAMSIL mission in Sierra Leone in the early 2000s highlighted force protection concerns, and informed India’s desire to be involved in shaping decisions on mission mandates and rules of engagement.  In Sierra Leone, in mid-2000, over 500 and perhaps as many as 1000 UN peacekeepers, including over 200 Indians were taken hostage or militarily encircled when RUF rebels restarted hostilities and targeted isolated pockets of peacekeepers. UNAMSIL was the first mission under an Indian Force Commander Major General Jetley, but was chronically under-resourced from the start, particularly in terms of “self-sustaining” troops as per the UN’s new regulations. A SIPRI assessment found that, “with the exception of the Indians, none of the contingents seems to have even been prepared for […] having weapons for self-defense, protective gear and an understanding of peacekeeping procedures and doctrines,” this despite the Chapter VII mandate (pp. 296-314). The mission was further hampered by very serious inter-service rivalry between Jetley’s command and Nigerian ECOMOG forces, including those “re-hatted” as UNAMSIL troops. Jetley publicly accused Nigerian officers of collaborating with the RUF in the diamond trade and accused Nigerian units of directly disobeying orders – the political ramifications eventually led to India’s exit from the mission. Beyond the Nigerians – the only other large and capable contributor – other contingents were reported to have disobeyed orders to take on dangerous missions or deploy to the frontlines, as a result of which Jetley increasingly relied on his own Indian contingents.

When the RUF recommenced hostilities UNAMSIL was caught unawares – a result of poor intelligence and planning; a UN deployment to Koidu, the center of the RUF diamond mining, was seen as a direct threat to RUF operations. Initial RUF operations led to chaos among UN ranks. Jetley himself later admitted that initially, “we were all still feeling our way” with regard to ROEs and the use of force (p. 302). The resulting perception of UN forces as isolated and vulnerable to an escalated RUF offensive and coordinated attacks were launched across the country. UN units across the country were besieged and some forced to surrender their weapons, if they had any, others were besieged. Notably, near the town of Kailhun near the Guinean border, 23 Indian soldiers were taken hostage and more than 200 peacekeepers, mostly Indians, encircled by RUF forces. Compounding the debacle, a Zambian battalion sent to rescue besieged Kenyan forces in Makeni (and confront the strongest RUF concentration of forces in the area), instead not only failed to reach its objective, but got separated from its commander, and then surrendered en masse[5] - an indication of the low levels of training and morale among many contingents.

The situation highlighted the danger of participation in UNPKOs for India, but also their tendency to escalate and require additional commitment. In UNAMSIL’s case, India was forced to launch Operation Khukri, a risky Indian-led military operation far from home. Primarily an operation by Indian forces to free their counterparts, it required the emergency airlift of 120 elite Para-Commandoes out of New Delhi, as well as the limited assistance of spotters from the UK’s elite SAS-D squadron and the loan of a Chinook helicopter. The newly deployed Indian forces were among the first to open offensive operations against the RUF, retaking a strategic crossroads the Jordanians had refused to attack, and eventually assisting a 1,000-man Indian-led APC column backed by Indian attack helicopters to break through RUF lines and rescue the trapped forces at Kailahun.[6]  The mission helped salvage UNAMSIL’s reputation and its seriousness in protecting its forces, but in net strategic terms, the Indian offensive had little effect; an emergency British military deployment helped augment UNAMSIL and stabilize the situation.

In addition to force protection concerns, a growing frustration at the disproportionate burden placed upon Indian forces is likely to affect Indian UNPKO participation. India has consistently ranked in the top three contributors for much of UN history and has borne a significant share of the burden of some of the UN’s most complex and dangerous operations. In the ongoing MONUC (now MONUSCO) mission in the DR Congo, India contributes almost a fifth of all troops – about 4,500 soldiers – and virtually all of the mission’s helicopters. Such deployments appear a drop in India’s bucket of over a million men under arms, but India faces a challenging domestic security environment and huge domestic needs – for an active two-front posture against nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and China, as well as in combating India’s three separate internal insurgencies. Moreover, the UN often taps India for “combat enablers”; i.e. the helicopters, specialized personnel and command functions not available elsewhere, that have significant opportunity cost. Three times as many officers are deployed with UNPKOs, than with units at home for example, burdening an already stretched Indian officer corps.

Indian diplomacy to coerce increased burden sharing has not yet reaped the desired dividends. In 2011, India, which had 17 helicopters in UN service in the DRC and the Sudan, including eight Mi-25/35 attack and nine Mi-17 utility helicopters, moved to withdraw all in protest at the disproportionate burden it bore. Eventually, India relented, and returned six light utility helicopters to the DRC for reconnaissance, casualty-evacuation and search-and-rescue operations, without which the MONUSCO mission would have been significantly impaired. Yet its protest achieved little. The international community pledged only one additional helicopter, and the withdrawal of the Indian attack helicopters removed the sharpest end of MONUSCO’s ‘stick’ to coerce rebel factions to lay down their arms. Further compromise by India appears unlikely. Notwithstanding meeting the helicopter deficit in combating its own Maoist insurgency, India appears set on its principle; deputy ambassador to the UN Manjeev Puri bluntly stated that, “India cannot be the only place in the world with attack helicopters… We have capacity restraints.”


India serves UNPKOs in service of an ideal of the UN as a strengthened international body for international peace and security. Many see peacekeeping as a reward unto itself, but growing undercurrents question engagement with a UN that has provided few tangible benefits to the Indian strategic interest. Despite its growing power, India still lacks clout in first-order international security decision-making, has made little tangible progress toward a permanent Security Council seat, and despite a large engagement in African UNPKOs still lags in influence and access on the continent. Moreover, India increasingly faces acute domestic security shortages. As a result, growing sympathy now trends for the view held by retired Indian Lt. Col. A K Sharma that, “If India needs to flex its muscles, pretensions to which it is credited with, or our diplomacy wants to strut and do its stuff, it should be done in the immediate neighborhood where its writ is likely to run, where it will be of some benefit to at least a portion of its citizenry. Not halfway around the world in some remote corner of Africa.”[7]

Ideals and traditions are, however, not easily abandoned, and peacekeeping is deeply engrained in India’s perception of itself on the international stage. Moreover, as India’s Security Council bid inches closer, there still remains an attachment to the sentiment best expressed by retired Indian Lt. Gen Satish Nambiar, a UNPROFOR force commander in former Yugoslavia who stated that, “India has no immediate interests in Sierra Leone. But that is not the point. We have to look beyond our immediate interests. As a great country we have certain commitments; if we aspire to be permanent members of the UN Security Council it cannot come on a platter – we must develop a stake in strengthening the Security Council set-up and such missions help do just that.”[8] The entrance of China as a peacekeeping power has also complicated Indian calculations. From once deeply opposed to international intervention on principle, China since the 2000s has rapidly expanded its UNPKO participation. By 2011, China was the largest troop contributor among the P-5 countries, expanding from 120 military and police personnel in 2003 to 2,146 by 2008. Since the UNTAET mission in East Timor in 2000, China has allowed lightly armed peacekeepers, and since 2008 has pushed for the deployment of combat contingents. On one level India welcomes Chinese participation as helping plug key resource gaps, but on another resents the disproportionate attention Chinese contributions receive. Additionally, with China and India both competing heavily for influence and resources in Africa, where UNPKOs are concentrated, it cannot help but become part of a broader competition.

UNPKOs, however, now come with lowered expectations. Expecting a permanent seat as a transactional reward was overly optimistic and Indian planners now recognize the host of other obstacles affect India’s bid – opposition from China, the Kashmir dispute, the Indian nuclear program etc. – and a growing body now favors alternative alignments outside the UN. The ‘African soft power’ argument too is not entirely convincing. Africa is important to the Indian strategic interest – the East African coastline is within India’s ‘near abroad,’ Africa accounts for about a fifth of Indian oil imports, and trade ties are rapidly expanding, but regional challenges in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, and southeast Asia – all more core to the Indian strategic interest – are growing ever more pressing. In net terms, UNPKOs are but one component of Indian defense diplomacy with Africa, which in turn is a small component of India’s total economic and political outreach. That too must be seen in comparative terms; in FY2009-2010, India’s Rs400bn of aid to Afghanistan was almost twenty times the size of its aid to the entire African continent – giving some indication of priorities.[9]

India’s growing wealth may account more for its soft power than any gratitude for service in African UNPKOs. UNPKOs are one of India’s most visible contributions on the continent, and are appreciated in many quarters – especially in contrast to China’s mercantilist approach – but they should not be overly conflated in importance; in some countries such as the DR Congo, participation may have worsened Indian prospects. Economic ties between Kinshasa and New Delhi have improved since 2003 when the first Indians were deployed with MONUC, but in comparative terms, China is a much larger economic partner with a much smaller troop contingent. Moreover, much of India’s success may be a function of India’s willingness to extend lines of credit and infrastructure loans. By contrast, the peacekeeper element may only be inflaming relations, as the UN and by extension Indian forces grow more willing to confront the Kabila government. In late 2008, the Congolese government requested the removal of Indian peacekeepers from the country, and paid locals to throw stones at the contingent, sparking a political crisis in which India threatened to withdraw all its troops, potentially collapsing the mission. The crisis was averted only when Kabila wrote a personal letter to the Indian PM expressing gratitude for Indian contributions.

The strategic benefit of UNPKOs is also increasingly in question. Critics note that India is often left with the consequences when more fickle UNPKO partners withdraw, as during the UNOSOM and UNITAF missions in Somalia in the early 1990s. Indian progress in stabilizing southern Somalia was compromised after the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident and the US withdrawal that essentially collapsed the mission. The resultant anarchy in Somalia has compromised Indian security, spawning the piracy that is destabilizing the East African littoral and Indian Ocean security, through which most of India’s seaborne trade and energy imports pass.

There is an element of futility in many UNPKOs, especially when vastly inadequate UN resourcing makes missions scarcely viable, and some worry UN failures taint India by association. One of the most embarrassing moments in UNPKO history – the debacle with UNAMSIL – occurred under the watch of an Indian Force Commander. Similarly in 2010 in eastern DR Congo, an Indian unit at COB Kibua failed to see, and therefore prevent, the mass rape of over 300 women, men and children in the nearby town of Luvungi – a very public tragedy that deeply undermined MONUSCO claims of progress in its civilian protection mandate. Such failures are particularly galling for troop contributors such as India when the mismatch between UN mandates and resources makes such tragedies virtually inevitable. MONUSCO’s presence today in DR Congo is roughly equivalent to asking the California National Guard (with far less equipment and training) to secure 70 million people across an area the size of Western Europe, over two-thirds of which is covered by rainforest. In 1999, the UN estimated a need for 100,000 troops to provide solely the civilian protection mission, [10] yet in 2011, MONUSCO’s total end-strength amounted to just over 18,250 troops but its mission had expanded to no less than 45 separate tasks (p. 10). At these levels, the MONUSCO mission equates to a force-to-population ratio of one peacekeeper to secure 3929 people and one peacekeeper to cover 128.5 square kilometers of territory – a near impossible task. (Calculations by author based on troop figures here and country data here.


An Indian departure from UNPKOs would be devastating. The UN for all its blemishes works on second-order security issues where the rest of the world is unwilling to help, and even small reductions in India’s support – its reduction of helicopters for example – can degrade the viability of existing missions. All-out departure would devastate UNPKO capacity, particularly as it could trigger a cascading reaction. The size and nature of Pakistan’s deployments closely mirror India’s, which given Pakistan’s India-centric calculus may be no coincidence. As one example, Pakistani troops with UNOSOM in Somalia are speculated to have persevered in part because withdrawal would have drawn unflattering comparisons with India, whose troops were performing well in the south.[11] As such, Indian reductions could reduce Pakistani contributions, robbing the UN of two of its largest three contributors. Yet, it would be wrong to see India and Pakistan as wholly linked; Pakistan draws its own unique benefits from participating and has its own long tradition of honorable service across many missions.

The Indian attachment to the ideal of UNPKOs is rapidly evolving. Increasingly, India has stated that its future UNPKO contributions will be less automatic, and more tied to a reform of the peacekeeping process that includes improvements in burden sharing and greater involvement of troop contributors in the mandate generation process. India is pushing to expand the base of troop contributing countries and to reduce the mismatch between the meager resources the UNSC allocates and the ambitious mandates it hands down – all goals shared by the US. More controversially, India has also pushed for change in core peacekeeping principles regarding the use of force. In 2011, Indian deputy ambassador to the UN Manjeev Puri stated that “principles of consent by host government, neutrality, and use of force in self-defense acquire different connotations” when faced with today’s peacekeeping environments and armed groups, and India has since pushed for more clarity on use of force regulations. The stance, moderate as it is, aligns India closer with the US, but places it at odds with many other troop contributors, who prefer risk-averse deployments and oppose enforcement missions on principle.

The US would benefit greatly from supporting India in its quest to reform peacekeeping. UNPKOs are estimated to cost roughly 12 percent of a comparable US operation, and Indian participation in UNPKOs can help relieve the US global burden, while providing critical capabilities for global humanitarian assistance and intervention. India’s attitude towards peacekeeping fundamentally mirrors that of the US, and cooperation can help cement a growing political and military partnership. Unfortunately, India itself has squandered opportunities by rehashing existing complaints in discussion forums and providing little in the way of clear planning and leadership to pressure reform. This is particularly unfortunate, as the conditions are ripe to pressure change. In 2012, for one year, both India and Pakistan – two of the top three troop contributors – will be sitting in the Security Council at the same time on a rare issue of convergent interest.


[1] Phillip Roessler and John Prendergast in “Democratic Republic of the Congo,” in William Durch (ed.), Twenty-First-Century Peace Operations,” (DC: US Institute of Peace Press, 2006), pg. 259

[2] T. Ramakrishna Reddy, “India’s Policy in the United Nations,” (NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975), pg. 97

[3] Ibid, pg. 98

[4] John Terence O’Neill and Nicholas Rees, “United Nations Peacekeeping in the Post-Cold War Era,” (NY: Taylor and Francis, 2005), pp. 62-63.

[5] Eric Berman and Melissa Labonte, “Sierra Leone,” in William Durch (ed.), Twenty-First-Century Peace Operations,” (DC: US Institute of Peace Press, 2006), 178-180

[6] Roessler and Prendergast, “Democratic Republic of the Congo,” in Durch, Twenty-First-Century Peace Operations, pg. 296-314

[7] David S Sorenson and Pia Christina Wood, “The Politics of Peacekeeping in the Post- Cold War Era,” (NY: Psychology Press, 2005), pp. 203-204

[8] David S Sorenson and Pia Christina Wood (eds.), “The Politics of Peacekeeping in the Post- Cold War Era,” (NY: Psychology Press, 2005), pp. 202-203

[9] Emma Mawdsley and Gerard McCann, “India in Africa: Changing Geographies of Power,” (Oxford: Fahamu/Pambazuku, 2010), pg. 17

[10] Roessler and Prendergast, “Democratic Republic of the Congo,” in Durch, Twenty-First-Century Peace Operations, pg. 259

[11] Dipankar Banerjee, “South Asia: Contributors of Global Significance” in SIPRI/Georgetown University Center for Peace and Security Studies, “Peace Operations: Trends, Progress and Prospects,” (DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008), pg. 194


Categories: UNPKO - United Nations - UN - PKO - peacekeeping - India

About the Author(s)

Varun Vira writes on Middle Eastern and South Asian security affairs.  Most recently, he coauthored Pakistan: Violence vs. Stability with Dr. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).