An Indian army soldier in a bilateral exercise involving the armies of India and the United States. In fact, India and other Asia nations are unclear about the US commitment to their region as Washington focuses all eyes on Ukraine. Photo: Crista Yazzie / US Army, Pacific Public Affairs

The Washington-based Quincy Institute, arguably the most intellectually stimulating American think-tank, featured on Tuesday an investigative report titled “Weapons biz bankrolls experts pushing to extend Afghan War,”

The report was written by Eli Clifton, a noted expert and journalist on US foreign policy, in the institute’s compulsively readable publication Responsible Statecraft.

It was an expose of the interest groups that dominate America’s “forever wars.”

Clifton made a case study of a controversial report by a group of experts established by the US Congress, which recommended that the White House should extend the May 1 deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, as stipulated under the Doha pact with the Taliban.

But the fine print is, “Two of the group’s three co-chairs and nine of the group’s 12 plenary members … have current or recent financial ties to major defense contractors, an industry that soaks up more than half of the $740 billion defense budget, and stands to gain from protracted US military involvement overseas.”

One of the co-chairmen named is General Joseph F Dunford, formerly chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commandant of the Marine Corps, and commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan (2013).

He is on the board of Lockheed Martin and holds about $290,000 worth of stock in the arms-manufacturing conglomerate under a devious scheme to award stock to directors to “further align their economic interests with the interests of stockholders generally.”

Clifton estimated that “the study group’s plenary is deeply intertwined with the military industrial base, with nearly $4 million the group’s co-chairs and plenary have received for their work on the boards of defense contractors.”

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R, bottom) speaks during peace talks with the Afghan government in Doha. US defense interests are pushing to keep American troops in Afghanistan. Photo: Karim Jaafar/AFP

President Joe Biden’s administration’s Afghan policy-making is skewed insofar as all of the advice it gets is heavily dominated by people with financial stakes in continuing the war.

It was US president Dwight Eisenhower, the only general to be elected president in the 20th century, who first warned about the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex, when he said famously in January 1961 in his farewell address, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

The Indian narrative on the recent disengagement of troops on the disputed border with China in eastern Ladakh fits the above description in certain ways, although India doesn’t yet have an avaricious military-industrial complex.

Logically, the disengagement of troops in eastern Ladakh ought to be a cause for celebration that the war clouds have dispersed. Even Chinese experts acknowledge that the disengagement signifies a “a key breakthrough” that they hope leads to peace and stability in the short and medium terms.

Looking ahead, preconditions now exist for a positive turn to the India-China relationship. Arguably, the recent India-China consultations over the upcoming agenda in the UN forum and an exclusive Reuters report on Tuesday that the Indian government is getting ready to clear some new investment proposals from China in the coming weeks are discernible signs that the disengagement agreement is gaining traction.

A top Chinese expert, Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, a highly prestigious institution internationally, wrote on Thursday that the disengagement agreement is “a wise and pragmatic decision” by the Indian government “after weighing the country’s interests at both home and abroad.”

No doubt, the decision is in India’s national interests. Frankly, the curtailment of economic ties with China was an unrealistic move. India’s imports from China actually increased in the second half of last year and China surged as India’s No 1 trading partner, surpassing the US.

Rolling back Chinese investments in the Indian economy was a self-defeating policy, as post-pandemic economic recovery and job creation ought to be national priorities. China has become an irreplaceable partner, given the state of the world economy.

A wounded Chinese soldier gets medical attention after border clashes with Indian troops in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas. Photo: CCTV/AFP

Belatedly, the Indian government realizes it. But it remains to be seen whether Chinese investors are about to get engaged with the Indian economy. The systematic factors that inhibit Western investors are also applicable to Chinese investors. Clearly, Western companies relocating from China to cut production costs prefer Vietnam or Taiwan to India.

India stands outside the Asian supply chain, which the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is expected to consolidate. Above all, there is the trust quotient. Despite the disengagement in Ladakh, the mutual trust in India-China relations has hit rock bottom.

This is where the creation of buffer zones in the disputed border areas assumes significance. Such underpinnings enhance mutual confidence and ensure that peace and tranquility are sustainable. The stunning disclosure recently by Highways Minister V K Singh, a former army chief, that Indian ingressions must be five times the number of Chinese ingressions historically, underscores the criticality of buffer zones.

Yet Indian analysts bemoan the creation of such buffer zones, saying it deprives the army of the ability to conduct “patrols” in disputed territories. Now, border transgressions can always be monitored through technical means, whereas, patrols risk face-offs. The government decided to prioritize peace and tranquility on a sustainable basis.

This undated photograph released on February 16, 2021, shows People Liberation Army soldiers disengaging along the Line of Actual Control at the India-China border in Ladakh. Photo: Indian Ministry of Defense/AFP

Why do Indian analysts look crestfallen? Fundamentally, the adversarial mindset inculcated through decades of indoctrination since 1962 explains it. As happens in opaque circumstances, interest groups proliferate, like mushrooms in damp soil.

V K Singh’s disclosure is a rare acknowledgement of ground realities that successive governments through past decades obfuscated as a matter of political expediency. Having said that, the Indian government’s decision on disengagement cannot and should not be a “standalone” decision. Downstream developments in the political and diplomatic arena become highly relevant.

Any student of the Sino-Russian border settlement would agree that the October 2003 pact, which fully settled an intractable dispute, including the vexed question of control over three islands in the Amur and Arjun rivers, was only possible thanks to the mutual desire to strengthen the developing Russo-Chinese strategic partnership “in all areas, based on shared basic fundamental approaches to key issues of world politics” – to quote from the Russian foreign-policy concept at the time (which, curiously, had also called for a “Russia-India-China triangular format,” although New Delhi ignored it).

Clearly, India and China have a lot of ground to cover to reach the “October 2003 moment” in their relationship. The US will probably not countenance such a moment, either, as sans India, its Indo-Pacific strategy will remain a damp squib.

Nor is India’s foreign-policy trajectory leaning toward a quasi-alliance with the US going to be helpful. The untimely Quad meeting on Thursday that Washington convened bang in the middle of the disengagement in the Himalayas highlights the contradiction in the Indian policies.

Suffice to say, India also has a powerful pro-American lobby clamoring for “forever wars.” Sinophobia feeds into it seamlessly. This lobby will only gain ascendancy as India develops a defense industry and the corporate interests and their eventual nexus with the defense establishment come into full play, inevitably, in the domain of foreign and security policies.

Eisenhower was prescient in laying down the red line universally applicable to all democracies upholding the civilian supremacy, but it is easier said than done. Thus the “forever warriors,” being the best organized and best-endowed faction – and highly motivated too – almost always prevail, in the final analysis.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.