Agnipath Could Be India’s Answer To Future Of Warfare

| Updated: 17 June, 2022 3:41 pm IST

Out of the stated highlights of the Agnipath Scheme, to me, the two big ones are:

A) 25% of the top performers at the end of their 4-year stint get a chance to enrol in the Indian Army. That is a decent proposition, considering that only the best of all the regular applicants to the Indian Army gets through. The remaining 75% of the Agniveers – as they are being called – would get preference in the different recruitments – CAPF or the different state police forces.

B) The substantial financial assistance – an impressive sum for any youth below 30 years which even MBAs from decent schools can only dream of saving during the first 4-5 years of their employment.

That said; let us look at an aspect of the emergent picture, one that I guess no one is talking about, not at least openly: the changing nature of warriors of the 21st century.

After the loss in Vietnam and the terrific domestic chaos that followed in the USA when the body bags of the young soldiers arrived home, there dawned an understanding that the days of the trench or frontal warfare (WWI, WWII) were probably over. This got reinforced further during the Cold War era on a number of occasions in Africa or the Middle East, most notable being Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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As the 20th-century trench warfare mutated into a modern, low-intensity urban/guerrilla warfare – where a single Molotov cocktail could render a several hundred thousand dollars worths of tank ineffective, regular army units found themselves falling short every now and then. They had to deal with decreased efficacy, increased loss of lives and equipment, and a lack of clear results. Added to the domestic resistance towards sending their children to the front was the compulsion of having to send armies to places where the sender had no direct interest (which is to say no direct threat to its territorial integrity): case in point being US boots on the ground in Somalia, Iraq etc.

These were the times in modern history when private armies made a comeback.

Private armies or mercenaries are old creatures. They existed and thrived before the concept of nation-states arrived. Medieval kings and even religious heads like the Pope had records of hiring them from time to time for crucial, decisive battles. They thrived and prospered from ancient times until the 17th-18th century when they were eventually done away following one of the cornerstones of the concept of nation-states: the state was to have a monopoly on the use of force within its territory; there could be no challenge to that. This led to the building of national armies and the disappearance of private contractors.

Today, in the face of hybrid, asymmetric warfare, the increasing inability on the part of nation-states to deploy boots on the ground, and the rise of the irregulars (religion/militant ideology affiliated terrorists or ‘non-state actors’), private armies have not only made a comeback but are probably several billion dollars of business enterprises that few talks about. The few names that most of us know are the big ones like Blackwater, Executive Outcomes, or the dreaded Wagner Group. But there are scores of low-profile players out there – like the ones from South Africa that the Nigerian government deployed to chase the Boko Haram terrorists – that very few know about.

America of course led the way. It was their reliance on the private armies in Iraq and Afghanistan that made to the news which gradually led to some of the regional powers exploring their options. That led to a proliferation of the industry, which in turn has had an immense impact on international relations. Today, private security contractors enjoy a wide range of business opportunities while providing a wide range of employment to their employees – from providing security to shipping corporations (against piracy) and oil exploration companies to tech-based intelligence support to different agencies and operating in territories where a government cannot or will not operate.

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With time and demonstrations of their capabilities, the stigma of inefficiency, corruption and recklessness associated with mercenaries (Hollywood propaganda mainly) is also dissipating.

Sean McFate, the author of ‘The Modern Mercenary’, notes: “Why do we assume that national militaries, by the nature of the fact that they’re national, are going to be better? We have a stigma against the private force that it’s always bloodthirsty and torturous, and that’s just not true. Would you rather be a prisoner of war by Blackwater or by the Zimbabwean military?”

India is on an impressive rise as a regional power. There have been a couple of instances of that through its layered engagement with China on the one hand and New Delhi’s stance on the Ukraine conflict on the other. One expects this stature to grow. At the same time, there have been occasions where India has found itself indecisive – in Afghanistan for example, or most recently in its inability so far to quell the domestic asymmetric warfare that has been unleashed since 2019 Shaheen Bagh, that has put a question to the government’s control on its monopoly of violence.

It is a fact that the nation-states’ authority is on the wane, globally. And private security contractors are returning for the same reason, armed with their gift – plausible deniability – to the governments that can afford their services. Again, quoting McFate from the same interview: “I can imagine a future where some crazy tycoon hires a private military company to do something outrageous that is for a good cause…”

Like everything, the landscape of warfare and security is also changing. Would this lead to the commodification of conflict? Probably. Love it or hate it, these are global waves; there is little an individual can do about it. The best outcome is to anticipate, create, and execute.

The Agnipath Scheme is a fairly intelligent move in that direction. The youth that is rallying against it today perhaps need to understand the coming of the change and take an informed decision.

Would there be issues with a proliferation of combat/weapons trained population? We have both examples – Israel being a good one, and Afghanistan is a bad one. At the end of the day, it boils down to the intent of the employers, and the state’s ability to harness that. I am hoping that the present government has the mission roadmap (required to continue with an initiative like Agnipath) in the proper place.


(Arindam Mukherjee is a Calcutta-based author and a Learning & Development professional who likes to dabble in Eurasian geopolitics during his spare time.)
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)

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