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US need for Indian troops in Iraq

July 14, 2003

Moment of decision and of truth

THE message of Thursday's hour-long meeting between the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr L. K. Advani, and the outgoing United States Ambassador, Mr Blackwill, could not have been clearer. America's need for the highly disciplined, efficient and peacekeeping-savvy Indian troops to "stabilise” Iraq is becoming more and more desperate by the day, as the capacity of the occupying American and British forces to control the volatile situation there grows visibly less and less.

At the same time the reasons that have so far restrained the Vajpayee Government from acting on its initial impulse to respond positively to Washington's pressing request have grown much stronger. This has inevitably made life difficult for those in the ruling establishment that want to do America's bidding as a matter of course.

Even so, Mr Blackwill still hopes that he might get a favourable Indian decision well before he leaves New Delhi at the end of the month. Hence his brisk parleys at the level of the Deputy Prime Minister rather than at that of the External Affairs Minister. According to sources close to him, the US Ambassador believes that he has a fifty-fifty chance to persuade this country to send a division of Rashtriya Rifles to take charge of the Kurd-majority area in northern Iraq.

From all accounts, this is over-optimism or rather wishful thinking. New Delhi doesn't like to say "no” to the US because it values India's relations with the sole superpower and hopes to consolidate them into a "strategic partnership” in reality, not just in words. But it is also painfully aware that, in the present circumstances, it just cannot say "yes” to the American request for troops. A sudden miracle that might change the circumstances appears unlikely, to say the least.

Interestingly, the deadline for a decision by New Delhi, one way or the other, is not July 30, the date of Mr Blackwill's departure, but July 21 when commences Parliament's monsoon session. No wonder then that the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) that has already considered the American request thrice is meeting on July 14 presumably to grasp the nettle.

The moment of decision, however, is also the moment of truth for the government. No one realises this more acutely than the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who alone had held back those of his colleagues who wanted to lose no time to commit this country to rushing 17,000 soldiers to Basra.

It was Atalji who held fast to two basic principles. First, that the Indian troops must function not only autonomously but also under an acceptable command structure, preferably the one with which the UN was clearly associated. The UN Security Council's resolution 1483, according post-facto legitimacy to the occupation forces, was not good enough, as the Foreign Secretary, Mr Kanwal Sibal, later made clear to his interlocutors in Washington. Secondly, and more importantly, the Prime Minister laid down that the Indian decision on participating in the "stabilisation” of Iraq must be based on national consensus. Today, the rub lies on both counts.

Disregarding sound advice by sections of the American media, the Bush administration has made no attempt to widen the area of UN's participation in Iraq to cover the military operations. Nor is it likely to. The only step the American proconsul in Baghdad, Mr Paul Bremer (enraged Iraqis call him "Saddam Bremer”), is prepared to take is to form an interim council of Iraqi advisers, consisting of a Shia majority and with adequate representation to Sunnis, Kurds and other tribes. According to him, this council would have the power to name interim ministers, pending elections about which the US is in no hurry.

About the formation of the interim council, however, Mr Bremer is in great haste. For, he has been informed – apparently on the basis of the Advani-Blackwill talks – that India might be amenable to sending troops to Iraq if there is an "Iraqi face” in Baghdad. Whether such a body can be set up before July 21 is doubtful, however, if only because the US insists on including in it the self-exiled Mr Ahmed Chalabi, whom most Iraqis consider an "unacceptable traitor”. But even if an interim council of sorts is rigged up, there is no guarantee that it would be credible enough to be the proverbial fig-leaf cover for policy makers in New Delhi.

And that is where the critically important Indian public opinion comes in. Even at the time when the American request for troops was first discussed and the government's inclination to comply was vaguely indicated, the political and public opinion was intensely hostile to this idea. Since then this hostility has taken a quantum leap for reasons for which the American occupiers of Iraq alone are to blame. Indeed, what kind of a new imperium is this sole superpower that cannot even restore water and electric supply in Iraqi cities three months after conquering them? On the contrary, it takes sniffer dogs in Iraqi homes infuriating almost the entire population.

Even those Iraqis that detest the ousted Saddam Hussein hate the Americans much more. Not a day passes when the Iraqi snipers do not kill some American soldiers. Is this the atmosphere in which Indian troops should go to Iraq? Wouldn't the Iraqis look upon our gallant soldiers as appendages of the American army of occupation? And what if Indian troops also start getting killed?

The once plausible argument that India should send troops to Iraq not for the sake of the US but for that of the Iraqi people with whom this country has had close relations and in whose future welfare it has a heavy stake is now meaningless. Not a single Iraqi leader of any consequence has said a word to invite Indian military presence in that country.

The perennial competition with Pakistan, in the context of the India-US-Pakistan triangle, has also been an argument of those in the present power structure who believe that to follow America in every respect is in India's best interest. When Pakistan's military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, first announced that he would like to send Pakistani troops to Iraq "if asked to do so”, alarm bells rang in South Block and the PMO. Pakistan must not be allowed to "steal a march over us” was the cry.

If India didn't send the troops and Pakistan did, all the "rewards” would go to the adversary, so ran the panicky lament. As it happened, General Musharraf also covered his flanks and told the US that to be able to send his troops to Iraq he would need the cover of either the UN or the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC is a non-entity. The US has already excluded the United Nations. It remains to be seen whether the OIC, in which countries like Iran, Syria and Libya are represented, would like to bolster the US occupation of Iraq. In any case, India cannot have anything to do with this denominational outfit. The obsession with Pakistan also needs to be given up.

Retired Generals and Air Marshals of this country I have interacted with have usually favoured the despatch of the Indian division to northern Iraq regardless of the enormous cost — Rs 1,300 crore a year — and frightening logistic difficulties. But General V.R. Raghavan, a former Director-General of Military Operations, has made a formidable case, based on the experience of the IPKF in Sri Lanka and the treacherous conditions in Iraq, against rushing Indian troops "to the wrong place, at the wrong time and for wrong reasons”.

The final argument against committing our troops to legitimising the outcome of a war our Parliament "deplored” as unjust is the time factor. The overall commander of the war on Iraq, Gen Tommy Franks, has told the US Congress that the US military presence in Iraq would be necessary for as long as four years. Must an Indian division be bogged down, amidst Iraqi hostility, there for this length of time? A short foray of a few months would be neither here nor there.

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