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Courting disaster in Iraq

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

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The United States has made a horrible mess of things in Iraq. It would be immoral and politically disastrous for India to send troops in support of a project for Empire.

IT was no more than a coincidence that six British soldiers were shot dead in ambushes by the Iraqi resistance on the very day (June 24) that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confessed before a Parliamentary Committee that there were unacceptable inaccuracies in the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that his government put out in February in the critical days preceding the United Nations Security Council debate. The two developments are by no means unconnected.

The British dossier was based on plagiarism from and distortion of an old and irrelevant academic paper, "cherry-picked" intelligence, and a dressing up of factoids to suggest that Saddam Hussein had such advanced WMD capabilities that even Britain was just 15 minutes away from disaster!

The very same people who thought they could ignore the advice of their own intelligence agencies and get away with such grossly corrupt and dishonest practices also imagined that the occupation of Iraq, and installation of a viable, broad-based pro-U.S. regime would be a cakewalk. They would deploy a "lean and mean" force, about a third smaller than what their own generals demanded, and still subjugate the Iraqis. As they prove wrong on the second count, they are trying to limit their losses by recruiting as many troops from other countries as they can get and use them as a buffer.

The Anglo-American coalition has approached about 85 countries for post-war help in Iraq. It has worked through embassies and targeted governments with individual requests, often delivered by well-connected advisers to particular leaders. And yet, only about half the countries have agreed to send a total of 20,000 troops - which cannot possibly relieve the U.S.' 1,46,000 troops operating in Iraq alongside 12,000 British troops. As the U.S. redoubles its efforts to get more foreign soldiers, India figures prominently on its horizon.

The Atal Behari Vajpayee government is seriously considering the despatch of some 20,000 troops. It has even identified a division that will form the core of such a force. The high number of troops is only partially explained by the requirements of operational autonomy. What is staggering is that it is far higher than the number of soldiers being sent by the closest right-wing military allies of the U.S. that supported the war, such as Italy (3,000), Spain (2,300) and Poland (2,300) which will control the core of Iraq's four military zones.

So India is being asked to prove it is more loyal than the U.S.' own military partners to become the second largest occupying force, bigger than even Britain. This, when it had no role in influencing any decision about the circumstances that brought about the occupation it is now being asked to "stabilise". In today's situation, "stabilisation" can only mean continuation of the war and smashing growing resistance from the Iraqi people.

Participation in the fighting and quelling the resistance will inevitably mean shedding Iraqi - and Indian - blood. So repugnant is this idea, because of the disjunction between the onerous responsibility being cast upon India and its lack of involvement in decision-making on the war, that it is astounding that it is countenanced at all. The proposal has been robustly debated and found wanting by a large number of people.

Most Opposition parties, and even some National Democratic Alliance constituents (the Samata Party, the Trinamul Congress and the Shiv Sena) have rejected it and reiterated the April 8 Parliament resolution criticising the invasion of Iraq. Former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh, I.K. Gujral and H.D. Deve Gowda too have deplored the proposal. India may see strong public protests against troops despatch - unless the government drops the idea and acknowledges that no "consensus" is possible on this issue.

WHAT are the arguments advanced by the proponents of sending troops? It would not be unfair to sum them up under the following four propositions.

A lot of fuss is being made in India about the U.S. and the U.K. having bypassed the United Nations before launching the attack. But did not India itself do that in Bangladesh in 1971 and Sri Lanka in 1987? The U.N. is not sacrosanct. Indeed, it is becoming irrelevant, as U.S. President George W. Bush said.

India has good relations with the Iraqi people and must "help" them through "stabilisation". This will only restore governance, which collapsed with the fall of Saddam Hussein. India must bend to the logic of "pragmatic realpolitik", followed by U.N. Resolution 1483 which "legitimised" the occupying authority.

India has a "historic" link with Iraq from the colonial period. Indian troops played a major role in shaping the modern Iraqi state between 1918 and 1932. It would be only logical for India to have a military-political presence in Iraq today.

If India misses this opportunity, Pakistan will insert itself in its place and neutralise India's advantage to become Iraq's second largest occupying power. This will mean forgoing a lucrative share in Iraq's reconstruction contracts. The U.S. occupation is a reality. And America's unilateral dominance in the world is a fact. India must adjust itself to this post-Cold War reality and seal a "strategic partnership" with Washington. Iraq offers the best chance to do so.

None of these arguments even remotely comes to grips with the fundamental moral question: if Iraq's invasion was unjust, immoral and illegal, how can its occupation, caused by the invasion, be just and acceptable? It is completely illogical to oppose the war on Iraq, as the Indian government and Parliament did, and then support its occupation and become part of it. This moral and logical void represents a fatal flaw.

The first argument also misses the point about the Security Council's role under the U.N. Charter. The U.S. and the U.K. could not, and did not, make a half-way convincing case that Iraq's WMD posed a genuine threat to their security or to world peace. In 1971, India constructed a plausible case that its own security would be undermined if Pakistan's brutal repression of the liberation movement in East Pakistan were not resisted. The influx of refugees compounded the problem.

The war for East Pakistan's liberation was a just war. The Iraq war was not. Then, the Security Council was not, as in the present case, seized of the matter, nor it did it debate it over a prolonged period of time and on the basis of numerous resolutions.

As for the 1987 "peace-keeping" operation in Sri Lanka, it was the result of an accord imposed upon that country, which robbed it of sovereign decision-making. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operation was a disaster. It is hardly an example worthy of emulation.

The second argument would have some plausibility if the occupation, whether legitimised by the U.N. or not - and it was not even properly legitimised - was just in the first place. U.S. actions after April 9 resemble those of a hostile colonising power. The U.S. has failed to restore peace and provide a minimum of public services, as it is obligated by the Geneva Conventions to do - in particular Article 55 of the Fourth Convention and Article 69 of the First Protocol. It should pay the cost of providing food, medicine, shelter, and so on, to occupied people during the war and its aftermath.

Instead, it has committed daylight robbery, which puts into the shade the theft of $1 billion by Saddam Hussein's family from Iraq's banks in April. The U.S. has appropriated the entire $13 billion remaining in Iraq's U.N.-operated oil-for-food account. This was transferred to the "Development Fund for Iraq" managed by Peter McPherson, former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and now an executive of Bank of America.

The fund is under exclusive U.S. control and will receive all future proceeds from oil sales ($20 billion a year) without any time-limit. The U.N. Resolution (1483) that created it can be changed only by an affirmative Security Council vote (vulnerable to an Anglo-American veto).

America will not pay a sou from its own pocket for Iraq's "reconstruction". It is acting in bad faith. By joining its occupation, India will only legitimise a gross injustice and breach of important conventions pertaining to war. This will have dangerous consequences for the future conduct of international relations and management of conflicts.

The historic (that is., colonial) link that the third argument invokes is repugnant. The British Indian Army's role in Iraq was disgraceful. It was not an independent sovereign force, but one that Imperial Britain used and abused at will to expand its dominion - to the point of running Basra from Mumbai! We are again being urged to become mercenaries of an imperial power.

The last argument only sanctifies and perpetuates the Pakistan obsession that has plagued India's foreign policy for a decade or more and robbed it of its broad-based character. It reduces India's relations with other states and international institutions to a zero-sum game vis-a-vis Pakistan. Worse, it substitutes political rectitude with filthy lucre.

It also greatly overestimates the likely benefits from "reconstruction" contracts. The spectacular figures for reconstruction budgets being bandied about (such as $200 billion, even $500 billion, with big individual deals in the tens of billions) will not materialise. The highest non-oil contract awarded so far is $680 million (Bechtel). Huge contracts won't materialise unless America can pump much more oil out of Iraq. This seems near-impossible for a couple of years, and dicey even later.

According to sober estimates, Iraq would earn about $100 billion over the next five years by exporting oil. At least half the amount will be spent on food and other essentials and to restore the oil industry. That will leave only a fraction of the total for reconstruction - after the occupation troops extract their share.

In any case, big contracts will be first given to U.S. giants like Halliburton and Bechtel, and then to British firms, leaving crumbs for bit players like India.

In reality, the argument for despatching troops to Iraq is a plea for making India an obsequious supporter, a supplicant and a slave in the service of the presumed "Masters of the Universe". This misreads the nature of the world and durability of U.S. dominance. This dominance is unlikely to last.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm - one of the most perceptive analysts of our times - argues: "The world is too complicated for any single state to dominate it. And with the exception of its superiority in high-tech weaponry, the U.S. is relying on diminishing assets. Its economy forms a diminishing share of the global economy, vulnerable in the short as well as long term. The U.S. Empire is beyond competition on the military side. That does not mean that it will be absolutely decisive, just because it is decisive in localised wars."

The Iraq war has aggravated America's legitimacy crisis. Says Hobsbawm: "The Cold War turned the U.S. into the hegemon of the Western world. However, this was as the head of an alliance. In a way, Europe then recognised the logic of a U.S. world empire, whereas today the U.S. government is reacting to the fact that the U.S. Empire and its goals are no longer genuinely accepted. In fact, the present U.S. policy is more unpopular than the policy of any other U.S. government has ever been, and probably than that of any other great power has ever been."

Does India want to be a partner of such an unpopular, hated, power? India will violate every one of its own professed principles and foreign policy doctrines by becoming a minor, junior ally of the U.S. Worse, it will foment a terribly revanchist fundamentalist reaction and encourage the very forces of terrorism it claims to be fighting. Could anything be more suicidal?

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 18, 2003.)

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