Treading on thin ice

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

During the Republic Day parade this year. All major Opposition parties and several constituents of the ruling coalition have opposed the proposal to send Indian troops to Iraq. - ANU PUSHKARNA

During the Republic Day parade this year. All major Opposition parties and several constituents of the ruling coalition have opposed the proposal to send Indian troops to Iraq. - ANU PUSHKARNA

It is becoming increasingly clear that if India despatches troops for peace-keeping in Iraq, it will end up in the quagmire the United States and the United Kingdom are finding themselves in.

THE Bush administration is confident that by mid-August, between 20,000 and 30,000 troops from various countries will arrive in Iraq to replace the beleaguered occupation forces of the United States. Senior Pentagon officials told the U.S. media in the third week of June that an Indian Army division could possibly be joining British and Polish divisions in Iraq. The Indian government has, however, said that no decision has been reached about deploying Indian troops in that country. All major opposition parties in India have opposed the proposal. Misgivings about acceding to the U.S. request have also been expressed by several constituents of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

President George W. Bush has made attempts alternatively at cajoling and arm-twisting every leader he met in recent months into sending his or her country's troops to Iraq to bail out the Americans militarily and politically. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq remains at 146,000 - almost the same when they were deployed at the height of the war. Additionally, there are 12,000 troops from Britain.

Poland, Italy, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, El Salvador and Honduras are the other countries that have a token presence in Iraq or have made firm commitments to send troops. All these countries are military and political allies of the U.S. However, the total number of troops they have pledged does exceed more than 3,000. If India accedes to Washington's request for an entire division of its Army, then the Indian force will end up becoming the third largest occupation force in Iraq, after the Americans and the British.

The Pentagon wants to reduce drastically the number of American troops in Iraq for a variety of reasons. Six weeks ago, Pentagon officials stated that they would be able to reduce the number to 30,000 by autumn. Bush had pompously announced on May 1 that major combat operations in Iraq were over. Since then a guerilla war has intensified, with U.S. soldiers being attacked almost every hour.

Only large-scale deployment of troops by countries such as India can reduce the Bush administration's military burden. Elite divisions of the U.S. Army have been deployed in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a year and the soldiers are badly in need of rest. Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz and Vice-Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon was aggressively recruiting dozens of countries for "peace-keeping and reconstruction" duties in Iraq.

However, both officials admitted that convincing nations to send troops to Iraq had been difficult. Another reason why the Bush administration wants countries like India to despatch troops urgently is the need to cut expenses. Currently, the military occupation of Iraq is costing the U.S. exchequer $3 billion a month. As yet Iraqi oil has not started flowing in significant quantities to finance reconstruction. Oil pipelines are being targeted by Iraqi resistance forces. Armed resistance to the occupation has also started in a big way in the south of the country, with the killing of seven British troops in the last week of June. The Kurdish-dominated north is quiet for the time being, but if the Kurds' demand for self-rule is not granted soon, they could re-launch their guerilla war. Kurds are said to be well-versed in guerilla warfare, having gained firsthand experience in the last 40 years from their wars against the Turks, the Iraqis and the Iranians.

The Americans have reportedly offered the Kurd-dominated northern sector to the Indian forces as part of their stabilisation plan for Iraq. This sector includes big cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul, which have large non-Kurdish populations. There have been sustained attacks on the U.S. occupation forces in the last couple of weeks in Kirkuk - Kirkuk is not far from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town. Apparently, the Baath party retains significant support in the area. Senior U.S. military officials admit that the occupation is meeting growing resistance.

Parallels are already being drawn between the U.S.' present military predicament in Iraq and its "search-and-destroy" missions and counter-insurgency operations in Vietnam carried out during the 1960s.

This is the situation that awaits Indian troops in Iraq in case the government commits the political blunder of succumbing to American pressure. Islamabad, which is even more susceptible to U.S. pressure than New Delhi, has indicated that it would send troops to Iraq only under United Nations or Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) cover. President Pervez Musharraf has also indicated that Pakistan will take a decision only after an interim Iraqi civilian administration is in place in Baghdad. The fact that the Bush administration has not been able to find a figure to head a civilian administration is an indicator of the unviable situation it is in.

Senior diplomatic sources in New Delhi say that despatching Indian troops at this juncture would send wrong signals to the international community. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, during his recent visit to New Delhi, gently conveyed Moscow's misgivings about the move to send Indian troops to Iraq. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the visiting Minister that no decision regarding the despatch of troops had been taken and that the U.S. had yet to give satisfactory answers to the queries India had raised on the terms and conditions under which Indian troops would be deployed.

BEFORE Vajpayee left for China, the NDA had a formal meeting to discuss the issue. It was decided at that time to leave the final decision to the Prime Minister after his return. The Indian government has also said that it will gauge the opinion of Iraq's neighbours as well as Iraqi public opinion. A letter that bears the signature of Saddam Hussein, which was distributed in the Arab media, has warned that all foreign troops on Iraqi soil will be treated as enemies. Diplomats belonging to some of the major countries bordering Iraq have said that the Indian government has not yet sought the opinion of their governments about Indian military participation.

Diplomats from West Asia say that it will be suicidal for India to get sucked into the Iraqi maelstrom. Arab and Muslim public opinion, which is vehemently opposed to the Americans, will be disappointed if India yields to U.S. pressure. Many people in the region and elsewhere are convinced that the Bush administration is implementing the Israeli agenda for West Asia. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was among the earliest backers of the military action against Iraq, and it was Sharon who first gave the call for a regime change in Iran. The diplomats also point out that New Delhi should be more concerned about what is happening in Afghanistan. Militarily, the U.S. is in a more precarious situation there. A Taliban comeback would be a serious setback for India. Russia, India and Iran were the major backers of the Northern Alliance, which today has the lion's share of power in Kabul.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also made it clear on several occasions that the "coalition" forces, which have invaded Iraq, have the primary responsibility, under the Geneva Convention and the Hague Regulation, to ensure effective administration of Iraq. Annan is said to have conveyed his disapproval to External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha on the issue of sending Indian troops to Iraq, at a meeting in New York in late June. Annan was of the opinion that it would be improper for Indian troops to act as peace-keepers after a war that did not have the approval of the U.N. or the international community.

Any Indian move to send troops to Iraq would also go down badly with organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), in which India is supposed to be playing a leadership role. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who, unlike the leaders of the subcontinent, has never been afraid to speak his mind out about the danger of unilateralism, said recently that the "Anglo-Saxon strategy is to fight terrorism through attacking Muslim countries and Muslims, whether they are guilty or not". Mahathir, who is the current NAM Chairman, said that "Europeans" wish to control the world again by invading certain countries, "ostensibly for their security, but in fact to exploit the wealth of these countries". The Chinese leadership is said to be watching with keen interest the decision Vajpayee will take on the issue.

The Indian government continues to insist that no decision will be taken on sending troops to Iraq without a national consensus. The Opposition argues that the unanimous parliamentary resolution strongly condemning the U.S.-led war reflected the national consensus. The Congress party, despite its waffling, has once again gone on record stating that it "is totally opposed to the deployment of Indian troops under any arrangement other than a United Nations command or as part of a multi-national peace-keeping force that has the mandate of the U.N.". The Communist Party India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat said that the BJP-led government was not divulging the entire truth about the issue. He said that U.S. diplomats had met Indian Army officials in the first week of May to discuss the details of the deployment of Indian troops in Iraq. "The Vajpayee government is behaving like a junior partner of the U.S.," said Karat, alluding to the secretive way in which the government has been negotiating with the Americans.

The U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi, Robert Blackwill, said India could play a "major role" in Iraq and be on the "inner board of directors" managing the security of the country. He was speaking after a Pentagon team visited New Delhi to hardsell the Bush administration's request for Indian troops. Defence Minister George Fernandes did not seem very convinced by the case put forward by the Pentagon team. He said that the government was waiting for further clarifications from the Pentagon on some crucial questions before finalising its position. Fernandes emphasised that questions relating to the involvement of the U.N. and command and control remained unanswered. He said that the biggest factor was the involvement of the U.N. Interestingly, according to diplomatic sources, the U.S. has been trying to entice other countries into sending troops to Iraq by telling them that Indian military participation is a foregone conclusion.

Indications are that better sense will prevail in New Delhi. It has become clear that the U.S. is in for a long haul in Iraq. All the major contracts awarded so far have gone to U.S. companies close to the Bush administration. The smaller contracts have gone to British and Australian companies.

Indian peace-keepers are needed more urgently in countries like Congo and Liberia, where the U.N. has been desperately looking for help to prevent massacres. Sending troops to Iraq will only legitimise aggression and war crimes. Thousands of Iraqis were killed in the war. More than a million Iraqis died as a result of a decade-long U.S. sanctions regime. The presence of Indian troops will also be construed as a slap in the face of the international public opinion. After the recent killings of British troops, pressure is growing on the Tony Blair government to withdraw troops from Iraq.

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