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Perils of peace-keeping

Print edition : Aug 01, 2003 T+T-
Indian soldiers listen to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam during his visit to Uri, near the Pakistan border, on June 28.-AFP

Indian soldiers listen to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam during his visit to Uri, near the Pakistan border, on June 28.-AFP

Indian troops on a peace-keeping mission in Iraq might end up having to contain the fallout of events they did not precipitate.

IN November 2002, as Hans Blix prepared to resume weapons inspections in Iraq and the United States began to give the final touches to its plans for war, a strange group of visitors arrived in Baghdad: officials from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They flew into the city to assess the damage that two decades of conflict had caused on 13 First World War cemeteries. In the war of imperial conquest that gave birth to modern Iraq, 51,830 soldiers died; two thirds of them Indian. If an Indian force commander ever sets foot on Iraqi soil, one of his first tasks will be to visit Kut-al-Amara, a small town near Baghdad. Well over half the men who died in the course of that ugly war fell in and around Kut-al-Amara. The Pune-based 6 Indian Division was all but annihilated.

Given the Union government's extraordinary dithering on committing troops to Iraq, no one in the Army seems clear if or when Indian soldiers might have to cross the Kala Pani yet again. Some speculative planning, however, has commenced. Top officials believe that if Indian troops are sent, it would entail a division-strength commitment for at least three years. One formation being considered for the first-in role is the Bareilly-based 6 Division, a reserve force directly controlled by the Army Headquarters in New Delhi. The 6 Division specialises in mountain warfare, and has the skills needed to operate in the mountain terrain of Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq. It does not, however, have organic armoured assets of its own, and will have to draw on the services of a tank brigade, possibly from the western front. The U.S., informed sources say, has offered to put up some part of the mechanised assets that Indian troops will need, like armoured vehicles.

Deploying soldiers on the ground, however, is the least of the Indian Army's problems. First, it is far from clear how much autonomy of action an Indian formation would have. Even if an Indian force was given formal overall power in the area it was deployed in, the U.S.' air and special forces units would, most likely, continue aggressive operations in pursuit of their objectives. Should such operations result in high civilian casualties, as they have done with alarming regularity in recent months, Indian soldiers on the ground would be left to contain the fallout of events that they did not precipitate.

Something similar happened when Indian peace-keeping forces were deployed in Somalia, to contain the bitter ethnic warfare in that country. U.S. and Pakistani forces deployed in the Somali capital Mogadishu ended up inflicting severe civilian losses, and sparking off bloody conflict. While Indian troops had no role in this fighting, their work elsewhere in the country inevitably suffered as the legitimacy of their mandate diminished.

Although some Indian officials have claimed that a solution may lie in a command structure where each force has a clearly demarcated zone free of a hierarchical command structure, the creation of such a structure might not help much. For instance, Lieutenant-General Satish Nambiar, who headed the multinational United Nations-mandated force in Yugoslavia and was Deputy Chief of the Army Staff, discovered that his troops, which were predominantly European, were simply unwilling to listen to an Indian boss, no matter who he drew his legitimacy from. Any Indian force will also be confronted with the fact that the U.S. will remain the principal source of authority on the ground. Inevitably, the armed political factions that are now proliferating in Iraq will turn to the U.S. and not to the Indian command for favour and influence. As such, an Indian force would have very limited ability to coerce or arm-twist groups into keeping the peace. Although India enjoys tremendous goodwill among ordinary Iraqis, local influence, a key element of any operation to bring about post-war stability, is something India does not have in Iraq.

Another possible source of embarrassment for Indian troops is the fact that they will have no real intelligence assets of their own. While Indian formations may be able to put together some local tactical intelligence resources, they will have to draw much of what they need - from translators and maps to communications intelligence - from the U.S. intelligence set-up. Defence planners in New Delhi are deeply concerned by the prospect that Indian soldiers could then be used to legitimise discredited claims that Iraq had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, some military strategists believe that an Indian presence in northern Iraq will prove something of a trap, and not just because this was the region where Saddam Hussein allegedly stockpiled chemical weapons. Should Kurdish guerrilla groups discover that the independence that the West promised them is not forthcoming, they could soon turn on their one-time friends. Indian troops will then become targets of a guerrilla war they had no role in initiating. India may also find itself sucked into a potential secessionist war within Iraq, between Kurdish organisations and a future interim central authority in Iraq.

UNDERLYING these multiple concerns is the U.S.' lack of clarity about its post-war objectives in Iraq. It has, so far, desisted from putting in place an interim administration with U.N. sanction, a civilian authority of the kind that was established in Afghanistan. It seems improbable that the U.S. would accept such a dispensation until it believes that it has crushed hostile political forces and ensured that post-war reconstruction contracts are in the hands of favoured corporations. A second option for the U.S. is to keep only that many soldiers in Iraq as will be required to continue the war against the nationalist forces and to secure the oilfields. This, however, would give countries like Iran unfettered political influence, which is unacceptable to the U.S. Therefore, it seems to have settled for neo-colonial direct control - with predictable consequences, in the form of guerilla resistance and civil disorder.

Bringing in foreign troops to contain the fallout has become inevitable, in part, because the U.S. administration was not listening very hard to its own military. In December 2002, Colonel Dennis Murphy and Lieutenant-Colonels Curtis Turner and Bob Hesse produced a detailed study of the military imperatives of post-war Iraq, based on a series of exercises conducted at the Army War College's Centre for Strategic Leadership. The paper argued, correctly, that the Iraqi regime would be displaced in "a relatively swift and decisive military effort", but also made clear that the U.S. forces would then be confronted with "a very unstable environment". In a post-war situation, the paper predicted that "the government, police and judiciary are relatively dysfunctional due to the purging of top leadership and no emerging replacements. Some Iraqi military units are operating at will and conducting guerrilla attacks throughout the country. Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish tribal leaders are ruling [their] respective areas and are initiating frequent skirmishes in an effort to expand their power base."

To address these problems, the paper pointed to the need for "a significant force to conduct post-conflict requirements". "Initial studies," indicate well over 100 essential services that the Army must provide or support." In the build-up to the war, U.S. Chief of Army Staff Eric Shenseki had suggested that the numbers needed for a sustainable occupation force could run into several hundred thousand troops. The figure was dismissed by the Department of Defence officials as "wildly off the mark". The dispute was part of a larger fight between the U.S. Army and Secretary for Defence Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had put his weight behind a highly mobile striking force, low in numbers but high on battlefield technology. The Army, on the other hand, wanted a strong infantry presence so that troops trained and able to handle civil security tasks would be available after the war. Rumsfeld appeared vindicated by the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime - but recent events suggest that the generals were not as pre-modern and resistant to change as the hawks assembled around the Defence Secretary insisted.

It is not hard to see why the U.S. is now looking overseas to make up the deficit. A paper released this March by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies noted that the U.S. "military does not have a standby constabulary capacity". The paper had, therefore, deemed it "essential that U.S. post-conflict stabilisation forces have been properly trained, equipped and mandated to perform constabulary duties in order to ensure greater stability and security on the streets of Iraq's towns and cities after the war". The paper noted that it seemed the U.S. "plan is for U.S. combat troops to handle civil security tasks - such as preventing or otherwise handling revenge violence among Iraqis - and there is some indication that such troops may not have been properly trained or mandated to handle such tasks." The observation, experience shows, was spot on. U.S. strategists believe that Indian soldiers, who have a long history of internal-security duties, can fill up the yawning gap that must be met to secure their objectives in Iraq.

The bottom line, then, is this: the U.S. is doing no favours to India by allowing its troops into Iraq. Its demands for support are born out of desperate need. Without a clear and unequivocal U.N. mandate to be present in Iraq, however, the Indian military risks gaining nothing other than a pile of body bags in addition to the already tragic losses it suffers each day in its covert war with Pakistan.

Indian military officials also point out that security operations do not consist simply of putting troops on the ground and ordering them to undertake coercive police duties. For all the talk about reintegrating and retraining the Iraqi army and police, no hard cash has been committed for the purpose. Funds to restore basic infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, electricity, power and water, are still elusive. As civilian discontent mounts, Indian peacekeeping forces, like their counterparts from other countries, will inevitably become targets.

In 1914, Indian soldiers left for Iraq to fight someone else's war. Neither they nor their country gained anything. This time around, India would serve its soldiers well by letting them stay at home.