Turning cautious

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

President George Bush with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, when the former made an unscheduled appearance at a meeting between Advani and National Security Adviser to the President Condoleezza Rice at the White House on June 9. - AP/EMBASSY OF INDIA

President George Bush with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, when the former made an unscheduled appearance at a meeting between Advani and National Security Adviser to the President Condoleezza Rice at the White House on June 9. - AP/EMBASSY OF INDIA

New Delhi has apparently realised that sending troops to Iraq will, in the long run, entail negative consequences. An Indian military presence is likely to be viewed as part of the crusade waged by non-Muslim armies against the Islamic world.

AFTER sending conflicting signals for the past three months, the Government of India seems to have finally come to the conclusion that sending troops to Iraq at this juncture would have grave geo-political ramifications. The Vajpayee government is expected to announce formally its decision on the question of sending troops to Iraq before the monsoon session of Parliament begins in the fourth week of July. From available indications, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while not rejecting the Bush administration's request outright, would ask for more time and even more clarifications.

The remarks made by Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal in Washington in the first week of July gave an indication of the Indian government's changing stance on the issue. Sibal said in Washington that there were "grey areas" and "unresolved ambiguities" in the United Nations resolution on Iraq. He emphasised that India would prefer to send troops only after a "more explicit U.N. mandate" was obtained. Sibal also said that it was not the question of the U.S. convincing India. "We have to convince ourselves," said Sibal.

The Congress(I) has finally come out strongly and categorically against the dispatch of Indian troops to Iraq. The party's foreign policy spokesman, K. Natwar Singh, said in the first week of July that the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 did not authorise countries to send troops to Iraq. He pointed out that the U.N. resolution specifically mentioned the United States and the United Kingdom as the occupying powers who would remain solely in charge of the situation in Iraq. The Congress(I) is now of the view that Indian troops can be sent to Iraq only if the Security Council authorises such a move. The Congress(I) has called for an all-party meet before Parliament meets on July 21 to discuss the issue.

The Bush administration was hopeful about an Indian division landing in Iraq by early August to relieve the pressure on the beleaguered "coalition" forces. The Indian foreign office took a principled stand on the issue, despite influential voices in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government wanting to jump into the Iraqi quagmire. Apparently, senior officials of the Ministry, after having ascertained the ground reality in Iraq, advised the government against the dispatch of troops. Jordan and Kuwait are the only neighbours of Iraq who did not raise any objections to the deployment of Indian troops in the region. According to observers of the West Asian scene, the views of these two kingdoms do not carry much weight in the Arab world. Their armies have been under American "command and control" for quite some time now.

Iraq's other immediate neighbours, such as Syria, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have not been officially consulted on the issue by New Delhi. The Saudis say that it is up to the Indian government to take a decision about troop deployment in Iraq. However, Arab diplomats caution that support from these countries should not be taken for granted. They point out that Arab countries that did not object to Indian troop deployment in Iraq were de facto military allies of the U.S. Most importantly, the diplomats point out, the Arab street is overwhelmingly against the U.S., whatever the governments of the region might say.

Diplomats from the region also warn that Indian troops will be viewed as part of the crusade being waged by non-Muslim armies against Arabs and the Islamic world. They also feel that any Indian involvement in Iraq could have negative consequences for India in the long term. The Muslim world could start focussing on the Kashmir issue in forums like the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Most of the Arab world currently views Kashmir as a regional dispute. Diplomats fear that a religious dimension might start predominating the Kashmir dispute, if traditional friends of India such as Iran and Syria get alienated. Both Syria and Iran strongly oppose the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq. In fact, U.S. President George W. Bush has been threatening to target both countries militarily.

Diplomatic sources in New Delhi say that if India sends troops to Iraq, it could find itself in a politically piquant situation. If the Bush administration goes to war against Syria or Iran, Indian troops in Iraq would be caught in the military and diplomatic crossfire. The "neo-conservatives" who are the driving force behind the Bush administration, have been calling for military action against Iran. Turkey will have no reason to be happy if the Indian military sets up base in northern Iraq, especially in the light of recent events. In the second week of July, American special forces detained a group of Turkish commandos inside northern Iraq on charges that they were planning to assassinate the American-appointed interim governor of Kirkuk. Relations between Ankara and Washington, which have been cool since the war on Iraq started, have further deteriorated. Turkey's powerful military high command said that the incident had led to a "crisis of trust" between the two countries.

The Turkish military and political leadership feel that the Americans are tacitly letting the Kurds in northern Iraq achieve self-rule. The number of Kurdish guerillas infiltrating into Turkey from Iraq has increased in recent months, leading to a rise in attacks on government forces. Any Indian presence in the region will be interpreted by Ankara as an endorsement of the American game plan to allow the Kurds to establish an autonomous zone in the north.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's high-profile visit to the U.S. in June raised American hopes about the chances of Indian troops being deployed in Iraq. Bush had found time "to drop in" when Advani was at a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Evidently, the issue of sending Indian troops to Iraq figured high in Advani's discussions with senior officials of the Bush administration. According to informed sources in the External Affairs Ministry, Advani had given certain assurances to the Bush administration regarding troop deployment, without the explicit approval of Vajpayee. The Bush administration had given the Deputy Prime Minister's visit the status of a prime ministerial visit. Advani met virtually all the key decision-makers of the Bush administration - a recognition of Advani's emerging status as the Prime Minister-in-waiting. Advani has also been an unabashed backer of a strategic and military alliance between Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

NEW DELHI may have drawn some lessons from history. The Indian Army, under the command of the British, suffered terrible casualties in Iraq during the First World War and later in the 1920, when the Iraqi populace rose in rebellion. Norman Dixon, a military historian, in his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence has said that the involvement of the Indian army in Iraq had started as a "modest venture" but "led to a military disaster so total yet so unnecessary, so futile yet expensive; that its like did not occur again until the fall of Singapore in 1942".

The Americans, with their aerial bombing and missile attacks, killed an estimated 7,000 civilians in their latest war against Iraq. Iraqi military casualties are said to be in their tens of thousands. Since the occupation of Iraq started, more than 200 American soldiers have been killed. American military patrols are being attacked in an organised fashion by trained and motivated fighters. There is universal recognition of the right of a people occupied by a foreign power to use armed force to resist. Apparently, in two speeches released in early July, Saddam Hussein has asked Iraqis to treat all foreign forces in Iraq as occupiers and invaders.

Richard Lugar, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while criticising President Bush's optimism, said American forces would have to be in Iraq for at least five years. The Pentagon has been looking for three international divisions totalling around 60,000 troops. The Bush administration is trying to persuade the rich Gulf states to create an international fund to help pay for the "stabilisation" of Iraq. Washington hopes that countries like India and Pakistan can be swayed by monetary considerations into sending troops to Iraq.

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