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A trap set for India

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in New Delhi on May 10.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in New Delhi on May 10.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

NATIONAL Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra rounded off a tour of key world capitals with a visit to Washington in early May. A meeting with United States President George W. Bush topped off a series of confabulations with his U.S. counterpart, Condoleeza Rice. Back in New Delhi, he allowed himself a rare public moment of candour about the drift of his discussions in Washington. He said: "The U.S. naturally, as a power with global interests, has much more to ask of us than we have to give. But that does not mean that we are becoming a client state." Warming to his theme, Mishra continued: "Take the case of Iraq... We expressed our disagreements early on. It was fairly well understood. Even now we are telling them (the U.S.) that we need a U.N. cover to be part of the Iraq enterprise."

It was significant that Mishra spoke in terms of a "cover" from the U.N. - presumably serving the same function as a fig-leaf - rather than a mandate. Broadly coinciding with his visit to the U.S., reports appeared in the media indicating that the Indian government was preparing to send troops to Iraq to assist in the tasks of occupation and administration. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had met with Mishra in London as he transited east for a visit to India and other countries in the region, reportedly brought up the matter during discussions with top Indian officials. Informed commentators were convinced that relations with Pakistan were a mere camouflage for the basic agenda behind Armitage's visit, which was India's recruitment to the cause of the occupation of Iraq.

A chorus of concord soon rose from the chambers of commerce, which sensed that the business opportunities in Iraqi reconstruction would be reserved for countries that were military collaborators in the occupation. But this was one occasion when the chambers were not going to run away with the foreign policy ball. Braving accusations of romanticism and primitive thinking, most major parties stood their ground. The Congress(I) and the Left parties in particular drew attention to the fundamentals of the situation. Both Houses of Parliament had unanimously adopted a resolution deploring (or "condemning", depending upon linguistic preference and translator's bias) the war against Iraq and calling for the immediate withdrawal of the invading forces. The U.S., which was then in the process of finalising a draft resolution for U.N. approval, had made it clear that the occupying powers in Iraq would remain paramount, with the U.N. only coming in - if at all - in a subordinate role. On neither count could India conceivably justify a decision to send its soldiers to keep the peace in Iraq.

Expectedly, the U.N. Security Council on May 22 provided India with the "cover" that it sought. But dissent remained strong across the political spectrum. A meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security on May 26 failed to arrive at a decision. Some of the senior Ministers were known to be deeply apprehensive about sending Indian troops abroad to function under the flags of the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Others were concerned that the political repercussions could be serious, especially with four State elections due later this year and national elections being not far.

The zealots for a new strategic partnership with the U.S. were keen to arm Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with a decision when he left for a tour of three European countries on May 27. They foresaw, accurately, that with India being one among 12 countries invited in a consultative role to the G-8 summit in Evian, France, it was likely to come under renewed pressure from the U.S. But for most political parties, there is little ambiguity about the need for India to stand firm in opposing the U.S. agenda of conquest and exploitation in Iraq.

With armed resistance in Iraq hardening, the U.S. has made a decision to maintain force levels in Iraq, rather than cut back rapidly as U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would like. The hawkish and abrasive Rumsfeld is under domestic pressure because his forecasts of a swift and relatively painless military engagement have been shattered. This coincides with a high-level inquiry into the intelligence inputs - long known to be concoctions, but now proven to be so - that went into the decision to go to war. Rumsfeld's role in this too is believed to be under scrutiny.

With the consensus forged in the moment of illusory triumph now clearly fraying, the U.S. is keen to minimise the exposure of its own forces in Iraq. Yet, no country of any significant military competence has stepped forward to relieve the U.S. of the burden of occupation. Poland has announced its contribution of 1,500 soldiers, but declared that it would not be in a position to pay the costs. Hungary, the Philippines and the Czech Republic could send small numbers of troops to assist in specialised functions. But all this does not quite provide the required degree of comfort. The U.S. and the U.K. together have 160,000 military personnel in Iraq. With the logistical and supply contingents based in Kuwait thrown in, the total Western troop presence in the region is of the order of about 250,000. This has proved grossly inadequate for the task of bringing some semblance of order to Iraq. If India were to step into the trap being baited by the U.S., then the force commitment it would need to think of would be in tens of thousands. It would be well advised to keep out of the U.S.' malevolent efforts to redraw the map of an area that India has vital stakes in.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 20, 2003.)

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