South Asia

India: US daisy-cutters or olive branch?
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - Monday night's coordinated suicide attacks on residential complexes for foreigners in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, appears to have altered the Indian view of the post-Iraq world order: It may have helped Delhi make up its mind on whether or not to send troops to Iraq as part of a "stabilization force" on the request of the United States.

Well-placed sources in the government have told Asia Times Online that now the answer is going to be an unambiguous "no": India does not want to get stuck in the Middle East quagmire aggravated by the US-led invasion of Iraq, particularly as the Indian parliament has unanimously deplored that action. It may continue to hide behind the need for a United Nations resolution though, as it doesn't want to incur US displeasure.

A strong and determined pro-US lobby in the government led by National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra is, however, still at work and due to his closeness to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it may still succeed. But the Riyadh bombing has clearly strengthened the naysayers as it has exposed the many vulnerabilities of the US presence in the Middle East, as well as the striking power of al-Qaeda that is only likely to grow with the passage of time.

India has been under tremendous pressure for the past fortnight to accede to the US request over troops, as the latter is interested in sending as many of its soldiers as possible back home from Iraq as early as possible. The US and British proposal for India to send a division-level force is believed to have been made at the highest levels in government, both in New Delhi and in Washington, two weeks ago. It is also said to have come up in the talks between Mishra and US officials in Washington last week.

Before the Riyadh blasts, India was almost ready to participate in a US-led stabilization force for Iraq, according to news emanating from Poland, the one country other than Albania that has so far shown readiness to send its troops to Iraq. India has participated in humanitarian campaigns before, and given the chaotic law-and-order situation in Iraq, the contemplated force could be considered a humanitarian gesture for the people of Iraq.

India's participation in the United Nations-led relief effort in Iraq was already under way, with the government organizing a field hospital to be sent there. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha was expected to offer military assistance for Iraq to his US counterpart, Secretary of State Colin Powell, when they met in Moscow on Wednesday. The US request did come up for discussion in Moscow, but apparently Sinha did not give any categorical reply to the request formally made by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage during his Delhi visit last week.

The Indian government is split down the middle on the issue for these reasons. One, the request was being made not by a legitimate Iraqi government, but by an "occupying power". Two, India had opposed the invasion of Iraq, and now sending troops to work under US command without a UN resolution could be construed as supporting the invasion itself.

Indian mandarins were able to work out a compromise. India was urging the Americans to amend its resolution somewhat in the United Nations, the argument being that if the UN could be involved, even in some vague way, in the formation of the interim government in Iraq, it would be far easier for India and other countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia to participate in the US-led stabilization force.

But the blasts in Riyadh have changed all this. Given the meticulous planning and execution involved, as Powell put it, the bombing has "all the fingerprints of an al-Qaeda operation". According to the daily newspaper The Pioneer, which often reflects Indian government thinking, the blasts clearly had a twofold purpose: First, to show that far from being crippled, al-Qaeda has retained its ability to strike at any place and time of its choosing. Second, the timing - the eve of Powell's visit to the country in the course of his tour of West Asia to explain US policies in the region after Saddam Hussein's ouster - was meant to show that US supremacy in this part of the globe could hardly be taken for granted and that its allies were in peril.

The Riyadh attack has come at a time when the Indian mind, as reflected in talks with officials as well comments in the media, is full of apprehensions and misgivings about the real US intentions in South Asia. Vajpayee's invocation of the US invasion of Iraq in parliament last week as an "example" of how powerful nations can render the UN a toothless body can be seen in this context. He is also said to have been furious with Yashwant Sinha's earlier statement in parliament calling for "preemptive strikes" against Pakistan on the lines of what the US did in Iraq, as it amounted to supporting the US theory of preemptive strikes against countries that did not and could not pose any threat.

In Vajpayee's view India's case against Pakistan is different. India may have a right to strike preemptively as Pakistan is a real and present danger to this country. This neighboring country has already fought four wars with India and has also been engaged in a low-intensity proxy war for the past two decades, first in the state of Punjab, supporting a Sikh fundamentalist movement for independent Khalistan, and then in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in aid of Kashmiri separatists. Pakistan also supports separatists in the northeast of India.

Indian suspicions of US intentions in South Asia are revealed in private comments by senior officials as well as comments in the media. Newspapers have taken to giving headlines such as "Daisy-cutters or olive branch", meaning that if India doesn't make peace with Pakistan, as the US desires and probably on US terms, it may have to face an invasion in the manner of Iraq and Afghanistan.

These misgivings have been enhanced by the fact that while making his now-famous hand-of-friendship speech at Srinagar, capital of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir, on April 18, the prime minister himself mentioned the changed world scenario after the invasion of Iraq as the reason for his offer of an olive branch to Pakistan.

A senior official of the main opposition Congress party and a former diplomat refers to these widely felt grievances and deep suspicions about the United States in his inimitable, combative style, while giving his version of how things have gone so wrong that India has to face US bullying: "When the Vajpayee lot found that their bluster [against Pakistan] was not impressing anyone, they mobilized the bulk of our armed forces, at enormous cost to the nation and enormous damage to morale, to go man the outer perimeter of our borders on full alert for 10 long months in a meaningless eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, which quite failed to cow down the Pakistanis but thoroughly alarmed the world at this display of brinkmanship by two neo-nuclear powers.

"That is when the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads since June 6, 1998, was unsheathed: UN Security Council Resolution 1172, which revived for the first time since the 1965 war the dreaded K-word, Kashmir. As punishment for Pokhran II, the axis of evil - the five permanent members of the Security Council, all of whom are nuclear weapon powers - threatened India and Pakistan, settle Kashmir or our wrath will descend on you. That is how Vajpayee at Srinagar made the connection between Iraq and Kashmir. The Iraq resolutions were twice as old as Resolution 1172 - but kept in storage till [George W Bush] decided he needed another war on yet another defenseless enemy to win his 2004 elections. Sorting out India and Pakistan would go down extraordinarily well with the American voter.

"Vajpayee has made the connection only now. Jaswant Singh [former external affairs minister, now finance minister] made it much earlier. Hence his chasing Strobe Talbott [deputy secretary of state in former US president Bill Clinton's administration] the world over, 10 times around, begging redemption for Pokhran II by abject surrender to the United States. The US, of course, won the day. The Vajpayee government first credited the US president, not the Indian armed forces, with ending the Pakistani incursion in Kargil [in 1999]; then they let Bill Clinton get away with describing Kashmir as a 'dispute' in the sacred precincts of Central Hall; then rushed in after September 11 with an offer of territory which the Americans feared to tread; then bit their tongue as neither America nor the world bought our story about 13/12 [terrorist attack on the Indian parliament]; and have now abjectly dismantled the entire response to 13/12. It is a groveling confession of wasted years."

Thus, while India had reacted to the events of September 11, 2001, with a fervent hope that now the US will see the need to tame Pakistan - a demand reiterated for the umpteenth time last week by Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishan Advani - it has reacted to the Riyadh blasts merely with a hand-wringing that the US did not have the good sense to continue its so-called "war on terror" in the manner India had advised.

One typical example of the Indian response is provided by an editorial in the pro-government Pioneer: "Ironically, it is the US itself which is primarily responsible, albeit indirectly, for the fact that the al-Qaeda was still able to do so. It should have waged its war against terrorism with single-minded zeal until the al-Qaeda's organizational infrastructure, the global reach and efficiency which was strikingly underlined by the events of 9/11, had been fully destroyed. Instead of doing that, it invaded Iraq. Though it did so at the head of a coalition of a large number of countries, it had to provide almost the whole of the military effort involved - with Britain playing a critical supporting role. As a result, al-Qaeda retains a significant part of its infrastructure, and its leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman-al-Zawahiri are alive and plotting."

Indians have, of course, not suddenly become supportive of anti-American terrorism. And there has been pro forma condemnation of terrorism in some circles as well. But what should perhaps worry Washington is that more and more people are beginning to see bin Laden as a legitimate opponent of the United States. Indeed, Indians are not alone in thinking that if there were free and fair elections in Saudi Arabia today, bin Laden would win hands down.

Even more worrisome, perhaps, are reports in the Indian media, including the government-controlled TV channel Doordarshan, that despite the discovery of mass graves in Iraq, at least some people are beginning to miss Saddam Hussein, and even wanting him to come back, merely weeks after his fall. As one American observer remarked, if there is real democracy in Iraq, the government that gets elected is bound to be anti-American.

There is disenchantment with the United States at every level in India. Former foreign secretary M K Rasgotra, for instance, characterizes the US attitude toward Pakistan as "dishonorable ambivalence" and a "great disgrace". He said, "Richard Haas, one of Armitage's important colleagues, publicly acknowledged last month Washington's failure to hold [President General Pervez] Musharraf to his commitments. In the same breath, he proceeded to suggest that India, nevertheless, resume dialogue with Pakistan. Is Armitage here to exert his weight in support of that kind of dishonorable ambivalence? What greater disgrace could there be on democracy that one great democracy, engaged in war on terror, should propose to another that it bargain for peace under threat of continuing terrorism by its self-declared adversary! The bitter truth is that Washington has not bothered much about Pakistan's campaign of terror in Kashmir. Even the great Colin Powell seems overawed by the Pakistan military regime's nuclear blackmail."

Another former foreign secretary whose views carry a lot of weight with the Hindu fundamentalist-led government, even though he joined the secular opposition Congress party after the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat, J N Dixit, remarks that a fruitful Indian-US relationship is not possible until the United States allays some Indian concerns.

What are these widely felt concerns? Among several other things, Dixit pointed out, "Interventionist US assertiveness will create incipient tensions in Indo-US relations. Going by the assessment that South Asia is the most dangerous place, what would [the United States'] policies be in dealing with the nuclear weaponization of Pakistan and India? Will it be preemptive or will it be aimed at stabilizing the existing security environment? These questions are pertinent because the Iraq war unequivocally underlined the US's will to take any action required to safeguard its national interests unilaterally. The implications of such action create new security concerns for nations like India, which need to be addressed. America's policies have the additional impetus towards supremacy. The very process of globalization is becoming an instrumentality of US foreign and security policies."

One fallout of the US-led war on Iraq has been that the Indian perception of US capability has changed. Even those who opposed US policies admired its efficiency and professionalism. Now even ordinary Indians are aghast at statements like the one made by the US official in charge of central Iraq, Barbara Bodine: "We didn't know what we were walking into."

Don't Americans even read newspapers, people are asking? It is common knowledge that many Middle East watchers and statesmen had warned the US against opening a Pandora's box. Powell had himself warned in his autobiography of the dangers of opening hundreds of years-old wounds in the Arab world. How can they now feign ignorance of the dangers of invading Iraq? The whole world had asked them to stay away from Iraq.

Even before Riyadh, senior journalists, like senior officials, were making strong cases against India "succumbing to the US demand to send troops to Iraq to function under US command". After Riyadh, these voices are only getting louder.

In the wake of September 11, India had offered its full-fledged support in fighting Islamic terrorism, whose hub, it was thought, lay in Pakistan. After Riyadh, it may start dealing with the United States in the same way other countries, Pakistan, for instance, or now Syria and Iran, do - appearing to cooperate but in reality merely trying to avoid the rain of daisy-cutters.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
May 17, 2003

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