|India dithers over Iraq dilemma
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Washington's request to Delhi to
send troops to serve as part of a "stabilization force"
in Iraq has generated a heated debate in India. With the
issue dividing the political establishment, bureaucracy
and political parties right down the middle, the Indian
government is in a huge dilemma over whether or not to
comply with the US request.
Several weeks ago
the US invited India to send troops to in Iraq. Delhi,
which is keen for a role in the long-term reconstruction
of Iraq, apparently saw this as a stepping-stone and
signaled that it was not averse to sending its forces.
It did point out, however, that it had some points that
required clarification. Since then, the two sides have
been discussing the issue at various levels.
Things gathered momentum last week when the Bush
administration stepped up its effort to get India to
commit to sending troops, when Deputy Prime Minister L K
Advani was in Washington. That was followed up with a
Pentagon team being rushed to Delhi early this week to
sort out some of India's concerns with regard to troop
The reasons for Washington's
enthusiasm for other troops are not hard to find. Iraq
has plunged into bloody chaos and the Americans are
having a difficult time. With bad news regarding
American casualties pouring in every day and
anti-American feeling in Iraq mounting, the US is keen
to pull out a few divisions and have other countries
share its burden.
But why India? India has a
professional army that has the experience and an
excellent record in international peacekeeping. Besides,
it is non-aligned and a secular country and has had good
relations with Iraq. The US would like to cash in on
these advantages. State Department officials point out
that the invitation is also a signal that Washington
recognizes India as an emerging power with a major role
to play in Asian security affairs.
American foreign policy analysts have complained that
India, which was seen to be closer to the Soviets during
the Cold War, rarely voted with the US in the United
Nations. In the context of the burgeoning ties between
the two countries, the US is keen to see if that has now
changed. That is, at a time of reckoning, will India
stand by the US? The invitation to India then is a test
of Delhi's loyalty as an ally of the US.
Officials in the Indian Ministry of External
Affairs (MEA) who are in favor of India's participation
in the "stabilization force" argue that as a country
with great power aspirations India must not hesitate to
go now to Iraq. It is in India's economic interests to
do so for it can get a share in reconstruction projects.
There is some fear that if India turns down the US
request, it will be muscled out of these projects.
Besides, there is a fear that if India passes up the
chance, Pakistan will grab the offer. There is a section
in the Indian foreign policy establishment that believes
that by staying out of the Cold War military alignments,
India made a mistake as it left the door open for
Pakistan to cozy up to Washington and reap the benefits
of that alliance. According to this argument, not taking
up the US offer now would be a repetition of that
So, should India send its troops to
Iraq? Many reasons are advanced as to why India should
not under the existing circumstances. For one, the US
might have won a quick victory against Iraq. However,
that does not change the fact that its war against Iraq
was illegal, not sanctioned by the UN and completely
immoral. India had opposed that war. In April, the
Indian parliament in a unanimous resolution "deplored"
the US attack on Iraq and called for a quick withdrawal
of coalition forces from that country. If India were to
send its forces to Iraq now, it would be going against
the spirit of that resolution. Besides, India would be
guilty of holding hands with an occupation force.
UN Resolution 1483 appeals to UN members to
contribute to conditions of stability and security in
Iraq. This could serve as a fig leaf for India to send
its troops. But is it justification enough? More
importantly for the government, would the opposition
parties in India, who are against the deployment, buy
India has served on many
peacekeeping operations in the past. It has done so only
under the UN flag. India is uncomfortable with the idea
of its troops serving under the US flag in Iraq. The US
has reportedly addressed India's concern over command
and control by dividing Iraq into various sectors, each
under a division. This would mean that the Indian
divisional commander would be his own boss in the sector
under his command. He would have to report to the
civilian authority in Baghdad, which while not Iraqi,
has been sanctioned by the UN resolution.
is concern, too, about the cost of sending the troops,
in monetary and human terms. Sources in the Ministry of
Defense admit that peacekeeping operations do not come
cheap. Still it would be worth it if the country's
business and strategic gains were furthered. Others
insist that the monetary costs are well within India's
Of greater concern is the loss in terms
of human lives. Seen to be holding hands with the US,
Indian troops would be targeted too. Furthermore, they
could be sucked into firefights that might result in
civilian killings. Being mired in a messy situation
would blot India's excellent record in peacekeeping.
"This makes little sense, especially if Indian troops
are, in the name of peacekeeping, being used as cannon
fodder for the US and UK," says an army officer.
Besides, "what is the quid pro quo that would
justify sending our troops there?" asks an official in
the MEA. "Would the US get [Pakistani President] General
[Pervez] Musharraf to dismantle the terrorist
infrastructure in Pakistan? Would the US stop propping
up the general?"
A former diplomat who has
served in the Middle East says that India should make
its decision regarding deployment after considering the
impact it will have on other Middle Eastern countries.
How would it affect India's image in the Muslim world
and its oil interests in the Middle East?
who support deployment of troops in Iraq because it will
bring India economic and strategic gain say that it
might be necessary for India to take unpopular decisions
in its pursuit of a role as a global power. However,
this could prove very costly. In an article "More
carrots for the willing" published in Deccan Herald, L K
Sharma writes, "America, as long as it is feared, can
afford to be hated. India has no such freedom. India has
lived on goodwill and needs goodwill to live on."
Sharma says that deploying Indian troops in Iraq
"under the present conditions will be like crossing the
Rubicon. Its symbolism will dramatically erode India's
goodwill and hard-earned reputation as a nation with
some principles in international affairs".
"India, as a global player, has been living on
accumulated capital. Will it be advisable to exchange it
for a few commercial contracts or a sleepover in the
White House? Should India, which aspires to be a great
power, get itself recruited as America's sergeant
major?" he asks.
While the Pentagon team appears
to have addressed some Indian concerns - both sides have
been tightlipped over what transpired at the meeting -
it is clear that the government is wary of rushing a
decision that is fraught with risk. With general
elections due next year, it is treading carefully as
things could go horribly wrong in Iraq.
opposition party, the Congress, has expressed serious
reservations over sending troops to Iraq, asserting that
the Indian troops should serve abroad only under the UN
command. The government has said that it will take a
decision only after a national consensus is evolved
through consultations with political parties on the
matter. Besides, it will be consulting Iraq's neighbors,
including Iran, Syria, Jordan, etc before reaching a
The government has now left the
decision to domestic political dynamics. The
consultations and deliberations with parties will take
weeks, in which time it hopes that the UN would give
troops operating in Iraq a clearer mandate. "By throwing
the ball in the court of domestic politics and leaving
the decision to consensus building, it has sought to buy
itself time and an exit route, if necessary," says the
diplomat. "That is how democracies make decisions. If a
consensus proves elusive, it is possible that India will
avoid a policing role and limit its functioning in Iraq
to a humanitarian one."
India's foot-dragging on
the decision of deployment is said to be annoying the
US, which is used to developing countries making u-turns
in their foreign policies at its bidding. The exigencies
of electoral politics make it necessary for governments
in democracies to evolve consensus on critical issues of
national interest. Which is why, perhaps, the US finds
it easier dealing with dictators than with democracies.
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