Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

South Asia

US steps up pressure on India
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - India is again under heavy United States pressure to dispatch troops to war-torn Iraq. Embattled US President George W Bush called Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Monday, but tightlipped External Affairs Ministry (MEA) officials would only confirm that Iraq was discussed.

In mid-July, India, after foot dragging for over two months, said that it would not send its troops to participate in a "stabilization force" in Iraq. Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said that such a deployment could be considered only under a United Nations mandate.

Vajpayee and Bush are also learnt to have briefly exchanged views on the ground situation in the country, particularly in the context of several terrorist attacks on major targets in Iraq and the almost daily killings of American troops there.

As the situation appears to be developing into a Vietnam-like quagmire, Washington has stepped up diplomatic efforts to secure maximum international backing for obtaining a fresh resolution from the United Nations on deploying a large multinational force in Iraq.

Bush's telephone call was followed the very next day by the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He is also believed to have advised India to help the US in its hour of need and in doing so emerge as a major player in the new world order, particularly if it wants to buy Israeli defense equipment that can only be sold with US permission.

India is keen on buying several Israeli defense systems, including its Arrow anti-missile system. A deal for Phalcon is soon to be finalized following US approval. Moreover, Sharon is said to have argued that India would get a strategic foothold in Iraq, and this could lead to a greater role for the country in the region.

Of course, diplomatic and political reverses for the US in Iraq also mean a setback for Israel. Indeed, the neo-conservatives in Washington that are known to have pushed the Bush administration into the Iraqi quicksand are close allies of Sharon's Likud Party.

A day later, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca, visited India for talks specifically on the issue of 20,000 Indian troops for Iraq. If New Delhi agrees, it would be the second largest military contingent in Iraq after the US, even larger than that of Britain, which was part of the invasion force.

The Indian parliament has already passed a unanimous resolution deploring the invasion of Iraq. Though Rocca claims to have discussed with Indian officials the entire gamut of bilateral relations, official sources added that the Iraq issue figured prominently during her meetings, and she made a strong pitch for Indian troops.

With international diplomatic exchanges on the issue of a new UN resolution on Iraq gathering pace, New Delhi, too, has started efforts to remain abreast with developments in major world capitals. While rejecting the US request earlier, New Delhi had held out the hope that India might reconsider its decision with an "explicit UN mandate" for an international peacekeeping force in Iraq.

Sinha spoke to his counterparts in Germany, France and Russia on the draft US-backed resolution over the past weekend. The leaders agreed to keep in regular touch on the matter. France and Germany have already sought significant changes in the draft that seeks to set up a multinational force under US control in Iraq. The matter is now under discussion at the UN Security Council.

An official spokesperson refused to elaborate whether in the Indian view the draft resolution fits into the mould of an explicit mandate, and said that he could not go beyond the text of the July 14 decision on the matter by the Cabinet Committee on Security.

An indication of the Indian thinking on the issue, or at least the present Indian orientation towards the US, came on Thursday when, speaking on the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishan Advani asked the international community to at least stop helping terror-sponsoring countries like Pakistan and "terrorist" organizations like Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Disappointed with the lack of US help in India's decade-old fight against cross-border terrorism in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Advani said that India did not need any help from anyone, but it expects that those who claim to be fighting international terrorism will at least not help organizations like the ISI, which, he says, sponsors terror strikes against India. He also indicated to his colleagues on Thursday that he has "never been in favor of sending Indian troops to Iraq", as has been persistently reported and commonly believed.

Earlier, sources in the MEA told the media that India did not believe that the US had put enough pressure on Pakistan to curb terrorism. They said that there was a "genuine difference of nuance" as far as the Indian and American perceptions of putting sufficient pressure on Pakistan was concerned. "If Pakistan can hand over 500 al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, why can't it hand over even one or two persons from the list of 20 persons wanted by India?"

The situation, they believe, could have been different if the US had applied the same kind of pressure on Pakistan that it had done in the case of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. "We are the victims of Pakistani terrorism, not the United States," the sources stressed. Maintaining that there was a genuine difference of opinion, they said that there was no question of "bad faith on either side". They said that Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf was willing to face the wrath of extremists by rolling back his policies on Afghanistan, as became apparent in the latest Osama tape released on al-Jazeera television on Thursday, calling Musharraf a traitor, but he was unwilling to do the same when it came to India.

Highly-placed government sources told the media on Thursday that Rocca is likely to return home disappointed. She has been told that India may not send troops to Iraq despite an explicit UN resolution authorizing a multinational peacekeeping force for Iraq as it "simply cannot afford to send troops to Iraq given the situation in our northwest sector".

According to top-level official sources, it was explained to Rocca that the 1.1 million strong Indian army is "heavily committed" along the volatile India-Pakistan border and Line of Control that divides the Indian and Pakistani sections of Kashmir. Some of the formations, which moved to the western front from the India-China border during last year's Operation Parakaram - (in which India kept its million-strong army in an eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation with Pakistan for nearly the whole of last year) - are yet to return to their earlier positions. Also, almost a third of the army is engaged in relentless counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast, where insurgency is rife.

Noted strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney, considered close to the ruling Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was even more explicit in his condemnation of US policies. Writing in the large-circulation daily the Hindustan Times on September 11, he said, "The war on terror - a grueling long haul - can be won only by inculcating a secular and democratic ethos in societies steeped in religious and political bigotry. Despite the daunting challenge, the US cannot afford to lose this war. Nor can India, for the sake of its own security, see the US lose. The Islamists would swell their ranks by trapping the last great superpower in Iraq and Afghanistan after having routed the Soviet Union in the latter state. Their resurgence would bring India under greater terrorist pressure.

"Yet, this does not constitute sufficient cause for India to dispatch an army division to Iraq, even if there is the UN's imprimatur. A beleaguered India has to help itself before it helps the US, which last year tricked New Delhi into calling off Operation Parakaram with assurances it never meant or intended to keep. The Americans released their pet dictator in Islamabad from Indian military pressure as part of a deal that has given their special units continuing operational freedom within Pakistan and secured some Pakistani assistance on the Afghan front in return for Musharraf's keeping of what he euphemistically calls his 'Kashmir policy'."

Earlier, a Sangh Parivar (the family of several Hindu fundamentalist organizations, including the ruling BJP) ideologue Sandhya Jain wrote in a column in the daily newspaper, The Pioneer, "India has no legitimate reason to help America eat its cake [Iraq] as well. Our delicately nuanced opposition to the US action in Iraq has been vindicated by its outcome. There is no justification for making a volte face and openly abetting the American occupation. Despite the fig leaf of Security Council Resolution 1483, India will have no meaningful role in 'assisting' the people of Iraq to reform their institutions and rebuild their country. As the recognized 'authority' in Baghdad, the US-led coalition will control all levers of power. Hence, it is only right and proper that they police the country with their own citizens. Dispatching Indian troops in Iraq's present troubled circumstances would be tantamount to serving as mercenaries of the US."

Similar views are also being expressed by the mainstream media, though some columnists cite other reasons. The Hindustan Times, for instance, wrote in an editorial on Wednesday, "It is clear that all that Washington wants is to use the UN's involvement in Iraq as a fig leaf to persuade other countries to send their forces so that they may clear up the mess created by the Americans. This is a trap that India must avoid. It is obvious to all impartial observers of the Iraqi scene that the US forces are regarded as invaders. What is more, they are deeply unpopular because of their failure to restore the basic civic amenities like water and electricity and ensure security for the ordinary citizens. Any country which is seen, therefore, to be supportive of the Americans will also court unpopularity and become the target of attacks. Like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, Iraq has become a breeding ground of terrorists, keen on pursuing their anti-American jihad. As it is, India is a target of such fundamentalists. An involvement in Iraq will simply make the situation worse for India in Kashmir and elsewhere."

There were several advocates for the idea of sending troops to Iraq earlier, both in the government and in the media. Indeed, the BJP is a traditional advocate of close strategic ties with the US and Israel. India's uncharacteristically swift and effusive response to Bush's national missile defense (NMD) plans in May 2001 had taken the country's political class, security experts and strategic analysts by surprise. September 11 had given them hope that the US would now embark on a "war against terror" with fellow-victim and fellow-democracy India as a strategic partner. That hope was belied as the Bush administration felt it needed Pakistan's help more in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The result is that not one person, either in government or in the media, appears now to be supporting the idea of sending troops to Iraq. However, there are factors other than disenchantment with US policy towards Pakistan. Various industry lobbies, for instance, had mounted pressure on the government earlier following the blandishment of lucrative contracts for Indian companies in the midst of seductive pledges of support from the White House soon after the war. They believed that a deal on Iraq would produce reconstruction contracts running into tens of billions of dollars for India. Government officials, too, argued that financial and economic benefits would follow after India sent troops to Iraq. The US had clearly hinted that sub-contracts running into millions of dollars could come to India soon.

But it now transpires that even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the staunchest US ally, who has put his own job on the line for the sake of his buddy Bush, is not able to wheedle out any major contracts for British businessmen. The big contracts will be first given to US giants like Halliburton and Bechtel, and then perhaps to a few British firms, leaving small crumbs for bit players like India. Huge contracts are in any case unlikely to materialize unless the Americans can pump much more oil out of Iraq, with which to finance large-scale reconstruction. They are hardly going to spend their own money on building what they have destroyed in Iraq. With resistance to US occupation raging and even oil pipelines not safe, this has become unlikely for several years now. Business lobbies have naturally become silent.

With Iraqi resistance mounting and taking a daily toll of American and occasionally British lives, in all parts of Iraq, even the arguments about "helping" the "Iraqi people" by facilitating Iraq's transition to pluralist democracy, has lost much of its appeal. Former diplomat and now a popular media analyst G Parthasarthy had made a passionate plea for sending troops to Iraq on the basis of "the strategic importance of Iraq and its neighborhood for our welfare and well being".

His facts are impeccable. Three and a half million Indians reside and work in the region. They remit home around $6.5 billion annually. The bulk of our oil imports come from Iraq and its neighbors. The Asia-Pacific region in India's neighborhood will soon emerge as the largest consumer of Persian Gulf oil with 30 million barrels per day flowing across the Straits of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean by 2020. Our dependence on oil imports will significantly increase, as our oil consumption will be over 150 million tons annually by then.

While Saudi Arabia, with oil exports of 7.7 million barrels per day, is the largest exporter of oil in the world, Iraq can easily step up its production to 6 million barrels per day within three years. Given the growing potential for instability in the Gulf and particularly in Saudi Arabia, stabilization and the return of normalcy in Iraq are crucial for India's energy security. "We cannot achieve this," Parthasarthy argued, "merely by rhetoric and resort to legalistic quibbling. Clerks quote past precedents as excuses for inaction, not statesmen."

But ever-growing resistance in Iraq has put paid to all such seemingly lofty arguments about Indian troops going there to help Iraqis. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the only Muslim country that unhesitatingly supported India on controversial issues like Kashmir or the Indian role in dismembering Pakistan to help the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. India should certainly help the Iraqi people by delivering food and medicine to the country. But sending troops to support its occupation by Western imperialist forces with whom India had itself fought for its liberation is hardly the way to do that.

Well-known writer Amitav Ghosh is appalled at the prospect of Indian troops having to fight common Iraqi citizens. He points to other dangers for Indians living and working in the Middle East in the light of past precedents, "Let us make no mistake about the role that Indian troops will serve if they are deployed in Iraq: they will not be 'policing' the country; they will be fighting a war. No matter what the spin, it is clear that the war in Iraq is far from over; in a sense it has only just begun.

"Suppose there were a circumstance in which Indian troops had to open fire on an Iraqi crowd, killing a number of civilians. It is quite likely that every Indian in the Arab world would feel the repercussions. This is surely one of the most elementary lessons of our sad history of military deployments abroad. There is the example of the uprising of 1930 in Burma [now Myanmar]. Led by Saya San, this movement was, in its origins, directed against British rule. The British suppressed it with great brutality, using Indian troops, and the rumors generated by the campaign led to savage reprisals against Indian civilians, of whom there were then more than a million in Burma. This in turn resulted in a situation that allowed the British to present the uprising as being directed against Indians, rather than against the Empire itself. This was one of the more remarkable achievements of the accomplished tradition of spin-doctoring to which Tony Blair is heir."

Perhaps the clinching argument for the BJP-led government will be the question of Indian sensitivity of body bags from Iraq in an election year. It is because of the bodybags of soldiers reaching the US every day and the likelihood of its going on until his re-election day that the Bush administration is desperately searching for troops from other countries to sort out the mess it has created in Iraq. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in late July that the administration was looking at the possibility of securing a UN resolution to make it easy for India and other countries to send their troops to Iraq. Rumsfeld said that a new UN resolution on Iraq should be done in such a way "that it is useful and makes it easier for people like the Indians to provide troops".

Bush and Rumsfeld must have a very low opinion of India and its leaders if they think that regular bodybags of Indian soldiers coming from Iraq with general elections slated for next year will not matter here politically. By dismantling Saddam's oppressive and ruthless but secular and nationalistic regime, Americans have opened the proverbial Pandora's Box. It is difficult to imagine the ground situation in Iraq improving quickly. No one can be sure how long the occupying forces would need to fight it out in the war-torn country. No country is going to replace Indian forces once they are posted there. Even the staunch US allies from Europe are reluctant to send their troops. Even those who are willing have not committed more than a few thousand troops. It is this reason more than anything else which will probably ensure that the Indian political leadership does not rethink its rejection of the US offer despite all the blandishments and all the arm-twisting. Politicians in all countries have great survival instincts.

The US strategists should have noted that sending troops to Iraq was the only issue on which Vajpayee thought of evolving a political consensus. Ruling just two of the 28 states in India, the BJP is facing a rather tricky situation. Its alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) broke down only last week. The BSP commands the unswerving loyalty of Dalit (untouchable) voters in several states, four of which are slated to go for polls in about three months' time. Dalits constitute over 20 percent of the electorate. A general election to elect the central government, too, is not far away.

It seems highly unlikely in the circumstances that the BJP will gamble with the prospects of regular bodybags from Iraq at the present moment. Vajpayee may not like to wallow in the same deadly swamp that Bush has created for himself so fondly in the Iraqi desert.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Sep 13, 2003

US won't take India's 'No' for an answer
(Jul 19, '03)

India rules out its troops for Iraq
(Jul 15, '03)
Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong