Indian Troops in Iraq?


The proposal to despatch Indian troops to Iraq under the general command of the United States military has ballooned into a first-rate political controversy in the country. Going by the mood of a well-attended public meeting in New Delhi on Monday — the very day a Pentagon team met senior Indian officials at President Bush’s behest –, there will be fierce opposition to any military collaboration with the occupation forces in Iraq. There may be a lesson in this for Pakistan, which too is considering sending troops to Iraq.

Ironically, if India and Pakistan decide to collaborate militarily with the US in Iraq, each with a view to outmanoeuvring the other, they will end up grievously hurting and victimising themselves!

The Indian government has gone to fairly great lengths towards agreeing on military collaboration with Washington in Iraq since discussions began on the issue in early May. It is now looking for a fig leaf in the form of United Nations authorisation so that Indian troops do not overtly operate under US command and salute the American flag, but seemingly work within a multilateral framework.

It is unclear, though not impossible, if such authorisation can come about via manipulation of the UN Security Council. But it is clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is being devious. It is presenting the despatch of troops to Iraq as if it were some kind of seamless continuation of the “peace-keeping” operations that India has undertaken under UN auspices for decades. This is totally untrue.

The government is also substituting issues of secondary importance — who would command Indian troops, how long they would stay, what arrangements America has for eventually transferring power to Iraqis, etc — for the primary question: should troops ever be sent to legitimise and assist an unjust and illegal occupation?

The government is playing down the fact that the US is pressing it to send about 17,000 soldiers, which is nearly six times higher than the number of troops committed by any of America’s close military partners (barring Britain) who supported the war. The maximum number of soldiers promised by such allies is 3,000 (Italy), followed by Spain and Poland (2,300 each).

So India is being asked to prove it is more loyal than the US’s own military partners. If the plan goes through, India will have the second highest number of occupying soldiers in Iraq — making it the US’s principal military partner there. India is politically useful too. It enjoys a fair amount of goodwill in the Arab world because of its past as a Non-Aligned Movement leader and supporter of Arab nationalism.

America will use Indian troops as cheap cannon fodder. Even if it “compensates” them (eventually and indirectly) at the same rate as United Nations peacekeepers (about $1,000 pm per head), that’ll cost America five percent of what it spends on every US soldier abroad. Of course, it would be unacceptably embarrassing for New Delhi to accept payment from the US and risk Indian troops being branded as mercenaries.

There is no reason why a single Indian soldier should shed blood in support of US interests in Iraq. Indian troops aren’t being invited to “keep” or “enforce” peace. They are being asked to impose law and (despotic) order on behalf of the occupation powers — not in some neutral manner, but in ways that suit those powers’ interests. This will inevitably bring them into hostile confrontation with Iraqi civilians as they resist what they regard as their country’s unjust occupation.

The Indian troops will also be exposed to highly toxic materials like depleted uranium, believed to have caused the “Gulf War syndrome” among US troops since 1991.

The critical point here is simple: a military occupation, which is itself the result of an unwarranted, unjust and illegal war, cannot be just and legal. India rightly criticised the war through a unanimous Parliament resolution. The criticism’s rationale was that an invasion of Iraq wouldn’t be justified. There was no conclusive evidence that Iraq had operational, deliverable, weapons of mass destruction. Its WMD programme didn’t pose a credible threat to its neighbours, leave alone to the US. Further UN inspections could have detected and dismantled its WMD programme, as chief inspector Hans Blix pleaded.

A secondary point was that the US and UK bypassed the Security Council and violated the UN Charter by unilaterally invading Iraq.

More substantively, the invasion breached every criterion of “just war”, including military necessity, non-combatant immunity, proportionality in the use of force, etc. This rationale cannot be negated even if the UN Security Council passes, under US pressure, a resolution specifically requesting UN member-states to deploy troops in Iraq along the lines of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Yet, many within the Vajpayee government, backed by America’s apologists in the media and the foreign policy establishment, are determined to put India on this disastrous course. They fall into three groups.

The first group holds that in today’s unipolar world, Indian and US interests largely coincide. The two have an equal stake in putting down “Axis of Evil” states; close collaboration including sharing of military bases is necessary. Sending troops to Iraq is a “test”: rather than whine about hegemonism and an unequal world, and futilely plead for multilateralism, can India “dare” show the world that it is a major US ally and a Great Power?

The second group is obsessed with business. It believes that sending troops to Iraq is fine so long as the US doles out generous reconstruction contracts to India. It bandies about spectacular figures for reconstruction programmes like $200 billion, even $500 billion, with big individual contracts in the tens of billions.

This is pure hype. The highest contract given out so far is $680 million (Bechtel). Huge contracts won’t materialise unless the Americans can pump much more oil out of Iraq. This seems virtually impossible for a couple of years — and dicey even later. In any case, big contracts will first go to US giants like Halliburton and Bechtel, and then to British firms, leaving small crumbs for bit players like India.

The third group believes in what may be called the Advani Line: troops despatch in exchange for a US promise to pressure Pakistan to end its support to “cross-border terrorism”. This ignores US priorities. To smash the al-Qaeda network, America needs Pakistan as an ally. This limits the pressure it can put on Islamabad. Besides, it poses ticklish issues of inspection and verification.

And what if Pakistan too offers to send troops to Iraq — as Gen Musharraf declared he would do, on June 12? This will neutralise such diplomatic “advantage” as India might gain.

This approach is based on trading sovereignty and policy independence for US favours — an idea repugnant to any self-respecting state. This means there will be little Indian resistance to US plans for an Empire.

The argument applies a fortiori to Pakistan, where there will be strong popular opposition to sending troops to Iraq. It would be suicidal for both countries to try to build “exclusive” military alliances with the US at each other’s expense and escalate their own mutual rivalry in the process.

-The writer is one of India’s most widely published columnists. Formerly a Senior Fellow of the Nehru

Memorial Museum and Library, he is a winner of the Sean MacBride Prize for 2000 of the International Peace Bureau

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