The collapse of civil order in Iraq and the ongoing attacks on US military personnel there, resulting in the death of US troops at the rate of one every day, have forced US forces to move from peace-keeping to combat mode.
The US now realises that it needs armed personnel from friendly countries, including India, as part of a “stabilising” force. Yet, no country of any significant military competence has stepped forward to relieve the US 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 would send small numbers of troops to assist in specialised functions. But all these do not quite provide the required degree of comfort.
Even close allies of the US that backed the war have refused to commit large numbers of troops. For instance, the Netherlands’ new right-wing Atlanticist Government will send only 1,100 troops, if that is approved by Parliament, which is by no means certain.
The US and the UK together have 160,000 military personnel in Iraq. With logistical and supply contingents based in Kuwait, the total Western troops presence in the region is about 250,000. This has proved inadequate for the task of bringing some semblance of order to Iraq.
The troops are overstretched and forced to stay on longer than planned and undertake responsibilities beyond their capacity. India is being asked to commit up to 20,000 troops to Iraq.
India will benefit in three ways if it participates in the peace-keeping effort. One, it would enable India to become an active partner in the global war against terror and become the third important player in the exercise after the US and Britain. Two, it would boost India’s overall standing in the Gulf region. Three, India would be able to join Iraq’s reconstruction, which would yield big economic gains.
L.K. Advani, Deputy Prime Minister of India, during his June visit to the US reportedly told Donald Rumsfeld that India was not averse to the US proposal, but wanted certain concerns addressed before the Vajpayee Cabinet approved it.
These pertain to the chain of command under which Indian troops would work, the duration of their stay, the administrative structures in Iraq, and the US road map for eventual transfer of power to the Iraqis.
The Vajpayee Government appeared inclined to do Washington’s bidding. Various industry lobbies, misled into believing that an Indo-US deal on Iraq would produce contracts running into tens of billions for India, were mounting pressure on the Government.
They were backed by the pro-American elements in the foreign policy establishment and the media who, citing “pragmatism”, maintain that India has no other option; it must make the best of any political-diplomatic and economic deals that come out of Iraq’s occupation.
However, Indian Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has finally decided not to send troops to join a stabilisation force in Iraq. However, the CCS made it clear that troops could only be sent “under explicit UN mandate”.
The Cabinet was divided on the matter. The right-wing hawks in the BJP, including the Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, have been for sending troops to Iraq with an eye to consolidate the pro-US shift in India’s foreign policy.
On the other hand, the Left parties, influential sections in the BJP party, as well as the main opposition party, the Congress, were against sending any troops to Iraq. In fact, it was said that sending Indian troops would amount to legitimising the occupation of Iraq by US-UK forces.
India’s refusal to send troops was based on New Delhi’s own national interests and its concerns about the situation in Iraq.
The decision of the Vajpayee Government not to bow before US pressure needs to be understood in the context of the BJP not having a majority of its own in Parliament.
This was one reason why the party insisted on having a consensus over the issue in the country. If the BJP had a majority of its own in the Lok Sablia (Indian Parliament), Indian troops could by now be in Iraq.
The State Department official Richard Boucher said “the decision would not affect relations between Washington and New Delhi”. The US response has been that “both countries will remain strategic partners despite the Indian decision”. India remains an important strategic partner for the United States, and the continuation of the transformation of Indo-US relations is important to America.
Arguably, India holds a very prominent place in Washington’s security strategy. The long-term strategic purpose of the US in building up its alliance with India is possibly to contain the growing power of China in the Asian region and in the world.
- Dr Sharif Shuja