India Must Resist US Pressure to Send Troops to Iraq

India, which criticised the United States-led invasion of Iraq, is under intense pressure from Washington to despatch a division (about 17,000 troops) or more of its soldiers to that country to help the Anglo-American occupation forces and legitimise the occupation.

India’s government is strongly inclined to pull the US’s chestnuts out of the fire in Iraq – and to play in the international "Big League" and seal a long-term "strategic partnership" with Washington. But it has run up against three obstacles.

The first is domestic public opinion which opposes sending troops to Iraq and bestowing legitimacy on what it regards as the illegal and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq. Second, there is a unanimous resolution of Parliament passed on April 8, calling for the cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of the invading forces. All Opposition parties still stand by it.

And third, it would be both unprecedented, and unacceptable to most Indian people and politicians, that their sovereign army’s soldiers should salute the American flag or fight under the overall command of the US.

It is not just India’s Opposition parties which are against sending troops to Iraq. Some coalition partners of the ruling Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party too are opposed to the proposal. They include Defence Minister (and former Socialist leader) George Fernandes’ Samata Party, and the Shiv Sena to the BJP’s right.

The Americans have been pressing New Delhi hard on this issue for more than two months. According to the Indian Express newspaper, two US embassy officials met Indian defence personnel as early as May 6 to discuss troops for Iraq. Such meetings cannot take place without the permission of the Indian Foreign Ministry. Numerous US officials all the way up to President Bush have discussed the subject repeatedly with Prime Minister Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister Advani in recent weeks.

In return for troops, Washington is offering India the carrot of "sensitive" military technology and hardware and lucrative contracts in Iraq’s "reconstruction".

Caught between these pressures, the Indian government is desperately looking for a figleaf such as authorisation from United Nations. It can then present the despatch of Indian troops for Iraq’s "stabilisation" as something which has multilateral sanction and which is akin to the "peacekeeping" operations India has undertaken under UN auspices for decades.

In reality, Indian troops will "stabilise" nothing other than the occupation of Iraq by the invading powers, by enforcing order on their behalf. They will not play a "peacekeeping" role by placing themselves between two groups which may stop fighting.

Yet, even such a UN figleaf is proving virtually impossible to procure. Security Council Resolution 1483 recognises the US as an "occupation" power (until an Iraqi-run government can be formed). But it does not ask UN member-states to lend military support to the occupation – as distinct from humanitarian and economic assistance. It does not allow a significant role to multilateral agencies.

India’s foreign minister Yashwant Sinha recently sounded out UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the possibility of his writing a letter inviting India to participate in Iraq’s "stabilisation". Such a letter – unusual and strange as it might be – could help New Delhi cite some kind of multilateral "request" or authorisation. But Annan poured cold water on the idea, further reducing the space for disingenuous diplomatic fancy footwork on the Indian government’s part.

If, despite this, New Delhi proceeds to collaborate militarily with the US in Iraq, that would only show that it has failed a crucial test – that of the independence of its foreign and strategic policy and of responsiveness to domestic public opinion. It would seem obsessed with consolidating a close, unequal, relationship with the US.

If this sounds excessive, consider the following:

India is being asked to despatch more troops than the number of British soldiers who fought in the war (15,000). (The UK is far and away the US’s closest military ally.) Indeed, their number would be almost six times higher than the troops committed by any other American allies, such as Italy (3,000), and Spain or Poland (2,300 each), which supported the war (which India did not).

The Indian army complains it is short of 12,000 officers, and has no troops to spare. It would like reinforcements in Jammu and Kashmir to get a better combat-ratio vis-à-vis Pakistan.

The expense of transporting and stationing 20,000 troops will be extremely high. Politically, it will be impossible for the Indian government to accept payment from the US without attracting the embarrassing charge that its soldiers are acting like mercenaries. The UN cannot be involved in paying for Indian troops. India – that is, its people – will have to bear the expense, sacrificing minimum needs programmes and public services.

By contrast, the US stands to save billions of dollars by reducing its troops (from 145,000 today to 30-40,000 eventually). Going by the Bosnian experience, it costs the US $250,000 to station one soldier abroad, including expenses on weaponry, transportation, etc.

There are other, secondary, issues too: Precisely what kind of operations will Indian troops have to perform? Where in Iraq? What is the likely length of their stay in relation to the US’ plans for eventually transferring power to Iraqis?

Indian leaders have been raising these questions with their American interlocutors – but as a substitute for the primary question: should troops at all be sent to Iraq in support of an occupation following an invasion which the Indian Parliament unanimously declared to be unwarranted, unjust and illegal?

The Americans cannot be assumed to have much clarity on these issues, especially the political ones. They are getting bogged down in Iraq. All their plans and calculations have come a cropper. America’s first pro-consul, Lt Gen Jay Garner, quit in disgrace. His successor Paul Bremer has had no success in establishing a nominally viable government.

There is growing resistance to Anglo-American troops. They are overstretched and forced to stay on longer than planned. The US is losing one soldier every other day. Casualties will rise as "Operation Desert Scorpion" gets going and resistance mounts, as in Balad.

The US is keen to get India involved in Iraq for a number of reasons. It wants to alter the image of the occupation forces and present a broad-based appearance with Third World faces thrown in.

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 p.m. per head), that’ll only cost America one-twentieth of what it spends on every US soldier posted abroad.

India is politically useful because it enjoys a fair amount of goodwill in the Arab world thanks to its past as a Non-Aligned Movement leader and supporter of Arab nationalism. India’s military presence in Iraq as America’s partner will help "soften" the blow from the occupation to an extent.

The US is also anxious to obfuscate and obliterate the circumstances in which the Iraq war was waged, without a casus belli or rationale. The best way to do this is to stress "stability" and "reconstruction", including lucrative contracts.

However, not a single Indian soldier should shed blood in support of America in Iraq. Indian troops are being asked to impose law and order on behalf of the occupation powers – in ways that suit those powers’ interests. This will bring them into hostile confrontation with Iraqi civilians who resist what they regard as their country’s unjust occupation.

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

A military occupation, which is itself the result of an unwarranted, unjust and illegal war, cannot be just and legal. The rationale of the Indian Parliament resolution was that 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 it.

The invasion breached every criterion of "just war", including military necessity, non-combatant immunity, proportionality in the use of force, etc.

The reason why the Indian government wants to throw this logic overboard and collaborate with the US in Iraq has to do with its eagerness to seal a long-term military alliance with Washington and outflank Pakistan. India is also keen to buy top-of-the-line US and Israeli military equipment, including missile-defence systems and the "Patriot" missile.

The US is keen to hold joint military exercises with India and establish access to military bases. According to a Pentagon report, quoted by US defence specialist John E. Carbaugh who advises the US defence industry and policymakers: "American military officers are candid in their plans to eventually seek access to Indian bases and military infrastructure." The report is based on interviews with senior US and Indian military personnel. Says Carbaugh: "India’s strategic location in the centre of Asia, astride the frequently travelled sea lanes of communication linking West Asia and East Asia, makes India particularly attractive…"

The issue of sending Indian troops to Iraq thus goes well beyond that country’s particular circumstances. It directly relates to India’s potentially long-term collusion with American plans for a global Empire.

Supporters of the view that India should send troops to Iraq fall into three groups. The first group holds that in today’s unipolar world, Indian and US interests largely coincide, necessitating close military collaboration and a special alliance, including sharing of military bases. Sending troops to Iraq is a "test": rather than whine about hegemonism, and plead for multilateralism, India must "daringly" show 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. It bandies about spectacular reconstruction budgets like $200 billion, even $500 billion, with big individual deals in the tens of billions.

This is grossly hyperbolic. The highest non-oil contract awarded so far is $680 million (Bechtel). Huge contracts won’t materialise unless America can pump much more oil out of Iraq. This seems near-impossible for a couple of years, and dicey even later.

According to the "Middle East Economic Survey" and other estimates, if all goes well, Iraq would earn about $100 billion over the next five years by exporting oil. At least half the amount will probably be spent on food and other essentials and to restore the oil industry. That will leave only a fraction of the total for reconstruction – after the occupation troops extract their share. In any case, big contracts will be first given 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 (so named after India’s hawkish Deputy Prime Minister): Despatch troops in exchange for a US promise to pressure Pakistan to end support to "cross-border terrorism". This ignores US priorities. To smash Al-Qaeda, America needs Pakistan as an ally. This limits the pressure it can put on Islamabad. Besides, it poses ticklish issues of verification.

And what if Pakistan too offers to send troops to Iraq – as Gen Musharraf declared he would like to do, on June 12? This will completely neutralise India’s diplomatic "advantage".

The Advani Line too is based on trading India’s policy independence for US favours – an idea repugnant to any self-respecting democracy. This means India won’t play an independent future role vis-à-vis an imperial US.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.