Should India Send Troops to Iraq?

By Salil Tripathi

The United States has requested India provide over 15,000 peacekeepers to stabilize operations in Iraq. If India agrees, its contingent would be one of the largest, joining peacekeepers from Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Romania, New Zealand and Lithuania, with more likely to follow, including, possibly, troops from Pakistan. Indian troops are likely to lead operations in the mainly Kurdish northern sector.


Some Indian strategic planners see this as an excellent opportunity for India, which has been seeking a spot at the head table in international affairs for some years now. But despite its size, democratic order and nuclear strength, India feels the international community has overlooked Indian aspirations.


Yet, opinion in India remains divided for several reasons: the reduced authority of the U.N. and its diminished role in post-war Iraq, skepticism over American intentions and the role of Pakistan. While India has sent peacekeepers abroad before, they have operated under the U.N. or Indian flag. Official Indian perception remains that the U.N.'s authority was bypassed because the war in Iraq was waged without an explicit Security Council resolution permitting force. By sending peacekeepers to assist the U.S., India would be "approving" a war that the Indian parliament was critical of. In fact, two left-leaning former prime ministers, Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Inder Kumar Gujral, have appealed to the ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition to turn down the U.S.request. (Both are decent men, but one should remember that they spent less than a year each as prime minister, and are considered spent forces in politics.) Some officials also say patrolling Iraq after the controversial war

Would harm India's strategic interests.


Iraq has not been liberated, it has been occupied, argues Prem Shanker Jha, a columnist who has been an adviser to Mr. Singh. He wrote recently: "TheIraqis resent [the occupation] and are preparing to resist it. If India sends its troops . . . it will be as part of an occupation force. Indian soldiers will be fired upon. And they will fire back. We will end up as the mercenaries of the new American Empire. If Indian troops enter Iraq, Iraqis must see, and believe, that they are doing so to restore self-rule and not to perpetuate oppression." Indeed, India will have legitimate questions about the command-and-control structure and would like a time-bound plan leading to an exit strategy -- precisely what the U.S. has sought from the U.N. in considering deploying troops in war-torn Liberia last week. But talk of "mercenaries" of an "American

Empire" is polemical and rhetorical grandstanding.


The great distraction in Indian foreign policy, Pakistan, is likely to cloud the debate further. The fact that Pakistan may send some 10,000 troops to Iraq will influence Indian thinking. Some would argue India should send more troops than Pakistan, taking the subcontinental rivalry to the Middle East. Others would like to spite the U.S. by refusing troops, because they believe India should not operate with Pakistan, however indirectly. Some nationalists are likely to oppose deployment because they believe the U.S. hasn't used its influence sufficiently to restrain Pakistan over militant incursions into Indian-controlled Kashmir. They feel frustrated that India can't act

preemptively against Pakistan, the way the U.S. did against Iraq. By not sending troops, they believe, India would be "punishing" the U.S.


Much of this is specious and a distraction that allows India to shirk from having to take a stand. Debate over the legality of the war belongs to the past.


The Security Council's Resolution 1483, passed after Saddam's fall, explicitly authorizes the U.S. and the U.K. to administer Iraq temporarily. Indeed, it even calls upon member states, including India, "to assist the people of Iraq in their efforts to reform their institutions and rebuild their country, and to contribute to conditions of stability and security in accordance with this resolution." Satish Nambiar, a retired general who commanded UNPROFOR in the Balkans in 1992-1993, points out that the U.S. request is in line with the resolution -- the U. S. wants Indian help to stabilize Iraq -- and as such, "India's response needs to be free from rhetoric and moral posturing, and should be solely based on our national interests, ground realities and considerations of realpolitik," he wrote recently, in response to Mr. Jha's column, in the magazine, Outlook.


India, after all, does send peacekeepers overseas. Indian troops have served with distinction under the U.N. flag in adverse conditions over vast stretches of often hostile territory. According to its ministry of defense, India currently provides the second-largest contingent of peacekeeping forces to the U.N., even though 90 Indian peacekeepers have died over the last 50 years.


Soon, India is likely to send an air force deployment to the peacekeeping forces being assembled for the Democratic Republic of Congo. India has also responded to requests from neighbors.


Indians have "won hearts and minds" as well: Indian troops have dug wells, constructed schools and mosques, run mobile dispensaries and relief camps.

In Rwanda, they helped build refugee camps; in Angola, they built an airstrip and led the de-mining of an arterial road. Indian troops have policed in the Balkans and in Latin America.


There may also be commercial spin-offs, although that should not be the primary consideration. Indian firms like Larsen & Toubro Ltd. and Hindustan Construction Co. Ltd. may win reconstruction contracts. But such firms are known for their efficiency and have a sound reputation in the Middle East, and may secure the contracts even if India does not send the troops. Those two issues are, and should remain, separate.


The key issue, then, is how Indian troops will be perceived: as occupiers or peacekeepers. The naysayers fear that Indian troops could be attacked. Some 70 coalition troops (most of them American) have died since the fall of Baghdad.

Potentially a battle of attrition, or a long-drawn guerrilla war, loomsahead. What if Indian troops have to perform house-to-house counter-insurgency operations, and lose the goodwill of Iraqis and destroy friendship with the Middle East?


That is a serious question. But its answer lies in another question: How would Iraqi civilians perceive Indian troops, if they are helping create conditions that bring about a stable society with the rule of law, preventing lawless looters and arsonists from sabotaging Iraqi civilian life? India also needs to remember that the "excellent relations" it had with Iraq were with its government, represented by the Saddam regime. Some Iraqis may remember India as one of the countries that provided military training to Saddam's armed forces at one time. Given the discoveries of mass graves in Iraq, and the hatred for Saddam that many ordinary Iraqis have shown, would India really be demonstrating its goodwill for Iraqi civilians by not sending peacekeepers? Were Indian interests better represented when India was training the Iraqi army? Or would strategic interests be served by sending troops there and providing security for Iraqi civilians?


India's participation with others may well reintroduce multilateralism, says Gen. Nambiar. India should send troops if it wants to play a role in geopolitics commensurate with its size, he says, adding: "If we do not participate, or dither . . . others will take our place, confining us to the sidelines." The nuclear tests of 1998 didn't help India get to the head table. But since the end of the Cold War and India's economic liberalization, Indo-U.S. cooperation in trade, investment and military matters has grown. Indian and American strategic interests are coinciding in several areas.


Indeed, there are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed before

India commits troops. But if they are met, then the decision should be easy. What's more, it would be in line with India's real interests.


Mr. Tripathi is a writer based in London.