Those in New Delhi who enthusiastically support the White House request for Indian troops in Iraq should have been at a hearing of the American house of representatives armed services committee last Wednesday. At least the more sensible among them would have changed their minds.
Several committee members, who now distinctly face the uncomfortable prospect of having to go into their re-election campaign next year while being queried about the continuing deaths of American soldiers in Iraq — including by some of their voters and their families — asked questions at the hearing, which were strikingly similar to those which B.S. Prakash had asked Peter Rodman only three days earlier.
Prakash is the joint secretary chosen by the foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, to negotiate the minefield of sending Indian troops into Iraq with Rodman, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs. Prakash is yet to get answers to several questions on Iraq which he asked of Rodman two Mondays ago. That is not at all surprising.
Rodman’s boss, the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, could not answer many of the questions which American congressmen asked at the hearing of the armed services committee. Marine General Peter Pace, the vice-chairman of the United States of America’s joint chiefs of staff, did not fare any better before the committee.
Officials in South Block and elsewhere in New Delhi, who are encouraging the government to send troops to Iraq, are doing their nation a disservice by not telling the political bosses that there are no answers to India’s questions about Iraq.
South Block officials ought to know. And they ought to tell the political leadership that there are no answers to many of the questions posed by Prakash simply because the US has never told told the truth about Iraq — not even to its own citizens. The US government documents declassified at the end of last year revealed what transpired in Baghdad on December 20, 1983 when Saddam Hussein received a special envoy of the former US president, Ronald Reagan. Those were the days when Saddam was showering deadly chemicals from his weapons of mass destruction on the Iranian people as a daily routine. Off and on, he was using those weapons on his own people as well.
Saddam’s guest list in Baghdad had many more terrorists in 1983 than 20 years later when the American president, George W. Bush, accused him of being hand-in-glove with perpetrators of international terror. His violations of human rights of Iraqis were far, far worse then than at the time of his overthrow by US forces this year.
And yet, the White House envoy who called on Saddam that December offered to reopen diplomatic relations with Iraq, broken off in 1967. He placed the US’s vast intelligence at the disposal of the Iraqi dictator so that he could fight the Iranians better. The supreme irony of all, in the light of Saddam’s overthrow, is that Washington issued a statement shortly after the envoy’s visit, rejecting Ayatollah Khomeini’s demand for regime change in Baghdad as a condition for ending the war.
“The US finds the present Iranian regime’s intransigent refusal to deviate from its avowed objective of eliminating the legitimate government of neighbouring Iraq to be inconsistent with the accepted norms of behaviour among nations and the moral and religious basis which it claims,” the American statement read.
Just over a fortnight ago, that very presidential envoy approached the Indian deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, and attempted to sweet-talk him into sending Indian troops to Iraq.
He discussed Iraq with Advani in moralistic terms and described the bombing of Baghdad and the US occupation of Iraq as a just cause. The envoy whose position 20 years ago was exactly the opposite of what it is today — although Saddam’s policies had seen no change in the meanwhile — is Donald Rumsfeld, now the US’s defence secretary.
Advani will have a decisive voice when the cabinet committee on security — and later the cabinet — meets shortly to decide whether India should send troops to Iraq. Before Advani shares with his ministerial colleagues an assessment of his discussions with Rumsfeld, he should think hard if anything that the US defence secretary told him in his Washington hotel room can be taken at face value. Or whether Rumsfeld can at all be trusted. As an analyst of diplomacy, it is difficult for this columnist to talk of India’s choice on Iraq in moral terms. In any case, diplomacy is often a short cut to bypass morality to preserve a country’s national interests.
If India accedes to the US’s request for troops, enough justification can be found in moral and legal terms for that decision. The United Nations security council’s resolution 1483 recognizes that in practice the US is the ultimate legal authority in Iraq until the establishment of a sovereign government there. It is even possible to find a way around the uncomfortable fact that for the first time since India became free, its proud jawans will be serving as mercenaries in Iraq. The UN will not be footing the bill for these soldiers. Although the Americans will be paying their salaries, it can always be claimed that the money did not come from the US Federal Reserve, but from Iraq’s oil revenues. Never mind the fact that Iraqi oil will be owned, in reality, by the former company of the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, or by other energy conglomerates in Texas, the home state of Bush.
As an Indian living in Washington, who is frequently told by visiting delegations from New Delhi that our country is on its way to great power status in the 21st century — and well on its way to being a developed country — what this columnist finds most disturbing is the abysmally low level of intellectual debate on the issue of Indian involvement in post-Saddam Iraq. Newspaper editors in New Delhi who ought to know better have been misleading public opinion — like Bush, so far, on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — by writing that the issue of troop deployment is linked to India’s energy security. That if India plays its cards well, it can get cheap oil in the long term.
India’s energy security depends not on offering its young men as cannon fodder amidst Iraq’s fractious ethnic and religious groups in the aftermath of the mess that Americans have created by their war. It depends on pursuing energy projects which have been discussed with oil and gas producers in the Gulf such as Oman and Qatar.
Some of these projects have been on the drawing board since P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership. Successive governments have been inept in handling even those projects which have been agreed upon and started.
One South Block official recently said at a meeting called to discuss Iraq that what is at stake is the relationship which the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government has assiduously built with Washington in the last three years.
If the current surge in Indo-US relations is born of a vision, if India and the US are “natural allies” as Vajpayee is fond of of saying, then their relations ought not be hostage to a single issue of stabilizing Iraq.
Turkey refused to allow US troops to operate from its soil during the war against Saddam. Its relations with Washington are not in smithereens. That is what a strategic relationship is all about, not just joint statements with well-crafted sentences meant to please both sides.
Recently, this columnist was appalled to listen to an Indian diplomat telling a powerful visitor from New Delhi — who will have influence in deciding whether the troops go to Iraq—- that the Americans will be grateful if their request for men is honoured.
Come on, he should know better than that! No country in history has become a superpower by being “grateful” to others who have helped them to become powerful or to retain their big power status. If America had been grateful to its friends and allies, Shah Reza Pehlavi of Iran would not have died in a foreign land as a refugee. Ferdinand Marcos would not have fled the Philippines to die in exile. Nguyen Van Thieu, the penultimate president of South Vietnam, would turn in his grave if he heard the Indian diplomat in question.
If Rumsfeld is there, can Robert Blackwill be far behind' Those in New Delhi who choose to believe the US ambassador’s assurance that Indian troops can operate in Iraq on their own and under the Indian tri-colour ought to read accounts by British reporters based on long conversations with British troops during the war against Saddam. Britain shared the US’s objectives in Iraq during the war. They fought together to eliminate the Baathists. But the two armies were like chalk and cheese.
The American soldiers, according to the British, were impervious to Iraqi sensitivities, they had no concern for Iraqi lives, they used proverbial sledgehammers to kill ants. By and large, they were unconcerned about the presence of British troops and more or less did what they liked.
Does Vajpayee want Indian troops to be in the same situation as the hapless British' The Indians may operate under their flag, but flying taller than the tri-colour, often as an unseen presence, will be the American stars and stripes.
Before taking a decision on sending troops, Vajpayee and Advani should call General Satish Nambiar, who commanded multi-national forces in Yugoslavia. Nambiar has written classified accounts of his experiences which are available in the archives of the ministry of defence.
Nambiar will tell the political leadership what South Block officials will not — because they are convinced that Vajpayee and Advani want to send the troops. Nambiar knows what it is to serve as an Indian in a military environment where Western forces call the shots. One day the Americans will leave Iraq. Geography cannot be changed. The question the cabinet has to consider is whether India is prepared for guilt by association in Iraq, which will always be its distant neighbour.