April 03, 2020
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How To Bridge The Gulf?

India's action in Iraq should factor in its image in the eyes of the Arab world

How To Bridge The Gulf?
illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
How To Bridge The Gulf?
outlookindia.com
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Ever since Baghdad fell to the US forces, the Indian government has been under some pressure to play a role in Iraq's reconstruction. Suggestions have ranged from making a bid for contracts to restore that unfortunate country's infrastructure to sending its troops to help restore law and order and maintain peace. Advocates of such involvement have pointed out that this would be a good way of signalling India's tacit support to the US on this sensitive issue. Since India has been by far the worst victim of international terrorism, and shares the US' goal of eradicating it, this would make good sense.

News has now emerged, from Poland of all places, that New Delhi has begun to succumb to the temptation and is prepared to send its troops if asked to do so. If there is any truth in this report, the government would be well advised to consider some of the other consequences of such an action before making a firm commitment.

India has a long tradition of taking part in UN peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. Conditions in most Iraqi cities are so unsettled today that helping to restore law and order could easily be considered a humanitarian move. There is, however, one crucial difference. So far, India has only participated in missions that have the sanction of the UN Security Council. It has also done so only in pursuance of resolutions taken under chapter VI of the UN charter. These missions have therefore been undertaken on the invitation of the contending parties. Neither of these conditions would hold good in Iraq. India would be sending in its troops under US, and not UN, auspices, and it would be doing so essentially to support and consolidate the fruits of a unilateral and unprovoked invasion of that country.

If India's relations with the US were the only factor that needed to be taken into account, the decision to send troops to backstop its normalisation efforts would still have made good sense in terms of realpolitik, if not international law. But New Delhi needs to balance possible gains in Indo-US relations with what such a move would do to India's image in the eyes of the Iraqis, of the Arab world, and most important of all, of Muslims in India itself.

It would be one thing if India was invited to help by a democratically elected government in Iraq, even if it continued to lean on the US for support during the period of transition. But such a government is still months away, and its constitution by no means assured. Today, no matter how much they would like to style themselves as liberators, the US and UK are in Iraq as conquerors. Their troops have not been greeted with flowers; cheering crowds have not lined the streets of Baghdad, Basra or other cities, and Iraqi soldiers have preferred to melt away rather than surrender. Most Iraqis seem to have adopted a 'wait and see' attitude and to keep an open mind as the US continues to assure them that it has no intention of staying a day longer than is necessary in Iraq. In some places, this has already broken down. US troops have been jeered and asked to leave Iraq; they have been fired upon, and grenades have been rolled into their compounds.

Such attacks are still few and far between, and will remain manageable if a genuinely Iraqi government looks like being formed soon and the Americans start to withdraw. But the formation of a government that is both genuinely representative, and stable, is looking more and more difficult with each passing day. The basic reason is that Iraq contains three distinct religio-ethnic nationalities. It can be kept united only by a strong central authority in Baghdad. So far, no regime in Baghdad has been able to do this without using a large amount of force. Indeed it may be this, rather than the brutal nature of Saddam Hussein, that might account for the repressive nature of the Baathist regime.

America now faces the far more daunting task of reconstituting a central authority in Baghdad that relies not on brute force but on democratic consensus. And it has to do so at a time when Shia and Sunni clerics have already partly filled the void in state power created by the destruction of the Baathist regime. It can, of course, go through the motions of creating a democratic government, but if the Shias and Kurds (not to mention the Sunnis) do not accept its authority and legitimacy, Iraqi unity won't last long. Maintaining it will require the use of force, and that force will have to come from the US and UK. In such circumstances, it will only be a matter of time before civil resistance develops. Any country that is foolish enough to send its troops to aid in 'peacekeeping' will get caught in the maelstrom.

Sending in Indian troops now will also identify India with the US in the eyes of Arab nationalists. The invasion of Iraq has given this sentiment a huge boost, and various 'conservative' regimes, notably Saudi Arabia's, have already begun to adjust their policies and alignments to blunt its edge. Given that India already has a terrorism problem that originates in the Islamic world's sense of victimisation at the hands of the west, getting too closely identified with the US and UK might not be the wisest course of action today.

Lastly, the least New Delhi owes to India's own Muslims is to reduce the conflict of loyalties they are suffering from today. Gujarat and its aftermath have already increased their sense of insecurity and, in select localities, their alienation from the Indian state. It simply does not make sense to act in a manner that makes the task of maintaining unity and social harmony more difficult than it already is.
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