June 17, 2021
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Troops To Iraq

Strategic Responsibility

Let's not talk 'strategic investment' that smacks of an ulterior motive and seems like a hidden agenda for a few dollars more. But should we sit on the sidelines and watch Americans and Brits make an even bigger mess, and allow Iraq to be Talibanise

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Strategic Responsibility

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has in its wisdom decided not to send Indian troops to Iraq. Political considerations may have played a large part in arriving at this decision. Once a decision has been made, any number of arguments can be forwarded to support it, but India still has an option and opportunity to demonstrate to the world our capability to undertake peacekeeping (stabilisation) operations and, more importantly, reconstruction and reorganisation of Iraq.

The CCS decision, however, is not a clear "No" but more of a "Maybe" insofar as one reads between that lines in the statement that "India will consider sending troops to Iraq only under a UN mandate." The formation of an Iraqi governing council and its efforts to occupy Iraq’s UN seat seem geared towards evolving a UN mandate.

What the US is trying hard to achieve is "peace enforcement", whereas what Iraq actually needs urgently is "stabilisation" There is anger and frustration against the Americans and its allies in the war. An Indian contingent, on the other hand, will not face such a problem, provided a massive pre-induction exercise is carried out. This is where our efforts should be placed - in letting the Iraqis know that we opposed the American "war" and are there not to occupy but to rebuild and stabilise. This is the time when our strategic military and diplomatic personnel should already be getting a feel of the terrain first hand, including getting familiar with the personalities, geography and the language.

It is nobody's case that we should work under direct orders from the White House or the Pentagon. After all, the Americans were prepared to give us the Kurdish sector or Northern Iraq under a fairly autonomous arrangement. Indeed, we should take a lead under the UN Security Council Resolution No. 1483 to initiate the process of "stabilisation and restructuring" in the given area of responsibility.

What Iraq needs today is not just controlling law and order so that multinationals can exploit it for their own economic gains but stabilisation and reconstruction, restoring the confidence among the people that they are masters of their own destiny and not controlled by others. 

Our troops, with their ethos, training and upbringing are best suited to undertake this job. Not many countries in the world, not even the US has that expertise. US has the expertise in peace enforcement, which cannot work in Iraq any more. Furtherance of the process of "enforcement," will continue to harden the psyche of the people of Iraq. All the ways and means resorted to by the US for "regime-change" and "destruction of weapons of mass destruction" have not achieved the declared aims. The way ahead is to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. The Americans stationed and deployed in Iraq today are not oriented or trained towards this task.

While Germany, France and other European countries are not prepared to send in their men because of the possibility of hostile reaction, no other Asian or African country is capable of handling sensitive assignments like peacekeeping and stabilisation. Our Army, which operates in various situations within the country, has successfully demonstrated that it can work in close coordination with local population, coordinate reconstruction activities, involve and assist local administration, seek the help of local religious organizations in softening the attitude and controlling tempers and, most important of all, it can save the younger generation from the path of violence and destruction.

The Indian contingent, if it is sent to Iraq, will not be there as an occupying force with the attitude of an arrogant military power, though it should be prepared and equipped for any contingency and self-defence. Primarily, it should comprise engineers, doctors and support staff like communication providers, army aviation, traffic controllers, military police, Muslim religious teachers etc. The government would do well to place people from the Public Works department, heavy vehicles, operators, civil doctors and schoolteachers, all placed under the force commander. The Force Commander should have adequate financial support with due authority to ensure judicious utilisation of funds, with no need to seek clearance or orders from Delhi for each and every small thing. 

Peace Keeping Record

Since 1951, our record on this account has been outstanding. In 1951 we went to Korea, then to Indo-China for peacekeeping. Since then, be it in Congo, Lebanon, Iraq-Iran, Somalia, Sierre Leone or Ethiopia, our soldiers have operated successfully. There are historical, cultural and social reasons for this. Majority of our troops are made of people who come from rural background and hence are in touch with the ground realities. They are aware of the problems of the common people. Our officers' Corps is the best-trained. We can take a calculated risk of ignoring the views of some of our self-appointed experts and analysts who express their opinion sitting in air-conditioned environs and have no clue whatsoever about the ground reality. 

It is because of the closeness and awareness of ground realities that our Army does not behave like an occupation force. Our young commanders and soldiers are not trigger-happy. It is to our credit that India as a nation does not believe in the doctrine of shock and awe to achieve rapid dominance. While operating in an environment of low intensity conflicts, counter-insurgency, and counter-terrorism operations, the Indian Army believes and enforces the principle of "use of minimum force," and "winning the hearts and minds of the people". This philosophy is in conformity with our national ethos of coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect. It is because of these factors that Indian peacekeeping missions have been outstanding.

India is the second largest contributor of troops to the UN. Indian soldiers have participated in 36 of 58 UN peacekeeping missions so far. Over 65,000 soldiers have served abroad, and 108 have made the supreme sacrifice. India has participated in all the UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. Peacekeeping is an art, and we have professional excellence in practicing it. Indian soldiers are good at bringing peace, hope and cheer to victims of war or ethnic clashes. It must be emphasised again that unlike many Western soldiers, ours are not trigger-happy.

The second and more important reason for us to take up the job of stabilisation and reconstruction of Iraq is the need to project the right image of India not only in the Arab world but in Central Asia and Africa. It should however not be confused with gaining a foothold in the area or with what has been referred to as "strategic investment." The word "investment" smacks of an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda. Instead, our presence must exhibit our sincerity for the well-being, peace and prosperity of our Arab brothers and others in the neighbourhood. If we are to be taken seriously on the world stage, India needs to demonstrate its strength, capability, competence, caliber and concern for the well-being of the world at large. Merely asking for a seat in the UN Security Council just because of our large size and population will not hold.

Strategic Interest

We have had age-old relations with the Iraqis. The Americans and the British are not welcome in Iraq. Assuming that they leave, the important question that arises is: who will fill the vacuum? Will it be in the interest of India, the Arab world, or for that matter, the entire world, to permit Talibanisation of Iraq? Should Iraq be allowed to go the way of Afghanistan? If hardliners come to the center-stage in Iraq, will it not have a long-term adverse impact on strategic environment in the Central Asian Republics as well as in South Asia? India should look at this aspect of our long-term strategic aim rather than harping on India's economic interests or looking at an opportunity to earn dollars.

Another important aspect is that neither Iraqis nor Arabs are homogenous. Shias, Sunnis, Northern Iraqis and Kurds have differences. Iraqis do not want Turkey to take advantage of the softened border. India is in a position to help Iraqis by maintaining the status quo on the border. 

Assuming India decides to reconsider its stance on sending troops to Iraq with new, more practical and functional arrangement as well as mechanism under the UN mandate, we should ask for a clear-cut command and control structure, freedom of action and accountability. Given the fact that the Americans are currently under tremendous pressure, this should not be too difficult to obtain. Once we have an independent command and control structure, we would be looked at with respect by not just the Iraqis but other Arab countries as well.

An Indian Army division is capable of carrying out the following tasks on its own:

  • Reconstruct roads, bridges etc.
  • Get a telecommunication system going
  • Establish schools and other essential social infrastructure like hospitals, post offices, banks etc.
  • Train people in modern agricultural practices
  • Win the people's confidence.

For this to happen, however, there are at least three pre-conditions:

  • The politico-military aim should be clearly spelt out.

  • The Indian Force Commander should have complete authority in deciding on funds allotment and spending, independent of interference by babus in Delhi

  • The Indian force commander should have complete authority in his area of responsibility without any American interference.

If these conditions are fulfilled, with or without a UN mandate, New Delhi should reconsider its decision on not sending our troops to Iraq. But given the fact that UN Secretary General Koffi Annan has indicated a possibility of a UN peacekeeping force being sent to Iraq soon, India should be prepared to send a large contingent at a short notice in the coming months.

(Lt Gen D.B. Shekatkar, former additional director-general, military operations, and additional director-general, perspective planning (covering among other things nuclear doctrine and planning), retired from the army on March 31, 2002. In addition to the two postings, he has also been a divisional commander in Kashmir, a corps commander in the northeast and commandant of the prestigious Infantry School.)

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