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Why we should go to Iraq

The Indian government’s recent decision on whether to send troops to Iraq has been widely interpreted by the Indian media as a ‘&#...

The Indian government’s recent decision on whether to send troops to Iraq has been widely interpreted by the Indian media as a ‘‘no’’ to the US request. But the Cabinet Committee’s statement that India will consider sending troops to Iraq only under a UN mandate is closer to a ‘‘maybe, if’’. And, if my reading is right, the ‘‘if’’ might be settled much sooner than the media anticipates.

Of the occupation forces currently in Iraq, US troops form the overwhelming majority — just under 150,000 — while the allied contribution should go up to around 30,000 troops by the end of the summer. The Bush administration has been under increasing domestic pressure to seek multilateral contribution to the stabilisation forces, even if this means going back to the UN. Indeed the process of negotiating a UN mandate is already well under way.

For its part, the UN is also working hard to find a consensus on stabilising Iraq — as, by the way, is NATO (which has already agreed, presumably with French and German consent, to provide logistical support to the Polish-led sector).

One benchmark for UN cooperation was to set a timeline for the end of the occupation by adopting a programme for the transfer of powers, which the US has initially met by appointing an Iraqi governing council. The UN Secretary General’s special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, welcomed the governing council as a first step towards Iraqis forming their own government. He was the only international representative to address the opening meeting of the council.

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The Iraqi governing council has now decided to send a delegation to the UN to ask for their support, including the right to occupy Iraq’s UN seat. It is a sure bet that the extraordinary session of the Security Council that is being convened as I write will also address the issue of a multinational stabilisation mission.

In other words, we are likely to see the Indian government’s request for a UN mandate being realised fairly soon. That will solve one of India’s problems — the lack of political consensus with the Congress saying troops only under a UN mandate — and it may also ease the financial burden that India would otherwise labour under. India might even accrue some credit for pushing along the transition from occupation to international peacekeeping.

Will India send troops to Iraq if there is a UN mandate for a stabilisation force? I don’t really see how India can avoid doing so, having considered the US request for three months and now set the UN benchmark that the Congress had proposed, as well as identified the troops that could be sent.

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To say ‘‘no’’ if a UN mandate is forthcoming will not only downgrade Indo-US relations a notch or two, it will also strengthen the wide international perception of India as a would-be power of elephantine slowness and monumental vacillation. However, India’s decision to go for a UN mandate instead of — rather than along with — a request from the Iraqi governing council could also lead to a diminished role for India in Iraq. With other countries bargaining hard on the terms under which they would contribute troops under a UN mandate, much depends on how India plays its cards in the coming weeks. It may be that the Indian government actually seeks a diminished role in Iraq.

That would be a pity. India has rarely been in the position that it faces in Iraq, to do good while furthering its national interest. Having quietly opposed the war, India can be clear that its role now is to work with Iraqis to win the peace. Briefly put, India could help speed up the transfer of powers to Iraqis by providing security while assisting them to rebuild their army, police and civil services. In the process, India could acquire an important ally in a region where its alliances have gradually deteriorated over the past ten to fifteen years.

Of all the Gulf countries, Iraq is the best placed to emerge as the kind of pluralist democracy that India is. Its middle classes have been close to India, and many of the members of Iraq’s new governing council have spoken with admiration of India’s secular constitution and polity. I cannot understand why the Indian government has downplayed the appointment of the governing council instead of seeking to boost them. Contrary to the general impression, the council brings most of the Iraqi political, ethnic and religious groups into a working relationship. Comprising 13 Shias (including the Iran backed Supreme Council), 11 Sunnis (including Kurds) and one Turkoman, the council also includes the head of the Iraqi Communist Party, and a widely respected woman doctor who has practiced in Iraq all her life. Again contrary to general impression, the council has fairly wide-ranging powers to establish an interim government and rebuild the institutions of sovereignty.

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India has said it stands ready to assist Iraqis in whichever way they require. Sending troops in under a UN mandate is one way of doing so. Given how severely compromised their earlier security forces were, Iraqis are going to need international troops to protect their borders and maintain peace internally for some time to come. But for Iraq to regain sovereignty, it is equally important to assist the Iraqi polity to rebuild itself. India has a great deal to offer by way of experience in this field — from constitutional expertise to building educational institutions and healthcare professionals. Why not invite the governing council to send a team to look into what kinds of assistance they could best request from India?

Inviting Iraqis to present their own case would have the further advantage of allowing Indians to hear from Iraqis themselves. Thus far there has been little or no discussion in India of what Iraqis want for their country. That’s an amazing omission given the traditionally close relations between the two countries, and it is especially sad because it allows Iraq to be turned into a cause without a people.

We all agree that the ends do not justify the means — but the means should not doom the ends either. India has a chance to help the right ends to come about, and I hope this time around she will take it.

(The writer is an Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, New York)

First published on: 23-07-2003 at 00:00 IST
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