India’s Role in Iraq

Beware of President Bush’s Republican Guard


Lt..Gen. Eric A. Vas [Retd]

The current American Administration is dominated by rightists, referred to as the new conservatives [neo-cons] or jokingly as President Bush’s Republican Guard.  The primary aim of the neo-cons is to use overwhelming military and economic power in order to maintain American supremacy in the 21st Century

The end of the Cold War saw the emergence of the US as the sole super power.  Some thought that this meant the end of wars.  Samuel Huntington disputed this conclusion with his “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which maintained that cultural fault lines would dominate the post-Cold War world.  Huntington’s scenario was a paradigm; just an abstract argument that you judge on the basis of whether it is better than any other generalising abstract argument. However, dispassionate observers admit that different cultures can be a source of tension. When we look at the current borders of NATO, it is basically a variation of the Holy Roman Empire in the 11th Century.  If one travels through West Asia one can see increasing tensions in villages between Christians and Muslims. And US strategists admit that their main foreign-policy challenge of the next 20 years will be managing a relationship with China.

Hindu fundamentalists embrace Huntington’s thesis and use it to explain the historical religious clash between Muslim invaders and Hindu India.  A little thought will tell us that this argument is not historically or strategically true.  The first Battle of Panipat was fought between Muslim Babar and Muslim Lodhi.  The Indo-Pak War of 1971, which saw the emergence of Bangladesh, was essentially a war between Muslim West Pakistan and Muslim East Pakistan.  In both these cases the cause of the war was a struggle for power and not religion. Facile academic theories can mislead both the public and policy makers into making decisions that can have unforeseen consequences.

Such misperceptions have tempted many to interpret the US led attack on Iraq as part of the “clash of civilizations” between the Christian West and the Islamic world. This belief is based on the fundamental misconception in India and the Muslim world, that Christianity plays the same role in the West as Hinduism and Islam play in the East. The reality is that the West sees itself not as Christian but secular humanistic. Unlike Hindus and Muslims—many of who are prepared to lay down their lives to defend their religion, it would be hard to find a handful of Europeans prepared to do so in the defence of Christianity. In fact in the West, church attendances are down to six percent or less. In accepting Huntington’s thesis, Indians are essentially projecting their own religiosity on to the people and countries of the West. Interestingly, Westerners, Americans in particular make the opposite mistake by applying secular humanistic measures in interpreting the deeply religious East.

Anyway, the clash of civilizations thesis fails to explain the split within the Anglo-European block, with France and Germany opposing the US war in Iraq.  One can recognise the “oil factor” in the US invasion of Iraq.  But this is only part of the picture: there is a deeper economic struggle that the neo-cons are waging to preserve US supremacy in the world. This has now taken the form of a clash between the Euro and the Dollar in which Iraq became the military beachhead. This unseen “war” has enormous consequences for the future of the world order. A brief recapitulation of some economic facts will explain why this is so.

Throughout history, the command of world trade and economy has usually depended on some widely traded product. In the 18th century, cotton textiles occupied such a position; it was cotton that was largely responsible for the prosperity of pre-colonial India. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Britain ensured that the Indian cotton industry was destroyed to make room for its own machine produced textiles. In the more recent past, food grain has been another such commodity, which made Lenin say: “Grain is the currency of currencies.” This had enabled countries with food surpluses like the United States, France and Canada to exert great influence on countries with food shortages until the Green Revolution changed the equation. Today, the key commodity of exchange is oil. The world can run without computers but not without oil.

A couple of historical developments ensured the dollar’s dominance of the international oil trade. First, the agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia allowed the US dollar to be used in oil trade; and the second, the Bretton Woods Conference established the dollar as the world standard virtually replacing gold. This allowed the US to run huge deficits in both domestic expenditure and international trade. While the US printed dollars to meet its fiscal obligations, countries of the world accepted dollar payments for their goods because of the dollar’s value as the currency of choice for oil purchases. As a result, even while the US kept losing its industrial pre-eminence, it managed to retain its economic dominance as the producer of the currency of oil trade. Further, the demand for dollars as the de facto oil currency allowed the US to commit enormous resources (by absorbing deficits) to defense production making it the mightiest military power in history.

The first crack in this favourable US arrangement appeared in 1999 when Iraq, at France’s persuasion, agreed to accept payment for its oil in euros. At that time the euro was selling well below the dollar. But with the rise of the value of the euro, Iraq reaped a huge profit.  Iran and Russia began thinking of following Iraq’s example.  Venezuela, the fourth largest oil producer, found it profitable to cut out the dollar by bartering oil with several nations including Cuba. These moves began posing a potential threat to the dollar.

The neo-cons realised that the dollar, by losing its grip on the oil trade and consequently on world trade in general, threatened America’s prosperity and also its capacity to finance its military expenditure through deficit financing. It is not accidental that the US put pressure on Iran by naming it a member of the “axis of evil,” and also began trying to destabilise the democratically elected Venezuelan government with the help of business interests friendly to America.  When the euro continued to threaten both America’s economic and military power. America had to take steps to stop this or lose its position of predominance in the coming years. This may help explain why the US abruptly shifted its attention from the war in Afghanistan to Iraq.

The neo-cons tried to conceal their real reasons for invading Iraq. Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration had to resort to gross exaggerations and incredible inaccuracies as it shifted its ground, reversed its position and trotted out its litany of paper-thin excuses for making war on Iraq.   Faced with its failure to “buy” UN votes with billion dollar bribes in order to gain Security Council support for invading Iraq, the USA acted unilaterally without UN authorisation and invaded Iraq.

The aim of the war in Iraq was to safeguard the American economy by returning Iraq to trading oil in US dollars, so that the dollar is once again the exclusive oil currency.  In so doing, the nu-cons have sent a very clear message to any other oil producers just what will happen to them if they do not stay in the dollar circle. The Iraq war places the second largest reserves of oil in the world under direct American control.  It provides the US with a secular subject state where the US can maintain a military presence to dominate West Asia and its vital oil. America’s invasion of Iraq has enabled the US reinforce its global military and economic dominance.  America’s allies in the invasion, Britain and Australia will reap trickle down benefits for jumping on to the US bandwagon.

Several reflections follow from this analysis.  Firstly, US military action may arouse sectarian passions in the Islamic world, but calling this a conflict between civilisations serves only to obfuscate the real issue, that the war was primarily for economic power like any number of such wars fought in the colonial times and in the same region. Secondly, though this scenario clarifies the seriousness of America’s position and explains its frantic drive for war, we must accept that globalisation is basically an anti-war activity.  As people and nations become more economically intertwined, it doesn’t make sense to fight a war.  Unlike the 20th Century, great powers are unlikely to go to war with one another.  This represents a real shift of mind-set.  Of course there can still be wars between under-developed powers or between a great power and a small power, as happened in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.  This suggests that despite their rivalry, war between the US and the European Union [EU] is unlikely. In fact, both powers will continue to co-operate in the war against international terrorism.

Given the military power of the US and the current mood of the neo-cons, it would be imprudent for any power to challenge the Bush Administration directly. So, for the present, France, Germany and Russia have apparently taken the pragmatic view, and given a quick nod to the UN resolution on post-war Iraq.  Consequently both the military occupation of Iraq and its political and economic reconstruction by the US now stand sanctified by the UN.

This does not imply that other great powers will sit back and accept everything that US dictates. The EU has become a phenomenal success both in terms of its political and economic viability.  It is inevitable that by the end of this decade 28 countries, including Great Britain, will be members.  The euro has proved itself capable of strengthening against the dollar faster than anyone thought possible.  The significance of the euro must be seen against the context of an American economy reeling under the collective impact of a huge current account deficit, very low interest rates and spiralling unemployment.  Many predict that the EU has the capacity to match the US technologically and economically and become a countervailing force to the US.

Fortunately, democratically elected governments have to win the approval of their electorate to continue in office.  The greatest “threat” facing the Bush Administration is domestic politics.  The Americans are a friendly, generous, energetic and hardworking people who accepted ruthless nu-con doctrines after 11/9, as an unavoidable security necessity.  However, after America’s victory in Iraq, a number of Democrats and liberal Republicans have begun to fear the unintended consequences of the war and see that the deficits in the neo-con’s doctrines lie in its national self-overestimation, an over emphasis on military means and the ignoring of values and allies. These views, along with the state of the American economy will dominate the next presidential election and could become an obstacle to Bush’s return to the White House.

The UN resolution on Iraq reportedly nominates India as monitor of one of the five administrative sectors into which the country has been divided and has requested India to provide troops for “the stabilisation of the country”.  Opposition parties are against India accepting this commitment.  The Government has sent it Ambassador to Baghdad and is studying the UN resolution and the detailed implications of the request.  As this is a UN  request, and is essentially for peace keeping, it becomes difficult for India to reject the proposal..  But we should guard against overplaying the significance of this new role. Only time will tell what course history will follow. Measured pragmatism should be the Indian approach in the coming years. While these events unfold their realities should be factored into our long-term political, economic and security calculations so that we avoid romantic strategic policies. We should use that time to improve our systems of governance, reform our economic and administrative procedures, and get our house in order. At the same time we should cultivate the EU as well as co-operate with the American Administration in tackling international terrorism so that Indian interests in South Asia are safeguarded. 


Prime Minster Vajpayee, on his return from China, is faced with a dilemma that the Prince of Denmark would have envied.  If India sends 20,000 troops to Iraq, would their role appear to be salvaging the after effects of a war unleashed by a US-led coalition, or would it be helping the US remake a nation in the heart of West Asia?   The first role is a latter-day recipe for neo-colonization.  The latter role is an opportunity to transform Iraqi anger into creative nationalist urges, which could start the spread of democracy that West Asia deserves.

On completion of operations in Iraq, the UN, under Security Council resolution 1483 has called upon member states to provide men and material to assist in the effort to rebuild the country. Peace keeping missions are not a new experience for the Indian Army.  It has undertaken major operations under the UN’s blue helmet.  These include Korea [6,000 troops in 1950], Indo-China [7,000 troops in 1954], Congo [12,000 troops in 1960-64], Lebanon  [5,000 troops from 1998 to date], Iraq/Kuwait [66 troops in 1991], Somalia [7,000 troops in 1992-94], Sierra Leone [4765 troops in 1999-2001], and Ethiopia-Eritrea [3753 troops from 2001 to date].

The US has divided Iraq into five sectors and has invited India to operate in the Northern Zone, alongside four other zones; three run by the US and Britain, the last by a mixture of Australians, Poles and other volunteers. The Americans are keen to involve India for five reasons.  First, the Indian Army has established its reputation as a professionally trained, disciplined and well-equipped force.  Second, unlike the Pakistani Army, which has been infiltrated by fundamentalism, the Indian soldier has remained professionally secular.  Third, Indian soldiers unlike Australians, British, Poles and Americans are brown in colour and Asians.  Fourth, Indian has the resilience to handle the return of body bags.  Lastly, India knew Iraq like few other non-Arab nations did. Its Army and Air force offices had trained the Iraqi Armed Forces, and its teachers had taught in Iraqi colleges.

India’s proposed task would entail keeping the peace in a vast segment of north Iraq extending from the plains north of Baghdad to the mountains of southern Turkey.  Iran flanks the area to the east and Syria to the west.  This area is the home of the Kurds, a people of Central Asia stock oppressed by the Arabs for decades.  Their demand for independence and at least functional autonomy is high.  Within this area lie the rich oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk.

In the past, operations under the UN flag meant that the rules of engagement would adhere to the principles of the UN Charter and would be under UN control.  There was the flexibility of suspending operations if these became inconsistent with the UN’s mandate.  As such Army Headquarters in Delhi always had clear ideas about objectives and likely duration of a mission.  An exit strategy could be determined. This time the UN has stated that those who provide troops, outside the humanitarian mission, would be categorised as being part of the “occupying forces”, a label that has stuck fast to the US-UK combine.

Operating under the command and flag of the occupying forces is unacceptable.  Admittedly, Indian troops have been sent abroad without UN sanction; to Sri Lanka [1987] and Maldives [1988].  But this was at the invitation from the host governments. Perhaps if an Interim Iraqi Administration were to invite the presence of Indian troops, there could be a favourable response. Army Headquarters has sought clarification on several issues.  It would like to know what shape the command and control structure would take?  Then again, the initial cost of moving 20,000 troops is estimated at over Rs 400 crore.  Is the UN or the US committed to picking up this bill?  Serving under the UN blue helmet earned a jawan $1000 a month over and above his salary.  Will this mission be as generous? Lastly is the question of morale.  India has lost 108 personnel in thirty-six UN peace-keeping missions since 1950.  It lost 1,400 soldiers in Sri Lanka.  How will India and the armed forces react to one body bag a day from Iraq?   Whatever be the answers to these queries, the Army knows that the final decision will be a political one.  Wherever and whenever the government tells it to go, the army will go without hesitation- and deliver results.

There are many in India who are opposed to the deployment of troops in Iraq. They insist that our soldiers must only operate in blue berets of the UN. They agree that this question and the other ambiguities of command and control, and financial support could be resolved by mutual agreement.  However, even if these requirements are settled, India must examine the role that our troops will be expected to perform. They argue that the prospect of lucrative contracts should not blind us to the fact that the “stabilization” of Iraq is aimed at throttling Iraqi resistance.  Contracts are being doled out by occupying forces as blood money proportional to the contribution made to consolidation of their occupation. The India should never permit its Army to become a mercenary force “collaborating and enforcing such supari contracts.”

Those who counter this by claiming that political realism and national interests demand that India should be pragmatic “because the rewards will be immense”, are branded as short-sighted simpletons.   Such realists are compared to pre-independence Indian princes who entered into subsidiary alliances with William Bentinck and his successors to ensure that they were on the winning side throughout the entire era of Imperial rule.  The wealth they acquired and the influence they secured boosted their egos as they strutted around till India gained independence.  Today, the Americans are inviting Indian to do follow the example of the princelings who bowed before their imperial majesties in return for the empty titles they flaunted as maharajas and rajas.  The choice facing India is non-alignment and independence or subsidiary alliances and the loss of self-respect.

Those in favour of sending troops stress the strategic importance of Iraq and its neighbourhood for India’s welfare and security.  Three and a half million Indian reside and work in the region.  They remit home about $6.5 billion annually.  The bulk of our oil imports come from Iraq and its neighbours.  Our dependence on oil imports will increase, as our oil consumption will be over 150 million tons by the end of the coming decade.  Given the growing potential of instability in the Gulf and in Saudi Arabia, stabilization and the return of normalcy in Iraq are crucial for India’s energy security.  We cannot achieve this by rhetoric and legalistic quibbling.  Clerks quote history as excuses for inaction; statesmen don’t dither when challenged

The US knows that the only way it can stop losing the goodwill it earned by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is by setting up an Interim Iraqi Administration as soon as possible. Undoubtedly, America and its allies can handle this situation without Indian participation.  But we must ask ourselves: will India’s interests best be served by remaining a bystander and enjoying American discomfiture in Iraq, even as Iraqis face the prospects of increasing violence and instability. The American Administrator, Paul Bremer realises that UN agencies will have to be increasingly associated not only for relief and rehabilitation,  but also for securing credible Iraqi participation in the political processes to draft a new constitution and reform the educational and the law and order systems.  Though he is opposed by some elements in the Pentagon there are indications of his increasing anxiety to coordinate matters with the UN Secretary General’s special representative Sergio Viera deMello.  Do we have a better chance of influencing America to accept the need for greater international involvement and early exit from Iraq by mere rhetoric or by constructive cooperation?

It is obvious that India must not become an American Trojan horse in the Persian Gulf.  Nor should we be seen to be supporting trigger-happy American while dealing with genuine Iraqi grievances, manifested through public demonstrations.  Luckily, the situation in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq is radically different from that in the Arab and Sunni-dominated areas around Baghdad, or in Shia-dominated southern Iraq.  While there may be law and order problems in northern Iraq, there is little or no prospect of an active insurgency in the region where the Indian stabilization force would be deployed.

Nevertheless, before taking a final decision on deployment in Iraq, the Ministry of External Affairs should establish contact with Kurdish political leaders in Iraq to obtain their endorsement and assurances of cooperation.  America should be told that we will not countenance any cross-border activities by Iranian opposition groups, which are located in northern Iraq, like the Mujahidem-e-Khaq led by Masood Rajari, that had enjoyed the backing both of the CIA and Saddam Hussein.  Apart from this, there should be continuing consultations with Iran, Turkey and Syria who should be persuaded that the presence of Indian troops will be in their interests.

The Indian stabilization force should operate in a totally autonomous manner, with mechanisms for coordination with the Americans and British.  The force should have a people friendly composition with a large medical and engineer component.

Thus India has two options: to sit on the fence with the excuse that we are saving our self-respect and thus be marginalised, or to go to Iraq and emerge as a responsible power in an unprecedented situation fraught with many dangers.