“Won’t speculate,” our Defence Minister Arun Jaitley tersely said in response to a question if we were going to send troops to Iraq. In the first place, the question was a no-brainer: send troops to Iraq to do what? An Entebbe-type operation to get 20,000 Indians stuck in various places in Iraq back safely to India? Yet, this mindless exchange brought back into focus attempts made by Americans to shanghai us into sending our troops to Iraq for stabilisation duties. The discussions with the Americans had begun even before US President George Bush declared from the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003, a couple of months after the invasion of Iraq had begun, that major combat operations were over, thereby effectively declaring victory. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” He alleged that the battle had been fought for “liberty” and “peace of the world”. America and coalition allies were now engaged in “securing and reconstructing that country..”
In reality, Iraq was far from being secured. All the Americans were doing were spreading chaos, anarchy and sharpening Iraq’s numerous fault lines. Even as Bush was declaring victory, his diplomats were talking to our diplomats and also making a political approach to coaxing India into sending at least a division of troops to Iraq for ‘stabilisation operations’. The numbers that were bandied were over 10,000, nearer 20,000 in fact. That would have made us the second largest armed contingent in a country that US had invaded. Only the defence ministry was willing, even keen. It was not our battle, despite UN resolution 1483 which exhorted member states to contribute to conditions of stability and security in Iraq. New Delhi felt that cover was less than what a fig leaf normally offers; it wasn’t much of a resolution. It is very difficult to say no to a super power: Delhi had kind of criticised the US-led invasion, stopping well short of outright condemnation, a gentle sort of admonition really. In exchange for sending troops, the US was suggesting that we would get a piece of the reconstruction pie, including hydrocarbons. You see, once you bomb a country, it has to be reconstructed, a business opportunity. There were many questions that swirled in the air. Who would pay for the troops? How long would Indian troops be required in Iraq? Would we have to shoot Iraqis? What would happen to our interests in the Gulf once we started killing Iraqis and calling it stabilisation? Would we have to report to Americans who were running the war?
The Americans were saying the troops would be required to stay put for more than a year; and no, America wouldn’t pay. Some felt it would be better to deploy such a lot of troops to secure Kashmir better. The Americans said Indian troops could be stationed at Kurdish areas, such as Mosul. Such pressure was exerted, that it was clear that it was not possible to say an outright ‘no’ to the Americans. The Indians then wanted a UN mandate to send in the troops. Americans couldn’t furnish that, although they wanted the Indian troops to be in situ by July, latest August. Only when things went down to the wire did New Delhi take the all-party meet route and were able to say ‘no’.
Sudarshan is the author of Anatomy of an Abduction: How the Indian Hostages in Iraq Were Freed