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Will we be the keepers of peace?

July 04, 2003

I have had the privilege of visiting the Chetwood Hall at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. No, I cannot remember seeing General A A K Niazi's pistol (which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons last week).

What I recall most vividly is seeing the honour boards, bearing the names of all those who graduated from the academy and went on to win honours on the battlefield. Pride of place obviously goes to recipients of the Param Vir Chakra -- India's highest military honour -- who have had their portraits placed in the hall.

You could count these few on the fingers of one hand as I recall -- there must be more now after the Kargil conflict and the operations in Sri Lanka.

Some would argue that any untimely death is wasteful. I would not go that far, but there was one portrait where I remember that thought did cross my mind -- that of Captain Salaria. He did not die defending India, but far away in Congo while on a mission for the United Nations.

I cannot think of any possible reason why an Indian should have died to keep the peace in Africa. In fact, the only time I can remember when sending troops outside India -- outside of war of course -- came when Rajiv Gandhi sent them to rescue the Maldives from an attempted coup.

So, does it make sense to send Indians to Iraq as the United States has requested? Views are divided within India. The nay-sayers insist that the mess was created by the Americans, and so it is up to them to sink or swim in the quagmire. Supporters of the move say that India has vital interests in the region, and must make its presence felt there. But to my mind the most interesting reactions are not those from India, but from abroad? What do Iraq's neighbours feel about the presence of Indian troops? (The most important question, of course, is how Iraqis themselves would react, but I have not visited post-war Iraq and any comment would be unjustified.)

Syria and Iran feel India should keep away from Iraq. In fact, they would prefer that all foreign troops leave the area, including the Americans. Both nations are suspected of being hand-in-glove with terrorist groups by the United States. Washington insists that the Al-Badr group of militants operates from sanctuaries just outside Iraq proper.

It is possible that Indians might find themselves in the middle, a complication that both Damascus and Teheran would prefer to avoid.

Jordan and Kuwait, on the other hand, have hinted that they would welcome Indian peacekeepers in Iraq. The logic goes that their presence is less likely to ignite a conflict than does the appearance of American, British, or Australian units.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are in the 'undecided' category. The governments of both nations are allied to the United States, but the populations at large are much more anti-American in mood. While the two governments cannot officially oppose a request made publicly by the United States, nor do they want to be seen supporting more foreign troops in Iraq.

The reactions are more mixed as you move away from the immediate neighbourhood of Iraq. The consensus in several countries in the region is that none of Iraq's neighbours should send soldiers into that country -- irrespective of whether they are Iranian, Jordanian, or Turkish. They have privately intimated, however, that they would not mind seeing Indian peacekeepers in Iraq. (Or, for that matter, Pakistani soldiers.)

The mood in Delhi is not particularly enthusiastic when it comes to heeding the American request. Iraq would be a major headache even if the invitation to send troops comes from the United Nations rather than just the United States. The Indian government, if I have read it correctly, would prefer either Arab League soldiers or a multi-national force to hold Iraq together. It definitely does not, however, want American soldiers to stay on indefinitely -- which according to Delhi would simply lead to the creation of more terrorist groups.

But if comes to the crunch, India might be willing to join, say, Morocco, Malaysia, or even Pakistan in a peacekeeping mission -- the sole condition being that there should be a timetable for returning Iraq to an elected government. The sole purpose of these forces -- apart from providing emergency medical and engineering aid -- should be preparing Iraqis for self-government.

Finally, the invitation should come from some body like the Arab League, not just the United States.

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