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India must get involved!

June 18, 2003

Recently, a report on Indo-US relations sponsored by the Department of Defence and prepared by the US Pacific Command had certain uncharitable things to say about the Indian Army.

Among other things the report stated that Indian officers are difficult to work with, that the officer corps is 'intellectual' and that India's intellectual arrogance is 'off-putting and counter productive.'

On the other hand the report appears to have had a good word to say about the Pakistanis. They have been reported to be more accommodating, flexible and easy to work with.

The United States military has had more than 50 years of cooperation and interaction with Pakistan's military establishment. Close and personal relationships have been forged and this has obviously been reflected in the above mentioned report.

The Indian armed forces have been more or less isolated from the rest of the world and only in recent times have once again begun to interact with other nations' armed forces.

There may be little truth in the US assessment of our armed forces. Unfortunately, there is no method of judging the efficacy and efficiency of an army, navy or air force. Before the Iraq war, the general perception about the so-called 'elite Republican Guard' was of a especially trained force, with utmost loyalty to Saddam Hussein, which was expected to give a fitting battle to the coalition forces.

In reality that perception evaporated as the force itself did a vanishing act. The only method of judging a force is when it is pitted against someone else. The Indian Army which battled so valiantly to retake Kargil had found the going heavy in Sri Lanka ten years earlier.

Unfortunately, there are no Olympics for the armed forces to compete in. Neither has Outlook or India Today brought out 'the world's twenty best armed forces' issues.

In the late fifties and the sixties, each year the navies of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand along with the Royal Navy used to meet annually in Sri Lanka for what was known as joint exercises at Trincomalee. These exercises, sometime held in a competitive spirit, were useful to gauge standards of efficiency and training. They also allowed the navies of some of the developing countries like India and Pakistan to learn newer methods and tactics.

The exercises stopped in 1964. In the seventies and eighties followed a long period of isolation when the Indian Navy, on one pretext or another, did not exercise with any other foreign warship. It was left to that occasional officer, fortunate enough to do a course abroad and brave enough to speak up, to tell us how we were being left behind.

Just like participation in international sports meets tells us exactly where our national teams stand (except cricket, nowhere I am afraid), interacting with foreign forces, especially armed forces from Western nations, helps us in assessing the standards of our forces. It may sound a little cynical to say so, but the nation's armed forces must seek every opportunity to take on new challenges and seek out new areas of action.

The deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka was one such opportunity. Yes, we lost 2,000 men and may not have been able to bring Prabakaran to book. But nevertheless it was a valuable experience in fighting a guerrilla type enemy.

It is for the above reason that we must grab the opportunity to send a force to Iraq. The opponents of such a move have a hundred reasons why we must not fall into an American trap. The US wants India to do its dirty work. We will be jeopardising our sovereignty if we agree to serve under an American flag. We will not only lose many friends in the Islamic world but will alienate Iraqis who have been our friends.

There is no doubt that the US is in a mess in Iraq. The welcome mat that they had expected either did not materialise or is by now worn out. Their first priority now is to restore some form of law and order in that country. And obviously they cannot think of any better force which is good at doing that than the Indian Army.

We have over the years established an excellent track record in peace keeping, from Korea to Congo and from Gaza to Somalia. Our troops are known for their patience, fairness and quiet efficiency. If anybody would be welcome in Iraq for peacekeeping duties it would be the Indian Army.

It hardly matters whether we would be doing the US Army's dirty work for them. In fact we are far likely to succeed in this task than many other armies and for that we are likely to secure the gratitude of the Iraqi people.

As far as alienating the Muslim world is concerned, the same thing was said for years about our relations with Israel. For fear of displeasing the Arab world we kept Israel at arm's length. Not that we got any gratitude for that from the Muslim world. India, a country with the second largest Muslim population in the world, has been effectively kept out of the Organisation of Islamic Countries for fear of displeasing Pakistan. In the end our restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel has not had the slightest effect on our relations with the Islamic world.

As far as our forces serving under an American flag is concerned, hark back to 1950. The troops during the Korean war fought under an UN mandate no doubt. But it was an American show from start to end. The force was commanded by General MacArthur and Harry Truman did not ask the UN's permission before sacking him.

Not many people are aware that the Indian Army participated in that war in the form of a field ambulance unit. Each man in that unit was a paratrooper and they were quite happy to serve under a US flag.

Over the past four decades the Indian Army has served overseas in many countries and under many commanders. The UN flag certainly provided a fig leaf on these occasions. If the US action in Iraq may have to take place without UN sanction, the subsequent continuation of that force could be unanimously approved by the United Nations.

The deployment of an Indian Army task force in Iraq is not without risks. There will be casualties and there may be times when the force may have to take stern measures to restore law and order. Although one keeps hoping that it may not arise, there may be a situation when the force may have to turn their weapons on the citizens. But the same risks are always there when a force is deployed for restoring law and order. The army takes similar risks in Kashmir.

There are some suggestions that the deployment of our army in Iraq will land us some fat reconstruction contracts or that it may tilt the US towards us vis-a-vis Pakistan. We should certainly not send a force to Iraq to ingratiate ourselves with the US. The Indian Army is not a mercenary army. We should do it because Iraq needs our help and because we are the best in the game in this part of the world.

India is now in a position of a bystander watching an innocent man being knocked down by a speeding American car. He is bleeding profusely and needs urgent help. We have a choice. We can continue watching in true Indian tradition, curse the driver and offer a lot of advice from the sidelines. Or we can roll up our sleeves, not worry too much about getting our shirt soiled and help the man.

Our choice is clear. India must get involved.

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