Global Policy Forum

South Asia Still Hard to


By M. B. Naqvi

Inter Press Service
April 19, 2004

The U.S. government's renewal of an earlier request to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to send troops to Iraq has been made necessary by the turn of recent events in that country, aflame with attacks against the occupying forces.

These three South Asian countries are among the ones that usually contribute troops in fair numbers for peacekeeping operations of the United Nations. Why these countries have not responded positively so far is because of the doubtful legality of last year's invasion of Iraq. All three countries have not found it a legally legitimate war that could be approved by the United Nations. Their stance was, and remains, that unless the U.N. Security Council passes another resolution accepting the peacekeeping in Iraq, it will not be possible for them to send their troops there.

One circumstance makes the new request embarrassing for all three governments: the painful sequel to last year's Iraq war has meant that maintaining U.S. occupation there involves very high cost in lives and U.S. treasure. Sending troops under today's conditions is likely to be opposed by a wide swath of opinion as helping an immoral operation of the United States, because the morality of the Iraq war continues to be widely questioned more than one year into the U.S.-led occupation. The United Nations had refused to authorise it -- and many countries have refused to accept the legality of that war under international law.

For India, the issue cannot be decided until after the four-stage general election that starts on Apr. 20 and concludes May 10. If a new parliament and government is in by mid-May, the earliest the new government can take up this question is the third or fourth week of May. But for now, there remain two uncertainties for Indian decision-making on the subject.

One is the absence of U.N. cover for the operation. There is as yet no certainty because it will depend on what the U.S. government concedes to the United Nations in terms of international law. Complex issues need to be settled about the future government of Iraq, the status of U.S. forces in Iraq and the precise functions the United Nations is expected to perform. The second uncertainty is more complex. One part is formal: who really knows for sure who will win in the Indian polls. Connected with the possibility of the opposition Congress party and its associates' victory is the question of what view the new government will take on the issue of Iraq.

While there is sure to be a lot of continuity with the policies of the preceding government, there are sure to be differences of nuances. The Congress party is sure to be somewhat more reluctant to send troops to an Iraq with which India has had a long record of friendship. But it is sure to accept India's strategic partnership with the U.S. government also, though with a tad less enthusiasm than the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party showed.

No Indian can underrate the strategic partnership with the U.S. government. Thus the Indian attitude is sure to be theoretically helpful toward the U.S. government. There is no likelihood of a new government in India that will wish to walk out of this strategic friendship. The legality of peacekeeping in a chaotic Iraq will certainly, if it persists, be questioned. Much of actual Indian attitude will be shaped by what the U.N. Security Council decides about the U.S.-led occupation.

In Bangladesh, Dhaka's decision-makers will be less inhibited in helping the U.S. government -- their traditional friend and donor -- though the issues of international law will have as much relevance to Dhaka as to New Delhi. Moreover, public opinion in Bangladesh is divided: the opposition Awami League does tend to take a more sympathetic view on the U.S. concerns. But on occasions the other major party, the governing Bangladesh Nationalist Party, can beat the Awami League in the friendliness of its approach to the United States.

But as it is constituted, the government contains religiously oriented Islamic parties and its sympathies today are wholly anti-U.S.. The overall climate of opinion there, thanks to the influence of radical left in its literature and day-to-day discourse, is non-friendly to U.S. aims and purposes. But it is true that if the Foggy Bottom can obtain a fig leaf of legality -- a new U.N. Security Council resolution no matter how watered down -- Dhaka will have no difficulty in contributing two brigades of troops or so. On the whole, New Delhi too can be seen -- if U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell manages to obtain a new U.N. peacekeeping resolution on Iraq -- to be ready to send 10,000 or so troops for the sake of its strategic ally.

Pakistan's case is different. President Gen Pervez Musharraf is the fulcrum on which Pakistan-U.S. friendship turns and he is perhaps the most pro-U.S. politician in South Asia. He has earned for Pakistan the dubious honour of being a major Non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally of the United States. He is perhaps anxious to please the U.S. government. But he has unseen shackles on his political feet: his power base is the army and it is largely pro-U.S -- that is, except an unknown part that sympathises with radical Islamic causes around the world Musharraf has largely consolidated his power as an all-powerful president. But his effective allies in politics are nobodies in leading any significant section of the population.

Worse, he still depends on Islamist parties - which constitute a third of the Parliament -- for major political decisions. Islamist parties, to no one's surprise, are viscerally anti-U.S. despite their past close cooperation with the United States. Musharraf's administration is embattled, fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives from Afghanistan hiding in the mountain fastnesses of Pakistan's tribal areas. The Pakistan government, due to rampant anti-U.S. sentiment, denies that it has agreed to send 10,000 troops to Iraq. It has again reiterated that Pakistan cannot contribute troops for consolidating the U.S. occupation of Iraq and shall only let troops go there under a U.N.-approved peacekeeping operation. Some Islamabad newspapers say that a Pakistan army contingent is all set to go to Iraq in a few months.

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