20 years after Iraq: Defining India-US relations - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 6 April 2023

20 years after Iraq: Defining India-US relations

Along with my intrepid cameraman, Akhai Shimray, a quick snapshot at the gateway to Mosul, Iraq

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 7th April 23


On Sunday, it will be exactly 20 years since American tanks bludgeoned their way into Baghdad and “liberated” the Iraqi capital. The previous day, Saddam Hussein had fled from his presidential palace in the Green Zone to an underground hideaway, built by his fiercely loyal Albu Nasir tribesmen in his home city, Tikrit. This would be his refuge till December 2003, when he would be captured by American troops and hanged three years later. 


As US troops spread across Baghdad, so too did the journalists. In an image broadcast across the world, a frenzied Baghdad mob, helped by a US armoured vehicle, pulled down Saddam’s bronze statue at Firdos Square. A horde of us journalists looked down on this scene from the Paradise Hotel and Sheraton Ishtar Hotel, cameras whirring.


At lunchtime on April 14th, I joined the journalists’ “outdoor broadcast” (OB) line up on the roof of the Sheraton Ishtar, an important part of all television news channels’ programming, in which news anchors would discuss with their correspondents on the ground the major news developments of the day. There must have been at least 50 to 60 of the world’s top war correspondents in that line up. Squinting to my right, I saw the legendary Robert Fisk beginning his OB. “There is a sense of rebirth in Baghdad, the end of an era,” he said. “Saddam is gone and the United States of America is here as the latest emperor.”


But my attention was quickly jolted back to my own cameraperson. Fisk was there for a routine news broadcast, but I had a far more important assignment. This was the first live OB from Iraq for New Delhi Television since the US military’s capture of Baghdad. It was tempting to follow Robert Fisk’s line, but I had sensed in my street conversations the beginnings of Iraqi resentment against American occupation and an inevitable backlash of Arab pride. And so I reported.


Back in India, I followed developments in Iraq and the growing Iraqi anger at America’s inability to restore law and order and infrastructure in the battered Iraqi capital. As anger grew, and a religious-sectarian insurgency pitted Iraq’s majority Shias against the Sunni minority, I learned in New Delhi about a request from Washington for an Indian Army division (some 18,000 troops) to take over responsibility for law and order enforcement in the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq. While the story dominated the television news bulletins, there was silence from the government. But NDTV chief, Prannoy Roy, lost no time in sensing a news opportunity. Sending for me, Dr Roy proposed that I and a cameraperson took ourselves off to Northern Iraq – particularly the cities of Mosul and Erbil – and poll at least a thousand local residents for their views on whether Indian soldiers would be welcome as peacekeepers in Northern Iraq.


On 19th August 2003, we drove into Baghdad from the Jordanian capital, Amman, a route that we had perfected through several news reporting trips into Iraq. With our polling sheets and cameras, we began our poll in Mosul, the main city in Kurdish northern Iraq.


The poll, which was the first ever held in the biblical city of Mosul, can best be described as eventful. It included our arrest – and subsequent release – by the Peshmarga, the Kurdish militia, who were not familiar with the concept of citizen opinion. Suffice to say, the Iraqis we polled roundly rejected the notion of Indian peacekeepers, instead opting for a UN-mandated mission with peacekeepers from different countries. When NDTV ran the story, it was viewed by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and PM Atal Behari Vajpayee himself ruled out the proposal to send Indian troops to Iraq.


US-Indian relations were beginning to flower at that time, but domestic Indian politics was not geared to support the notion of a “blood price” – the sacrifice of soldiers’ lives by allied forces as a gesture of solidarity. Vajpayee was politically savvy enough to see that, while this would be a huge boost to the US-India relationship, it would be regarded extremely negatively by the Indian voter.


Even so, the US-India relationship was destined to flower. The leadership role played by the Indian Navy in the wake of the Asian tsunami in December 2004, the Defence Framework Agreement of 2005 and the growing cooperation that led up to the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement seemed to have put the relationship on an irreversible trajectory, which grew steadily with the designation of India as a Major Defence Partner in 2016, and the signature of three “foundational defence agreements” shortly thereafter.


However, those early days of promise had all the strategic ingredients necessary for a US-India relationship to flower. It had top-level chemistry between the top leaders on both sides; it had strategic “deliverables” for both sides’ bureaucracies to focus on, and it had common tactically military objectives and defence hardware needs that brought both sides together. Today, there is little of any of this. There is a common understanding on both sides that the US needs India for containing China. There is a tacit understanding that India will buy US weaponry and defence equipment and that the two sides will exercise together to build interoperability against “common enemies”. But, beyond that, there is little tangible to drive forward the relationship.

A crucial deficiency is the striking lack of chemistry between the president of the United States (POTUS) and the prime minister (PM). It would seem as if the Democrats should be at least as inclined towards India as the Republicans. However, in fact, the Republicans have been more forward-leaning – none more so than President George W Bush. Democratic political bosses have not yet forgotten Modi’s enunciation of “Abki baar, Trump sarkaar”. The Democrats have been held back by notions of human rights violations by India, some of them true. Meanwhile India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has taken on unnecessary political battles with statements critical of America’s own human rights record. He is clearly getting his cues from the top.


Defence cooperation too is fizzling out, with no big-ticket procurement driving forward the relationship. India’s big purchase of 114 fighter aircraft is not going America’s way, while the proposed manufacture in India of General Electric F-414 fighter engines is making scant headway. For GE to proceed with engine manufacture in India there is a need for a “Manufacturing Licence Agreement” (MLA), for which GE would have to obtain permissions from the US triumvarate: The US departments of State, Commerce and Defence. There was a big push to get these done during National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s visit to Washington in February. But the matter hangs fire.

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