India-Pakistan tensions pre-occupied UK before Iraq invasion

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Jul 06, 2016 23:15 IST
File photo of a commando taking position beside a plainclothes policeman near the Parliament in New Delhi after it was attacked by terrorists on December 13, 2001. (Reuters)

During the build-up to the 2003 Iraq war, top leaders of the Tony Blair government were more engaged in dealing with rising tensions between India and Pakistan after the 2001 parliament attack in New Delhi, with the possibility of a nuclear conflagration.

Several leading lights of the government at the time, including former foreign secretary Jack Straw, told the Iraq Inquiry headed by John Chilcot that the prospect of an India-Pakistan war in the summer of 2002 was “a far more real and present danger to us than the conflict in Iraq”.

Two historical military actions cited during discussions before invading Iraq was India’s intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, which created Bangladesh, and the liberation of Goa from Portugal in December 1961, committee records show.

The committee was told Straw was “chiefly preoccupied” with trying to persuade India and Pakistan “back from the edge of a war”. Straw recalled the tensions in a memorandum to the committee and during his oral deposition.

The memorandum said: “Immediately after 9/11 the foreign policy priority for the UK was Afghanistan. Towards the close of the year, following the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December 2001, the possibility – verging it appeared at times on the probability – of a military engagement between India and Pakistan became an added preoccupation for the UK government, and the US.”

It added, “The joint US/UK endeavour to avoid such a serious regional conflict was the foundation of the very close working relationship which I developed with the US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell.”

In his deposition, Straw said: “Then on 13th December 2001 there was the attack by Islamist terrorists against the Lok Sabha in Delhi. That led to a series of events which over the following months led to a mobilisation of conventional forces by India and Pakistan and the possibility that they might begin to threaten each other with their nuclear forces.

“I got completely immersed in that. With Colin Powell, with his deputy, with David Manning, we were backwards and forwards to India and Pakistan throughout that period to persuade and cajole the Indians and Pakistanis to pull back from a military confrontation. We were dealing hour by hour with the India/Pakistan issue.”

Straw explained to the committee: “Just to illustrate what I mean by ‘hour by hour’, it is a matter of Straw family record now that I was supposed to be cooking the Christmas lunch and I served the first course on Christmas day and the rest of the time was spent on the telephone talking to Colin Powell and others about the India/Pakistan thing. So this was completely dominant. Iraq was a problem, but it was a problem we didn’t have to deal with there and then.”

The five-member inquiry committee that severely indicted the Tony Blair government for invading Iraq included Indian-origin Usha Prashar, a member of the House of Lords, who was closely involved in questioning individuals who deposed before it.

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