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Baghdad or bust

Wars move boundaries, topple governments, leave behind death and destruction. The most decisive long-term impact of any war results from the manner in which it is brought to an end.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2003 14:37 IST
SK Singh
SK Singh

Wars move boundaries, topple governments, leave behind death and destruction. The most decisive long-term impact of any war results from the manner in which it is brought to an end.

A Serbo-Croat proverb suggests that anyone who wages war must either stay his hand or strike to kill, because half measures leave walking enemies.

On what terms will the fighting end in this war on Iraq that was initiated almost a month ago by the US-British coalition? Terms negotiated by whom and with whom? What can the world, the Arabs of the lands around Iraq, or indeed the Iraqis themselves expect once the conflict is formally ended? Must the terms of peace contain seeds of future conflict? Prince Metternich had advised that a great State must, before entering a war, secure both its military and moral justification. Above all, such a State must be clear about its own objectives that provoked it to enter the fight.

Until now, none of these questions has evoked a clear answer. The US-British coalition thundered into Iraq and the region and took charge of Iraq, both the land and the people. Saddam Hussein, whose removal was the objective, was nowhere to be found — just as in Afghanistan they have been unable to find Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief, or Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda.

History records how Haroun al-Rashid, the third Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, used to wander about the streets of Baghdad most nights to assess if there was peace and quiet, or in case his subjects were being oppressed or troubled by lawless elements. Maybe, he needs to be resurrected so that Saddam Hussein, members of his family and his cruel and venal courtiers can be found.

The number of people and objects which have disappeared during this mayhem is quite bewildering. Tanks, guns and artillery pieces, ammunition dumps, four entire divisions of Republican Guards, the much-dreaded and well-publicised WMD in or around Saddam’s numerous palaces, subterranean laboratories and safe places, all seem to have melted away noiselessly leaving not a trace.

It is curious too that out of the hundreds of bridges and culverts all over Iraq, the vicious Iraqi warriors failed to blow up a single one. A Pakistani friend, currently living in London, in a meandering telephone chat a few nights back, speculated if this was the result of a deal between the invaders and the defenders. “I do smell a deal,” he concluded.

Ali Baba and his 40 thieves were obviously inimical to history, archaeology and knowledge. They have vandalised and looted Iraq’s National Museum and burnt a lot of priceless books. Some of the items in the museum were large and weighty, harking back to Babylonian, Sumerian and Mesopotamian eras. All this wanton destruction was achieved in full view of the Anglo-American armed personnel. To our knowledge no person or group of vandals has yet been apprehended. The conquerors need to take early and forceful action if they would like to be seen as cultured and civilised. I had seen similar destruction in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-78). In that war, however, schools, hospitals and government buildings had not been permitted to be targeted. In Iraq, too, we are informed that the oil ministry and its offices have remained untouched by vandals and looters.

When in Kabul I protested to the then minister about the vandalisation of a museum which had one of the largest collections of lovely Gandhara sculptures and icons. A former Marxist minister had explained to me that some vigilante kind of Islamists or Wahabi Afghans were intolerant of representation of the human form — hence the destruction and damage. Some years later one heard from American art dealers in Madison Avenue, New York, that many of the sculptures from the Hadda Museum had been unloaded by certain Pakistani diplomats and art-dealers. All of them, no doubt, proud of being Muslims.

Analysts and experts in international law have wondered for months why the coalition powers abstained from getting some kind of authorisation or legal cover through the UN Security Council. Despite the statements in the Council by certain major European powers, it shouldn’t have been impossible for diplomats to find some wording for an acceptable compromise. Why wasn’t recourse taken to the UN General Assembly’s authority under ‘Uniting for Peace’ Resolution? Today, with great regret, one looks back with a feeling that the UN is perhaps the ultimate tragic paradox of our age. It has become indispensable before becoming undeniably effective.

Are we watching the initiation by the US and Britain of the process of another redrawing of the geo-political map of post-Cold War West Asia? Or is it the beginning of the process of their assuming comprehensive control of Gulf oil resources, so as to enable them publicly to discipline the wayward OPEC, and ultimately to render it helpless and impotent?

One asks the question: Is Iraq a uniquely blessed land or a uniquely accursed one? It has a large area, significant oil wealth and reserves, a fairly educated and well-off middle-class, a conservative but functioning bureaucracy and national administration. Above all, it has plentiful water resources, of a quality not available elsewhere in the region. It is, thus, attractive to become a perfect base for a superpower willing to run that entire troubled region. It would be a better pied a terre than Saudi Arabia any day.

The Indian armed forces have known the West Asian region intimately over a long period. Immediately after the Turkish Empire broke up, and Britain got the mandate for ruling Mesopotamia in 1920, it proceeded to install the two Hashemite Kingdoms, one in Iraq under King Faisal I and the other in Jordan under King Abdullah I. This could be done only with the help of the British Indian Army. During World War II, it was the Indian Army which provided the shield for protecting the PAI region (Persia and Iraq). These elements of the Indian Army were known as the PAI Force.

It occupied not just Iran and Iraq but also the Levant and the areas which today comprise Israel and other areas. It was the Indian troops, during 1923-1925, that ensured the merger of the vilayats (provinces) of Basra and Baghdad with that of the Mosul Vilayat which had a predominantly Kurdish population and had been delinked from Turkey by a decision of the League of Nations. The two British oil corporations in the region, the British Anglo Persian Oil Co. and the Turkish Petroleum Co., were also run largely by personnel from India.

Over these last three weeks, the important powers have modified their earlier objectives. Russia, France and Germany no longer display their passionate opposition to the US’s unilateralist appeal to arms. They have accepted the new status-quo. Britain is openly involved in leading the US back to the multilateralist route of accepting the UN’s role. The US Senate and House have hinted that they would be happy to see the US administration accept the assistance, even active involvement, of the UN.

Israel wants to join up with Jordan and Kuwait to revive the old oil pipeline from Mosul to the Israeli port of Haifa. For reason of seeking profits, Japan is networking furiously with Washington and major US firms and has already announced humanitarian assistance at the level of $ 100 million. South Korea is busy sending a market survey team to Iraq. China is standing above the din of controversy and greed, and has suggested that the UN organise an international workshop on the reconstruction of Iraq and “deal with the matter in accordance with international law and domestic laws”.

In the midst of this political-psychological global churning, India continues to look rudderless. The rest of the world sees us confused and bewildered. We are the only democracy that, long after the 11th hour, resorted to a non-binding parliamentary resolution which gave no indication of our policy direction. A puerile discussion on semantics — whether to condemn or to deplore the invasion — left the drafting team floundering and not entirely pleased with their use of the ambiguous Hindi term ‘ninda’.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

First Published: Apr 19, 2003 00:00 IST