Originally Published 2013-03-11 00:00:00 Published on Mar 11, 2013
A decade ago this month, the United States and its British auxiliaries abused international law by invading Iraq. India looked on helplessly then, but is it in a position to affect another unjust invasion, this time directed at Iran?
Iraq - the Dynamics, ten years on
March 2013 marks ten years of the war on Iraq. It's an opportune moment to take stock of what has happened, the current crisis and what ten years of conflict means for most of the people. It is not unfair to say that the war in Iraq has completely changed the shape and contours of diplomacy in the region. Before the Arab Spring, it was the single biggest factor in recent memory that transformed West Asia's internal dynamics.

If time travel were possible, the wisdom of the current day could well have prevented many casualties of war. Well over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed and more are dying; sectarian strife has increased alarmingly in the last one year and the threat of civil war is looming. On the US side, more than 4,400 soldiers have lost their lives, plus thousands of British and Australian ones. The effort to wage war while 'winning the hearts and minds of Iraqi citizens' almost broke the US economy. And some political analysts claimed than Iran, dubbed by Bush to be part of an 'axis of evil' was actually the real winner of this war. By removing the most significant threat for Iran from the region, the US had essentially empowered it, which has always aspired to be the region's hegemon. The war had shifted the balance of power in the region.

Obama has not essentially swayed from Bush's policies. The policies and influence of national security advisors carried forward from Bush's two terms - Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld and William Schneider - were not reduced, but accelerated. And these were the sharpest critics of Bill Clinton's comparatively nuanced policy. If anything, Obama has increased drone warfare, encouraged cost-effective cyber warfare (remember Operation Olympic Games?), and pushed the limits of executive authority in war, furthest.

In the last one year, the US has announced details of its impending 'exit' from Iraq in 2014 - but this is only the beginning of the removal of US troops, not the of US intervention. By the year 2030, the US is expected to be an energy-surplus region. Enormous amounts of shale gas deposits in its territory, and investments in renewable energy are going to make a diminished US role in the Middle East a reality.

In the immediate time-frame, even as we are likely to see the exit of US's forces from the oil-rich region, it is unlikely that the US will pull back from playing a hand in the region. The reason is simple: China. While the US won't need Iraq's oil as much as it does now, it will not want China to fill the power vacuum left behind by leaving American troops. Therefore, the military bases in Qatar and Bahrain are unlikely to be shut.

India in the picture

With the waning US role, neighbours of the country and other regional players will need to assume greater roles towards peacekeeping and maintaining the balance of power. The US too, is keen on containing China with an Indian influence. It may not seem like it, but India has already taken up an increasingly close relationship with Iraq. The posting of an ambassador in the sensitive region is only the beginning of a new chapter in India-Iraq strategic relationship. While India and Iraq have enjoyed longstanding diplomatic and trade ties for millennia as neighbouring civilisations, the relationship has been very nuanced. Under Saddam, Iraq supported India repeatedly on the Kashmir question, and India opposed the 1991war. Less vociferously compared to the 1991 war, Prime Minister Vajpayee had called the 2003 war on Iraq "avoidable".

But India has always held its own interests in determining its support or opposition diplomatic towards issues of day. Iraq's biggest threat has always been Iran, another close civilisation with whom India shared a close relationship. In light of the UN and unilateral sanctions on Iran's oil, India has resorted to Iraqi oil. The shortfall has been made up, but Iran has not overlooked this.

The assumption of a greater role cannot come at a cost for India, and New Delhi has concerns of its own regarding the US role. The question remains, what should India's strategy be?

The single most significant factor that should trouble India about the US role is the phenomenon of killing alleged terrorists through unmanned aerial vehicles (drones in common parlance). For a democratic State, the idea that anyone can be without a trial and due process cannot be acceptable. It also sets the precedent in warfare, which is looking increasingly de-territorialised. This is even more troubling when one considers the legal implications. Civilians all over the world have a right to know when they are part of an on-the-spot trial and execution, all without recourse.

Instead, India must stress on listening to the voices of the Iraqi people, with all their ethnic distinctions. In this region, identities are a conflated mix of region, sect, language and faith. Undoubtedly the future of the country lies in a democratic set-up - if it is only so on paper for the foreseeable future - but this is one area where India has leverage and years of experience in managing diversity. The policy of technically assisting Iraqi technocrats, doctors, engineers and teachers to help build the country would not soon be forgotten by Iraqis. Opportunities in the IT and the medical sectors are tremendous.

Lessons of history

Finally, the most important lesson is to remember the dominant rhetoric from 2003. The build-up to war and its rise as a credible argument should not be forgotten. The Iraq war has been referred to in the mainstream media as an invasion and the worst mistake of the US. The build-up to war is being perceived differently now, and it is unlikely that a preventative strike against Iran could even gain the P5's approval, much less that of the UN Security Council. The General Assembly is unlikely to even consider any such endeavour.

However, this points less to a disinterest in waging war, and more to a change of heart toward war tactic. UAV warfare, and the Stuxnet and Shamoon incidents are indicative of this, and these are set to increase, not decrease. The same WMD cry can be heard again, but this time it is echoing in a different way and in a different country, Iran.

Before the same rhetoric is stepped up once again, India must use its influence to nip the issue in the bud. The next ten years should not be determined by the mistake of acquiescing to the dominant rhetoric.

Sana N Ghazi, Fellow, Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, is author of the forthcoming Beyond Rhetoric and Realpolitik: Understanding Iran's Nuclear Dilemma (ORF Mumbai, 2013).

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