How India Nearly Gave in to US Pressure to Enter the Iraqi Killing Zone

In the summer of 2003, senior ministers like L.K. Advani and a number of Indian strategic commentators kept up a steady drumbeat calling for the country to send troops to help the Americans. But Vajpayee kept his cool and refused.

This article, first published in 2016, was republished on March 19, 2023, on the 20th anniversary of the US’s invasion of Iraq.

New Delhi: While the massive 12-volume Chilcot inquiry report on the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is being parsed and debated in Britain, the return of that controversial war to news headlines around the world has revived memories of India’s close brush with disaster.

While India stayed out of the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ in the months leading up to the invasion, pressure from Washington for Indian ‘boots on the ground’ started to ramp up once the occupation of Iraq began. For nearly two months, Lutyens’ Delhi was fully occupied with how to respond to Washington’s request – which would have meant deploying about 20,000 Indian soldiers in Iraq – with divergent opinions coming from influential voices both within and outside the government.

On March 20, 2003, US President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “It is with the deepest anguish that we have seen reports of the commencement of military action in Iraq,” read the first line of the foreign ministry’s official response. When the Indian parliament re-convened after its recess on April 7, one of its first acts was to pass a unanimous resolution deploring the military action and its attendant regime change:

‘Reflecting national sentiment, this House (Lok Sabha) deplores the military action by the coalition forces led by the USA against a sovereign Iraq. This military action, with a view to changing the Government of Iraq, is unacceptable. The resultant suffering of the innocent people of Iraq, especially women and children, is a matter of grave human dimension [sic]. This action without the specific sanction of the UN Security Council and is not in conformity with the UN Charter. The House, therefore, expresses profound anguish and deep sympathy for the people of Iraq.’

Forty-two days after the invasion began, Bush, on May 1, 2003, strode across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, a ‘mission accomplished’ banner hanging in the background, to announce the end of the military phase of the invasion.

Ironically, the formal (though ultimately premature) end of hostilities proclaimed by Bush was when American heat on India began to mount.

In New Delhi, Bush’s close friend Robert Blackwill was ambassador, but was nearing the end of his term. After his predecessor Richard Celeste had carefully steered ties in the post-Pokhran phase two years earlier, Blackwill had described his term as seeing a “transformation” in the India-US relationship. And he made it his mission to get India to Iraq.

In an oral history interview two years after his retirement, US diplomat Albert Thibault Jr, who was the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in India in 2003, recounted how Washington mounted a concerted campaign to keep New Delhi in the loop about the Iraq invasion:

“The administration was very keen on lining up as many other countries as possible to join us, particularly with, as they say, boots on the ground. In that regard we came very close to getting a large Indian contingent in Iraq.” 

During the Iraq war, “at Blackwill’s initiative”, Thibault held daily formal briefings for Indian government officials on the military developments. He described it as an “unprecedented step on our part, drawing from all sources including classified ones, to give them a sense of what was going on and to promote a serious dialogue between us”.

The NDA government had already gone through a trial of fire in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his ministers sticking to the position that the UN framework was the only platform to meet the concerns of the international community about weapons of mass destructions (WMDs) under the Saddam regime. “If unilateralism prevails, the UN would be deeply scarred, with disastrous consequences for the world order,” Vajpayee said in a statement to both houses of parliament on March 12. By that date, it was clear that the US, UK and their allies would go ahead with the invasion, without the UN’s blessings.

Vajpayee criticised for not backing US war

There were, of course, critical voices who attacked the NDA government for “harking back to the old consensual approach”. “It would be double dangerous now to be pushed, by entirely ignorant and non-serious politicians and a public opinion determined by touching emotion rather than cold reason, to be committed to a process of strengthening the UN, introducing new stresses on our relations with the US,” wrote Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta in an article titled ‘Unshackle, seize the moment’ in the paper’s March 15 edition.

What has the UN done for India, Gupta asked, except for “providing lucrative secondments to so many in our very bored and underpaid bureaucracy and a plethora of do-nothing multilateral postings for our foreign service?”

In the aftermath of the parliamentary resolution in April, an ‘editor’s note‘ in India Today said that through a “badly timed, badly worded resolution,” India had “lost an opportunity to be on the right side of history”.

“Ideally, in this war, India should have been the moral companion of the US. The war in Iraq, after all, was the second stage, and more decisive, of the post-9/11 war on terrorism,” the editorial said.

Push for Indian troops

In the first week of May, National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra toured the capitals of the US, UK and France. He met with US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage in France, and the US leadership – Bush, secretary of state Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice – in Washington. It was at these interactions that the US first made its request for the deployment of an Indian army division in Iraq.

Later that month, on May 25, strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan wrote in The Hindu that if Vajpayee took the “bold decision” to send troops into Iraq, his “political standing” would “dramatically” rise among the community of world leaders.

“Underlying the final decision by India to send a large force into Iraq will be the political readiness in New Delhi to exercise its military power beyond the subcontinent. An India that evades this opportunity will put out the word that it is not yet prepared to break out of the narrow South Asian political box,” Raja Mohan said.

Raja Mohan pointed out that whenever India had wanted to flex its “military muscle” in the neighbourhood, it had “never sought the cover of the United Nations”.

“The very prospect of India sending its troops into Iraq has apparently given it a voice in shaping the unanimous UN Security Council resolution on Iraq [UNSC resolution 1483]” passed in May with “quiet consultations” between New Delhi and Washington leading to the incorporation of “three of India’s concerns into the resolution”, he wrote

Divisions at the top

The interpretation of UNSC resolution 1483 – which was actually intended to address Iraq’s status now that it had been invaded and occupied – would be a key component of India’s decision-making.

Like the Left parties and the Congress, the Sangh parivar had already vocally expressed opposition to the US-led invasion and therefore supporting any move to contribute Indian troops to that war was unthinkable. “If they want to fight terrorism, they should look at Pakistan which is the epicentre of terrorism. Why Iraq, which has no proven links to international terrorism?” RSS chief K.S. Sudershan was quoted as saying in Outlook’s April 14, 2003 edition. But BJP’s top leaders were divided.

Yashwant Sinha, former finance and external affairs minister, and father of Jayant Sinha. Credit: PTI

Yashwant Sinha, former finance and external affairs minister. Credit: PTI

Speaking to The Wire, Yashwant Sinha, India’s foreign minister at that time, said Vajpayee had already made up his mind about not sending Indian troops to Iraq “quite a few weeks, if not months, before it was conveyed to the Americans”. “I knew it from well before,” he said, adding that Vajpayee’s “style was that he liked to work on the basis of consensus”.

Vajpayee invited Congress party president Sonia Gandhi for a meeting after she wrote him a letter opposing any proposal to send Indian troops to Iraq. “She came accompanied by her advisers and there was a discussion in which ideas were exchanged. Then Mr Vajpayee called a meeting of the NDA – the alliance partners – and there also the idea was discussed. Then he discussed in the cabinet. Then, in all the three meetings, the consensus that emerged was that India should not send its troops to Iraq. Finally, this was the view that was communicated to the Americans,” Sinha recounted.

Within the government, Sinha confirmed that the external affairs ministry took the view that acceding to the US request for troops “was not in India’s interest”.

In another part of South Block, however, sections in the ministry of defence were apparently more ready to take up the gauntlet.

According to Thibault, Indian and US defence officials were already in “very intense dialogue,” with defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and army chief General Eric Shinseki landing in Delhi and Indian defence minister George Fernandes going to Washington “for talks on this issue (of a large Indian contingent in Iraq)”.

“The Indian army was institutionally disposed to dispatching up to a division, as I was well aware, dealing personally with several of the senior generals,” he claimed. The US department of defence was “extremely keen to get that presence in Iraq because the Indians, unlike some other nations, represent a serious fighting force”.

Vajpayee’s doubts, Advani’s Yea

India’s concerns were spelled out in “five questions” that Vajpayee mentioned during a press conference at Lausanne on June 2.

1. Why are the Indian forces being asked for?

2. Would they be tasked with maintenance of law and order, or in the event of any potential revolt, would they be required to use force?

3. How long will our troops be required to stay?

4. What is the road-map for Iraq?

5. Under whose command would our troops function?

Within Vajpayee’s cabinet, deputy prime minister L.K. Advani was leading the camp inclined to accede to the US request. In early June, he travelled to Washington to an unusually warm welcome. Bush “dropped in” during Advani’s meeting with Rice, just as he had during Mishra’s meetings the month before. The US president also reportedly told Advani that he would do “some blunt talking with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on cross-border terrorism” when they met.

India's former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani with former US President George W. Bush and ex-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Credit: PTI

India’s former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani with former US President George W. Bush and ex-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Credit: PTI

It was during his meeting with US vice president Dick Cheney that Advani apparently gave certain positive assurances about Indian troop contribution. “He (Advani) had mentioned it to Dick Cheney who was the vice president,” Sinha told The Wire, adding that this was not Vajpayee’s view, which prevailed.

On June 16, a US state department team led by assistant secretary of state Peter Rodman arrived in Delhi to “outline the political and operational context of a possible deployment of troops by India in Iraq”.

The cabinet committee on security met twice, but deferred a decision to the cabinet.

“These issues were generally discussed at the cabinet committee on security, which is a very small body of five members. But, this issue was taken to the cabinet. That was also a deliberate move by Vajpayee. He wanted a larger body to discuss the whole thing. And in the cabinet, the overwhelming opinion was not to commit our troops,” Sinha clarified.

Mounting American pressure

In the meanwhile, the US kept up the pressure. On June 19, Blackwill said that India would be part of the “inner board of directors” that managed security in Iraq’s transition to democracy.

A question that dominated public discourse on the issue was about financing the cost of sending and maintaining 17,000 Indian troops in Iraq. “…Our view is that the nations that choose to do this will do it for their own interest and, therefore, should pay for it,” Blackwill told The Hindu.

There were some media reports that claimed the Indian army had already zeroed in on three divisions from which to pick troops to send to Iraq, with plans of transportation and deployment outlined.

“The Indian army was quite ready to go, quite prepared. They had identified the units that would be deployed and it seemed that it would happen. But as word of the dialogue between the two governments began leaking to the media, there was a counter reaction, particularly among the opposition parties and therefore in parliament, expressing reservations about this,” Thibault noted.

In line with his earlier views, India Today’s Aroon Purie was one of the prominent commentators who supported sending Indian troops to Iraq.

“True, there is risk, for post-war Iraq is yet to have a civil society; rather, it is violent and anarchic. Still, the Iraqi mess should not be the concern of the US and Britain alone. The world has a stake in Iraq, and it is not subordinated to lucrative construction projects. India, being an emerging regional power in this world, cannot – should not – run away from its responsibility. Forget American pressure, send the troops under national pressure,” read the magazine’s June 23 ‘editor’s note’.

A few days later, Financial Express editor Sanjaya Baru, who also batted for Indian military deployment, asserted that such a decision would be financially viable. He argued that it was “not about cleaning up the mess created by the United States and the coalition forces,” but about “investing in our energy security in the long run”.

“All the rhetoric about being a big power in a multipolar world will remain just that, pompous hot air, if we cannot cough up the funds required to ensure the security of our neighbourhood,” Baru wrote, calculating that the exchequer’s bill would be around an “affordable” $200 million.

New Delhi was told that Indian troops would be stationed in north Iraq – to keep peace in the Kurdish majority regions.

Baru told The Wire that he stands by his views expressed at that time, “and [will] only say that I was not in [the] government but my views were based on high-level briefing from within [the] government”.

“As you probably know the government was divided on the issue, and finally the PM took the call and gave up the idea of sending troops… As I say [in the article], I think the idea at the time was only to send troops to Kurdish areas. With hindsight we can say that sending troops would have been a bad idea, but hindsight is only available in the future!” he added.

“Underlying the final decision by India to send a large force into Iraq will be the political readiness in New Delhi to exercise its military power beyond the subcontinent. An India that evades this opportunity will put out the word that it is not yet prepared to break out of the narrow South Asian political box,” Raja Mohan said.

Back in the summer of 2003, the questions kept piling up in New Delhi – from the American timeframe of deployment of “up to a year” to the nature of the Iraqi authority to whom Indian troops would report. “Certain clarifications we have sought are simply not there, in terms of timelines, political process…there are no clear answers,” Outlook quoted a “senior diplomat” as saying on June 30.

Just as India held consultations with Iraq’s neighbours, Rajendra Abhyankar, secretary in the foreign ministry, was sent to Iraq to make a first-hand assessment – a necessity since, as the then foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal had noted, the US did not have all the answers for India and had “no roadmap”.

Abhyankar met with Jalal Talebani and Masoud Barzani, the two main Kurdish leaders.

Even as the foreign office cast a wide net to get a better sense of the impact of any direct Indian involvement, the opinion was firming up in South Block that India could not afford to get caught in the spiralling cycle of violence in Iraq.

‘Indian troops would do better than Americans’

Yet, voices advocating the dispatch of Indian troops remained – but this time relying on the argument that India would certainly be much better at managing the situation on the ground than the US-led coalition. Head of the coalition provisional authority L. Paul Bremer III had disbanded the Iraqi army on May 23, 2003, further fuelling the insurgency that had continued to simmer in pockets despite the overwhelming presence of Western troops.

Well-known author and journalist Salil Tripathi wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal on July 11, which was admittedly more nuanced than the headline – ‘Let India’s troops go to Iraq‘.

In his piece, Tripathi quoted extensively from an article in Outlook by Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar, the former commander of the UN Protection Force to the former Yugoslavia, to suggest that there was a UN umbrella under UNSC resolution 1483 to send troops.

Lt Gen (Retd) Satish Nambia. Credit: globalzero.org

Lt Gen (Retd) Satish Nambiar. Credit: globalzero.org

When The Wire contacted him about his 2003 article, Tripathi said that he hadn’t suggested “then, or now, that India should have been part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ that Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair put together”. “The piece was written in July, after Saddam’s fall, and was meant as thoughts about how India should respond to that US request,” he said.

Tripathi noted that in his article he said, “quite clearly, citing Nambiar, that India could have sent troops to the Kurdish areas (which have largely remained at peace) as peacekeepers, under the authority derived from the UN’s resolution which called upon all states to cooperate to help bring peace to Iraq. Had India done that, that would have been fine”.

Nambiar’s article, published on July 7, was widely quoted in various publications as representing a significant voice for India’s active role in Iraq. Nambiar notably began his article with an important caveat in the first line that he was totally opposed to the US’s “unilateral” military intervention.

“If anything, subsequent events and the current state of affairs in Iraq, appear to vindicate the position I then took,” Nambiar told The Wire when asked whether he had changed his stance since the publication of the article in 2003.

Nambiar said the Chilcot inquiry report vindicated his strong criticism of the US-led action. In fact, he said, it was his “unreserved and critical position” that led UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to invite him to the 16-member high-level panel to identify new global threats to security and ways for the world body to address them.

Nambiar said that his position at the time had been “based on moving ahead from the unfortunate intervention scenario, in the better interests of the Iraqi people and the region”.

“I served in Iraq as a member of a training team in the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel for a year-and-a-half in 1977-78, and had the pleasure and privilege of receiving the consideration and affection of the Iraqi people,” he said.

With the coalition dealing with the occupation “pretty ham-handedly,” Nambiar remains “convinced that had we responded positively to the US request to send troops (obviously not in order to do their bidding), many other non-Western countries like Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Syria, Pakistan, etc may well have joined in the effort to restore order in Iraq, and things would not have come to the sorry pass that prevails today. [But] “this of course remains is in the realm of speculation”.

Vajpayee pulls the plug

Rudra Chaudhuri, a scholar at Kings College, London, who had interviewed Brajesh Mishra and others for his book on India-US relations, published in 2014 as Forged in Crisis, told The Wire “there is no doubt in my mind that in the first month after the [UN’s] April resolution, his mind was wide open. He watched and learnt. And this, knowing fully well that the PM was against any form of intervention.” Chaudhuri said Vajpayee and Mishra asked C. Rangarajan, who was chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, to “draft a report on the pros and the cons” of Indian deployment. In Chaudhuri’s view, “Mishra saw this initially as a potential opportunity to cement ties with the US. However, my own research underlines that by the end of May he was increasingly convinced that Iraq was a bad idea.”

If Vajpayee and Mishra’s game plan in dealing with the Americans was to send mixed signals and create the impression that India was indeed seriously considering their request for troops, says Chaudhuri, “for Advani and Jaswant Singh it was far more straightforward: intervention is the way to go… In fact, Rumsfeld told me clearly that after the meeting with Advani in DC, the Americans had little doubt that India was on board.”

That assumption proved to be totally wrong.

The union cabinet was scheduled to meet on July 14 to take a final decision. But two days before the meeting, news of India’s decision to turn down the American request was leaked to The Hindu’s highly-regarded Delhi bureau chief, Harish Khare, who ran a front-page story on July 13, with the headline ‘India not to send troops to Iraq‘.

Speaking to The Wire, Khare, who is now the editor-in-chief of The Tribune, recalled the sequence of events.  “Vajpayee had personally told me about his decision a few weeks earlier but had asked me to wait before I did a story because senior leaders like Advani were not on board. But on July 12, Brajesh Mishra met me and repeated the PM’s view and said I was free to write about it.”

On July 14, the cabinet meeting put its stamp on the decision in a “mere 10 minutes”, Khare wrote in a story published the date after, but took 45 minutes to draft the press note. Such were the divisions at the highest levels that the government decision, released through the Press Information Bureau, had no negative phrases and did not directly turn down the US request. Instead, it said, “Were there to be an explicit UN mandate for the purpose, the Government of India could consider the deployment of our troops in Iraq”.

The decision was clearly a reflection of popular opinion. A survey by Outlook published on July 21 found that 69% of urban Indians, albeit in a small sample size, were not in favour of sending Indian troops to Iraq.

Washington may have accepted the ‘no troops for Iraq’ decision, but the government’s Indian detractors persisted. Four days after the July 14, 2003 announcement, the MEA dismissed a report by Shishir Gupta in the Indian Express that suggested the US had asked India to show its “1998 (Pokhran) guts”. The ministry also said in its statement that any suggestion “that Indian troop deployment in Iraq was linked by the U.S. to specific quid pro quos mentioned in the article, such as progress on trinity issues, reimbursement of the cost of troop deployment or recovery of Indian investments in Iraq is equally baseless and false.”

The issue would linger on and be periodically revived, if not at the government level than certainly in the media till the end of 2003.

Thirteen years on, with the families of the British soldiers killed in Iraq talking of using the Chilcot report to pursue criminal charges against Tony Blair, the Indian politicians who sought to send Indian soldiers into the Mesopotamian quagmire are probably grateful they were overruled.