Global Eye

Between rock and a hard place

The country has not learnt lessons in crisis management from the hijack of Indian airlines to Kandahar and intermittent attacks on Indian establishments in Afghanistan. Despite the government’s relative success in ferrying out the 46 Indian nurses trapped in a Tikrit hospital, there are thousands who are stranded in the conflict-torn Iraq. That the evacuation process took more than a week to unfold shows the unpreparedness of Indian government to meet such emergency, making it difficult to bail out its nationals trapped in conflict zones around the world, but especially the Gulf region.

It is about a month ago fighting broke out between the Iraqi forces and the Sunni terrorists and insurgents under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/al-Shams (ISIS) on 7 June in the second largest city, Mosul that subsequently spread to other areas, resulting in a large chunk of central part of the country falling in the hands of ISIS. But the concern here is the fate of over hundred Indians in this conflict zone.

Frantic calls from the kith and kin of these trapped non-resident Indians (NRIs) came pouring in from Punjab and Kerala. The chief ministers of these two states called up the PMO and the External Affairs Ministry. The Government convened meetings of the crisis management group. PM Narendra Modi chaired a meeting of senior ministers and officials including the home minister, external affairs minister, national security advisor, cabinet secretary, home secretary, heads of intelligence agencies and senior foreign service officials.

The former Indian Ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy, who returned to Delhi and was awaiting his next posting, was sent back to Baghdad to reinforce embassy’s abilities in this crisis situation. The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj convened separate meetings of Indian ambassadors to Gulf countries and ambassadors to Gulf countries in India.

These are, however, the routine options that the government could undertake. Even after getting assurance of help from the Iraqi government and Iraq’s neighbours, nothing substantial has been done to rescue the trapped Indians. Initially the government did not have the knowledge of the whereabouts of Indians in Iraq. After the fall of Mosul, it was a humanitarian agency, International Red Crescent that informed that 40 Indian workers of Tariq Noor al-Huda construction company was taken into captivity, alongwith other nationals working there.

The Iraqi government later confirmed this news. But the location to which these 40 Indians were moved were unknown to International Red Crescent and Iraqi government, till one of the captive escaped and took refuge in the Indian Embassy. As per reports the Indian workers remain unharmed.

Indian Embassy contacted International Red Crescent to find out the fate 46 Indian nurses from Kerala trapped in a hospital in Tikrit. The International Red Crescent reported that the nurses were safe and there were sufficient food stock and power supply in the hospital. But about 14 nurses expressed their desire to return home.

Apart from 40 Indian workers and 46 nurses, the Indian government has no details about other Indians in the conflict zone. The government estimates the presence of over 150 Indians in the conflict zone. The government has been able to evacuate 34 Indians in two batches of 17 each and two other nurses in the first lot. Amidst reports of the nurses getting injured and captured by ISIS militants, negotiations between the MEA and the Indian Embassy in Baghdad kept the hope alive. Finally, reports started trickling in on how the nurses were moved out of Tikrit hospital and transferred to another location in Mosul. On Friday, 4 July, MEA confirmed the nurses were safe and that they would be flown back home by a specially arranged Air India plane from Ebril.

Yet some were still left back. Among these were 8 Indians working in Baiji and 8 others working in Lanco project in Anbar. The ISIS had not claimed any ransom for 40 workers and 46 nurses in their captivity. The possible reason for this may be that they have enough resources after the loot of banks in Mosul and capture of a refinery. It was not ascertained if they may be waiting to strike for some other bargain, political in nature.

Lack of real time intelligence and strategy has come in the way of timely evacuation. Evacuation by roads from the conflict zone has become a difficult task. This can only be possible by covert operations by Special Operation Forces (SOF) which India has not deployed in Iraq. Not only that we failed to reopen the Defence Wing in our Embassy in Iraq after the US invasion of that country.
After the Chinese aggression of 1962, Special Frontier Force was set up and was deployed during the 1971 war with Pakistan and conflict in Kargil in 1999. In the Army, the initiative of raising a commando unit was taken in 1965 by Major Megh Singh with the blessings of the then Western Army Commander. Over the years, a host of Special Forces have come up in India. Apart from routine UN missions, the only time India used Special Forces abroad was the three Special Forces units as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.

The combined strength of our Special Forces is around 20,000, much more than the uniformed strength of US Special Forces (currently 15,000) but not one tenth their capabilities. With a view to streamline the strategy of the Special Forces, the Naresh Chandra Committee has recommended the setting up of a Special Forces Command of tri-services. Apart from the Special Frontier Force, all other military SOF units including all elements of the NSG, other than the Special Ranger Groups (SRG), can be placed under this tri-service headquarters. Their selection and training can, however, continue to be organised at the NSG Training Centre at Manesar.

The SRGs should be located regionally so that they are able to respond and provide the outer cordon within an acceptable timeframe. However, Naresh Chandra Committee report has still not been implemented. However, creating such covert capabilities within the Indian military SOF, as has been suggested by some, would be an error not only because it is not permitted by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 that clearly specifies the manner in which regular armed forces must operate, but also because of the adverse impact that will be generated if such personnel are apprehended and subsequently disowned by the state.

Historically, Indian Special Forces have been used for direct action type of roles during conventional wars. There is no concept of them being used abroad other than in conventional war. However during 1991 Iraq crisis, the government could evacuate 1,40,000 Indians, despite Baghdad and Kuwait airport remained closed. The banks in Kuwait were closed and the evacuees did not have foreign exchange. The evacuees were brought to Amman and Saudi Arabia for flying back to India. But this time even though the airports at Irbil, Baghdad, Najaf and Basra are open to normal commercial traffic, the evacuation has been difficult.

The government has estimated presence of about 10,000 Indians all over Iraq, out of which 150 plus in the conflict zone. There are approximately 12 major companies were Indians are working mostly located in southern Iraq, out of the conflict zone. About 2,000 to 2,500 Indians are employed in a company in Najaf.

There are smaller number of Indians in Kirkuk and a large number of Indians in Basra, about 500 km south of Bagdad. Some of these have expressed their desire to leave and to facilitate their return Indian Embassy has set camp offices in Najaf, Karbala and Basra and a mobile office moving round Baghdad. So far about 500 Indians have left this non-conflict zone. Evacuation from this non-conflict zone is slow due to lack of proper documentation and sorting out contractual arrangements with employers.

The problem is not evacuation from the safe zone, but from the conflict zone. Evacuation from the conflict zone needs help from humanitarian agencies, Iraqi government, diplomatic manoeuvres with the captors and tactical and covert operations by the Special Operation Forces, if necessary.
It is high time India develops its capabilities of its tri-services Special Operation Forces and bring them under a separate unified command as per the recommendations of the Naresh Chandra panel and deploy them incognito in other parts of the world where Indian assets and people are there like US, UK, Israel, China have done. The successful operation of US Special Operation Forces in hounding Osama bin Laden is case in the point.
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