Intro: To rescue Indian citizens kidnapped by ISIS from conflict zone in Mosul, the Indian government should utilise its Special Operation Forces, if necessary.
The clashes between the Iraqi forces and the Sunni terrorists and insurgents under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), beginning June 7, in the second largest city of Northern Iraq, Mosul has resulted in a large chunk of central part of the country to fall in the hands of ISIS. The ideological and theological crisis caused by radical Islamists is a cause of worry, but the future of Indian workers in this conflict zone has become a larger cause of worry for the BJP-led government.
As Iraq continues to fall apart, India's hope to get back its 39 kidnapped citizens unharmed is pinned on external military support to ward off the marauding Al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni outfit ISIS.
Frantic calls from the kith and kin of these trapped non-resident Indians (NRIs) and Kerala came pouring in from Punjab and Kerala. The chief ministers of these two states have contacted the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and External Affairs Ministry. The BJP-led Government has been holding meetings to meet the humanitarian crisis. Prime Minister 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, External Affairs 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 the crisis. The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has at her end convened separate meetings with Indian ambassadors to Gulf countries and ambassadors to Gulf countries in India.
The government has estimated the presence of about 10,000 Indians all over Iraq, out of which 150 plus according to them are in conflict zone. About 2,000 to 2500 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. 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 conflict zone has been slow due to documentation process, and to expedite the process other than help from humanitarian agencies, Iraqi government, including diplomatic manoeuvres, the Indian government requires covert operations by the Special Operation Forces, if necessary.
It is high time India develops 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.
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 is not even one tenth of their capabilities.
Apart from routine UN missions, the only time India used Special Forces abroad was as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. But there is no concept of them being used abroad other than in conventional war. 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.
During 1991Iraq crisis, the government could evacuate 140,000 Indians, despite Baghdad and Kuwait airport remained closed. This time even though the airports at Irbil, Baghdad, Najaf and Basra are open to normal commercial traffic, the evacuation has been difficult. It seems the government has not learnt the necessary lessons for management crisis from the Kandhar hijacking in 1999.
-Ashok B Sharma