Lessons from 1971 for 2003

When the Iraq war began, some drew parallels with the Vietnam war, some with the Afghanistan war of 2001, some with the Gulf War of 1991. In fact the best parallel is with the 1971 Indo-Pak war. That in turn provides some sobering clues to the US on the likely post-war outcome.

The US sought regime change in Iraq in 2003. India too sought regime change in 1971, converting East Pakistan into an independent Bangladesh.

The US had no authorisation from the UN for invading Iraq, and most countries felt there was not enough cause for military force. In 1971 too, most UN members saw no reason for India to use military force to achieve the return of nine million East Bengali refugees.

Most countries saw India’s invasion as an excuse for a quite different political agenda, the break-up of Pakistan. In 2003, the USA is widely accused of using Saddam’s supposed non-compliance with a UN resolution to achieve a different political agenda. There is much truth in both accusations.

The Indian triumph in 1971 made it the dominant power in South Asia. The US victory in Iraq makes it the dominant power in that region. In 1971, Pakistani forces fortified cities en route to the capital, but Indian forces bypassed these and went straight for Dhaka. The US did the same in Iraq, bypassing cities and going straight for Baghdad.

In both cases, many Muslim countries talked of brave Muslim soldiers teaching the invader a lesson, but in both cases the war ended with little resistance within three weeks.

In 1971 India defended its invasion as being liberation of an oppressed people. The US is defending its invasion of Iraq on the same ground.

The Indian case in 1971 was surely stronger, and Indian troops surely got a warmer welcome in Bangladesh than the US did in Iraq. But there are parallels nevertheless.

Many readers may think that the 1971 war was started by Pakistan, not India. On December 3, 1971, Pakistani bombers attacked In-dian military targets, and Indian mass media declared that this started the war.

In fact Indian troops had invaded East Pakistan two weeks earlier, on November 21. The Indian invasion was widely reported in the global press, but suppressed by the tame Indian press, which toed the official Indian line that its troops had not crossed the border. Incidentally, the US press this time is also being accused of tamely toeing the official line.

No two wars are identical. There are many differences between the 1971 Indo-Pak war and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Saddam’s oppressionwas very different from that of Yahya Khan. There was no UN resolution on disarming East Pakistan, no talk of its having weapons of mass destruction, no track record of it invading a neighbour (like in Kuwait).

The Mukti Bahini had started an insurrection against the Pakistan Army in 1971, but there was no similar insurrection in Iraq.

The list can go on and on. But, despite many difference, the parallels are strong.

what lessons flow from this for the post-war scene in Iraq?

Well, take a look at Indo-Bangladeshi relations since 1971. The initial welcome and goodwill India had in Bangladesh evaporated fairly quickly. That will surely happen to the US in Iraq too.

India believed it could look forward to friendly governments in Dhaka, but soon found strongly anti-Indian governments in power. Strong anti-Indian rhetoric was voiced in every Bangladeshi election. Something similar will surely happen in Iraq too.

The Indian press declared in 1971 that the earlier hostility with Pakistan was due substantially to military dictatorship, and that the emergence of democracy in Bangladesh would replace hostility with friendship. This turned out to be rubbish, yet similar predictions are being made in the American press about Iraq.

After 1971, the liberator (to its hurt astonishment) was constantly accused by the liberated of imperial ambitions, of wanting to govern by proxy. The very fact that the liberator was so large, and the liberated country so small, made suspicion inevitable. Nor was the suspicion 100 per cent unwarranted. Ditto for the US and Iraq.

In 1971, the religious divide between the two sides was glossed over, and both claimed to be secular. But there were plenty of mullahs in Bangladesh inveighing against neo-colonial infidels posing as friends. Expect similar problems in Iraq.

After 1971, trade relations between India and Bangladesh grew fast, but produced more friction than goodwill.

Bangladeshis accused Indian traders and businessmen of exploiting their dominant position, of being cheats and hoisting sub-standard goods at high prices on captive customers. You can expect similar accusations from Iraqis against US businessmen.

The bottom line is clear. Never expect ‘‘liberated’’ people to be grateful to powerful ‘‘liberators’’ who, using military might, are actually fulfilling private agendas.

What do you think?