Thursday, 6 November 2014

Bringing back the hostages from Iraq

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj with Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal addressing the media after meeting family members of Indian men who went missing in Iraq, in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo: V. Sudershan
The Hindu Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj with Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal addressing the media after meeting family members of Indian men who went missing in Iraq, in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo: V. Sudershan

India should have mounted a multi-agency effort to free the men abducted by the Islamic State; but the national security establishment has curiously taken a back-seat in this crisis

It is nearly six months since 40 men, mainly from Punjab and some from other parts of North India, working in construction sites in Iraq, were abducted by the Islamic State (IS). On Tuesday, their families met Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj who assured them that the government had information that the men were still alive, and that efforts were on to free them.
They were the first Indians to be captured by the IS, a few days before the nurses from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The nurses’ ordeal ended quickly: they were bussed to Mosul and released, all within a matter of 48 hours.
The swiftness with which the nurses came back home had raised hopes that the release of the men would also be secured quickly. The Punjab government and the Opposition came under pressure, and were compared unfavourably with Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who camped in Delhi until the women were released.
Special Envoy’s role

Within a day of the men being seized in mid-June, India sent a Special Envoy to Iraq, a senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), who had weeks earlier relinquished charge as the Indian Ambassador to that country. The diplomat, Suresh Reddy, played a critical role in bringing the nurses’ saga to an end, directly establishing contact with the captors and negotiating with them for the release.
But unlike in that episode, there has been no direct communication with the militants who seized the men. According to Sushma Swaraj, second-hand information through “other sources” indicated that the men are alive, and being put forcibly to work by their captors.
In September, Turkey managed to secure the release of 49 of its nationals. As revealed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the operation was led by its intelligence agency Milli Ìstihbarat Teºkilatı (MÌT) working in close coordination with the Turkish foreign ministry and supported by its military. According to reports, MÌT used both human intelligence and unmanned drones to track the Turkish hostages as they were moved from place to place in the two months that they were held captive.
With its widespread and overlapping contacts in the region, MÌT struck a swap deal with IS and in return for the hostages — the Turkish consul in Mosul, diplomats, special forces police, children and three Iraqis — the Turkish government arranged for the release of as many as 180 IS militants captured by Syrian rebel groups. Among the prisoners released, as reported by the Turkish paper Hurriyet, were the wife and children of IS leader Haji Bakr, who was killed in Aleppo in Syria in January. They were being held by Liwa al-Tawhid, a Syrian rebel group, with which Turkey has close connections.
Reports of the exchange caused uproar in the international community. The government did not officially confirm it, but President Erdogan dropped enough hints that this is how the release was secured. He said all he cared about was that Turkey had safely brought back its citizens. He also pointed out that Israel had secured the release of one hostage in return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, a reference to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 after five years in captivity in Gaza.
Earlier, Turkey had managed to have 30 Turkish truck drivers released after they were taken captive by the IS in Mosul in June. IS let them go in July.
India has few resources on the ground in Iraq, having re-established its diplomatic presence in Baghdad at the level of ambassador only three years ago, nearly a decade after it wound down the mission to the barest minimum in 2003 when the U.S. invasion began. It has some leftover goodwill from the Saddam-era, but not the connections that Turkey commands in the fast-changing region. The sensible course would have been for India to tie up its efforts with Turkey’s intelligence-led operation. But that needed a more proactive and nimble response from the Indian security establishment.
Unlike the Turkish efforts, India’s rescue mission is led by the MEA, through a single senior diplomat based in Erbil. Mr. Reddy is a seasoned diplomat with years of postings to Islamic countries, and is among a handful of Indians knowledgeable about post-Saddam Iraq. Still, the hostage crisis demanded nothing less than a coordinated multi-agency effort such as the one Turkey mounted.
But the national security establishment, which should have played a leading role in the effort, has curiously taken a back-seat in this crisis. The MEA seems to be all alone in trying to grapple with it. Not surprisingly, in August, Ms. Swaraj told Parliament that her hopes for the release of the men were pinned on an “Eid gift” from the IS. On Tuesday, she even told the families that the government would try to mine the Congress party’s contacts in the region.
Change in IS’ character

November in Iraq is not June. From all accounts, the character of IS has itself undergone a change with hundreds of hardened foreign fighters joining its ranks in the last four months. The men who freed the nurses were Iraqis, and according to those familiar with the negotiations for the release, were not entirely without a measure of the goodwill that all Iraqis have for India. It is quite different now. There is no contact with the captors. The IS has made no ransom demands in return for the men; India does not have a prisoner swap deal to offer. The Special Envoy is indefinitely camping in Erbil, the Kurdish capital and the town closest to Mosul, the IS capital. Ms. Swaraj has said that another MEA official will be sent to assist him. Their efforts may yet pay off and the hostages might return home safely.
But with tens of thousands of Indians still working in the region in its multiple flashpoints, and many still prepared to go there for the higher wages they will earn in those places, there is no saying when such a crisis might recur. After all, notwithstanding the initial flurry toward an evacuation from Iraq, it was quickly realised that not all Indians want to leave that country. What is required is a full-fledged security policy based on the emerging situation in West Asia, including a set of responses and options that would be available to New Delhi in a humanitarian crisis; and, for the national security establishment to actively build connections with the influential players in the region. There is no time to lose.