There are interventions and then there are perilous interventions. As the world tackles growing fundamentalism and non-state actors, nations are increasingly debating deploying their militaries to take on the new threats. But each intervention comes with a baggage of unpredictable consequences that have led to the creation of new wars and conflicts.

Sitting at the high table of the UN Security Council, former Indian diplomat Ambassador Hardeep Puri had a view of the many discussions that took place among the great powers planning to make “perilous interventions” across the globe. His book, Perilous Interventions – The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos, documents some of the conflicts that continues to dog international peace.

Manipulation by big powers

Ambassador Puri, who served as the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in New York, when India was appointed as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, had a ringside view of these events. In this chair he witnessed how crucial decisions like the intervention in Libya changed from a limited engagement to a full-fledged plan for overthrowing the Gaddafi regime. Obviously, this led to some sharp exchanges between diplomats.

During one such exchange in April 2011, the US representative, Mark Lyall Grant, accused Puri of “playing Aunt Sally”, claiming that no one was arming the rebels. Puri writes:

“Without hesitation I asked for the floor and said that without wishing to comment on who Aunt Sally was, there were clear indications that the rebel groups were being armed in violation of Security Council resolutions. Also, the arming was taking place without due diligence. I also made a passing reference to the Special Forces of some Council members who were guiding operations on ground”.

As Puri records, while some council members were diluting the UN resolutions, some were also actively deploying forces on the ground to start a war that would have many unintended consequences. Puri points out that many Council members would not have backed the resolution that was eventually used to start military operations, “if members of the Council had known the Security Council’s authorisation would be used in a selective manner only for military action, ignoring other provisions”. What also shocked many members was that a provision for “protecting civilians” was used for regime change in Libya.

Misadventure in Sri Lanka

Puri also turns his gaze closer home as he delves into his past as a diplomat witnessing India’s intervention in Sri Lanka. A rare picture of a much younger Puri shows him holding up the file as the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord with President JR Jayewardene on July 27, 1987, which led to independent India’s major military intervention in a foreign country.

Puri is clear that the intervention had several unintended consequences, and points out that Gandhi’s decision to send in the Indian Army, in hindsight, was “perceived as a high level policy failure”. He is also critical that different arms of the government were working at cross purposes – India’s external intelligence agency R&AW was arming and training the LTTE while the Indian army was preparing to fight them.

Puri points out that assessments that led to the decision were also based on faulty assumptions. “These assessments need to be revisited to see if they were anchored in realism or whether they were flawed,” he writes. However, he does defend Gandhi’s decision to send in the IPKF and points out that the “considerable criticism” was “mostly uninformed and unfounded about Rajiv Gandhi’s motivation”. However, the assessments provided to the Prime Minister by the then R&AW Chief and the Indian Army Chief were based on “too many assumptions”.

Throughout his book Puri strikes a cautionary tone, pointing out that military interventions lead to far more complexities – as was witnessed in Syria, where a covert attempt at regime change led to the birth of the ISIS. He warns that “…under the pretext of fighting violent extremism, human rights and fundamental freedoms tend to be sacrificed on the altar of pyrrhic stability”.

Perilous Interventions – The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos, Hardeep Singh Puri, Harper Collins.