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Blackwill leaves in war cloud over relations

New Delhi, April 21: Robert Blackwill, the “pro-Indian” US ambassador to Delhi, is believed to have been asked to return home by the George W. Bush administration following differences with the state department over America’s policy on South Asia.

Blackwill leaves after two years in the post at a time when Indo-US relations are seen to be under strain over the Indian leadership’s public criticism of the war in Iraq.

Attempting to play down the development, Blackwill said he resigned to return “to continue his academic career” at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University. He also referred to family compulsions.

An embassy spokesman said political appointees hold office till the pleasure of the President unless he chooses to resign. It is not correct to say that the ambassador has been recalled, he added.

Blackwill had succeeded Richard Celeste, a political appointee of former President Bill Clinton, after the inauguration of President Bush in 2001.

Blackwill’s adviser Ashley Telis, a man widely believed to have played a key role in helping shape many of the ambassador’s policies here, is also going back to the US this summer.

Though the date of Blackwill’s departure has not yet been given, indications are he will leave in August and return to Harvard in September.

To ensure that his exit is not linked to perceived strains in Indo-US relations over Iraq, Blackwill made it clear that he had told Bush and other senior members of his administration about his decision to return to an academic career in January.

“In my view, close and cooperative relations between the United States and India will thrive in the decades ahead, most crucially because of convergence of common democratic values and vital national interests,” Blackwill said in a statement this morning.

“The US-India relationship has a glittering future,” he added.

But not everyone shares his optimism. Though it may not be admitted by the Indian leadership in public, many South Block mandarins feel that secretary of state Colin Powell and his deputies will now play a stronger role in formulating US policy on South Asia. Powell believes the India-Pakistan tension over Kashmir deserves US attention as it can be a flashpoint for a nuclear conflagration.

Once Blackwill’s successor is announced, Delhi will have a better idea of Washington’s mind, but the current ambassador’s imminent departure has caused disappointment in the corridors of power here. Blackwill had developed a close relationship with deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani but not at the cost of ties with the Prime Minister’s Office.

The announcement has triggered much speculation about his political future. He is now 64, and may retire from Harvard University after a year. He is then slated to join the Bush administration holding a much “higher office”.

Some feel he may initially join national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a close friend, as her deputy. There is a possibility that Rice may be appointed Vice-President in place of Dick Cheney who is keeping indifferent health. If that happens, Blackwill may even become the national security adviser.

Blackwill’s biggest advantage was his access to the White House through Rice, a privilege few US ambassadors enjoy. Even if his successor has a soft corner for India, he may not be able to translate that into American policy.

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