Chuck Hagel and his wife Lilibet arrive at the Pentagon on Wednesday. (AP)
Washington, Feb. 27: The new US defence secretary Chuck Hagel’s comments on Afghanistan, which have created a storm in New Delhi’s tea cup, are unlikely to come in the way of a sustained and substantive engagement between him and Indian leaders.
Hagel was sworn in this morning after the US Senate voted twice on his nomination yesterday, first to remove procedural roadblocks and then formally approving his name as America’s 24th defence secretary.
New Delhi’s review of Hagel’s comments made in 2011, which initially prompted the Indian embassy here to respond cautiously, has concluded that he was essentially restating the dominant view in the Republican Party for the better part of Hagel’s time in the Senate that India’s involvement in Afghanistan was a source of concern and disquiet in Pakistan.
Nowhere in his speech did Hagel say that “India has ‘for many years’ sponsored terrorist activities against Pakistan in Afghanistan”, as alleged in a sensational report by The Washington Free Beacon, an arch conservative web newspaper here two days ago. That report was then suitably spun by some Republicans on Capitol Hill as part of a well-organised campaign to derail Hagel’s choice to lead the Pentagon.
A review of Hagel’s speech at Oklahoma’s Cameron University has shown that he said: “India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border. And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many, many years.”
BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy today described the comments attributed to Hagel as “outlandish, bizarre and baseless. BJP is concerned at the indifference of the Indian government by not reacting to Hagel. BJP demands that government of India uses its diplomatic pressure to see that Mr Chuck Hagel retracts his statement unconditionally”.
If Rudy had checked with BJP’s external affairs and defence minister Jaswant Singh in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Singh would have told Rudy that Republican President George W. Bush’s secretary of state Colin Powell had said more or less the same thing to NDA ministers when Powell visited New Delhi then.
Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Powell when he was America’s chief diplomat, has confirmed to this correspondent at a public event in Maryland that a meeting between Powell and Singh was stormy over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Besides, Bush had bestowed on Islamabad the status of “non-Nato ally” in 2004 in tacit recognition of Pakistan’s quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan. That quest, which is a source of constant competition between India and Pakistan within Afghanistan, is obviously what Hagel was referring to as a “second front” in his speech.
India was extremely miffed at that time because Powell who carried Bush’s declaration to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf did not breathe a word of Pakistan’s new status to Indian leaders during his extensive discussions in New Delhi from where he went across to Islamabad.
India’s role in Afghanistan has always been an issue between New Delhi and Washington because of Islamabad’s sensitivities, which is essentially what Hagel was referring to in his speech. That did not change even in the second term of Bush.
However, after several international donor conferences and clear evidence of the efficacy of New Delhi’s development assistance to Kabul, Washington came to appreciate India’s worth for President Hamid Karzai’s fragile government. It has since paid compliments to Indian economic assistance for Afghanistan.
However, the late Richard Holbrooke, who was the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the first Obama administration, was prickly about India’s role in Afghanistan. In private, he was much more harsh on India than anything Hagel said, according to those privy to Holbrooke’s conversations.
India’s proposal for trilateral engagement among itself, the US and Afghanistan was vehemently opposed by Marc Grossman, who became Holbrooke’s successor in 2011. However, lately the Americans have come to accept geographic realities over diplomatic fantasies and an agreement on trilateral consultations, which began last year was a concession to realpolitik in South Asia.
Given this history of Indian involvement in Afghanistan and the US attitude to it, Hagel’s comments two years ago will be little more than a storm in teacup. All the same, India may pretend to have a grievance against Hagel because it will give New Delhi’s diplomats some advantage in bargaining with the Pentagon as an ostensibly aggrieved partner who has been accused wrongly on Afghanistan.