Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
August 21, 2009


QUESTION: So I wanted to ask you a little bit about how – the Secretary was just there, and she’s really trying to enter into a new relationship with India – how that’s working. The nuclear deal moved ahead from that. Maybe I’ll tell you my questions, since we have a little bit of time, in terms of how the India-Pakistan ties are working. Are you managing to make any headway on that, to try and improve the ties there? And then I’ll go on to the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba [LeT] and those issues.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Okay, great.

Well, first of all, on the India front, I think the purpose of the Secretary’s trip was to show that India is going to be a strategic priority for the Obama Administration, and to push back on the notion that somehow India is not going to be as important now that we’re putting so much of a priority on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think the Secretary very successfully conveyed the message that India is going to be one of our most important partners in the 21st century, and that that partnership is really not just at the government-to-government level, but at the people-to-people level, and that increasingly, the role of our two governments in these dialogues that were established is to remove obstacles that get in the way of these wider developments; let’s say, exchanges between academics and students. Every field of endeavor, really, is touched now in our bilateral cooperation.

And interestingly, our cooperation between India and the United States is less and less about resolving old irritants, and more and more about seizing new opportunities.

QUESTION: So it’s less about Kashmir --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes, but also irritants, like nonproliferation and things like that. For many years, we had a very difficult dialogue on nonproliferation issues, to take one example. But also, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on many multilateral issues as well. And I think the civil nuclear agreement really marked a sea change in that respect. And since that agreement, we really do see opportunities to work together across the board, and not least because of the Indian elections, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has taken office for a new term. And importantly, they don’t have unhelpful allies in their coalition anymore. So they have a greater flexibility.

QUESTION: That was – that was a big problem with the civil nuclear deal.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah, exactly. So they have a greater flexibility now and freedom, really, to pursue the policies that they think are right. The Prime Minister, as you know, in the later stages of his last government, really staked his government on relations with the United States and on the civil nuclear deal. So he is also personally committed to this relationship, and we really welcome that.

So we’re going to look to not only cooperate on the bilateral front, but also on the multilateral front where, again, I think India recognizes the importance of working with the United States and many other countries to be a part of solutions on things like climate change and nonproliferation and WTO. And we see a welcome new change of attitude on the part of the Indians, and we really look forward to working with them on these issues.

QUESTION: On climate change, there were a few uncomfortable moments in the Secretary’s trip. Are you managing to narrow some of those differences on climate change with the Indians?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I think that the press reports really exaggerated the differences. There were very constructive talks that took place not only between the Secretary and her counterparts, but also –

QUESTION: With Todd Stern.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: -- with Todd Stern when he stayed on for a day afterwards. And I think that both the Secretary and Todd came away with the clear impression that India, as I said earlier, wants to be part of the solution.

And indeed, they’re already taking a number of steps, both on the mitigation side and on the adaptation side, to reduce their emissions. And that’s really the goal of ours. We were quite clear that we’re not seeking a cap on India’s emissions. We’re seeking to slow the rate of growth of emissions. And as I said, India is already taking those steps.

So we think that there is much more that unites us than divides us, and we do believe that there is scope for India to be a part of the solution. And India has said as much to us.

QUESTION: And what about the India-Pakistan relations, and the dialogue which, despite the fact that the two leaders met in Sharm el-Sheikh -- that hasn’t really resumed properly yet? Are you hoping that there’s going to be a – there’ll be a resumption of those peace – sort of peace talks, and that there will be some movement there? Or –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I don’t want to minimize the importance of dialogue.

QUESTION: No.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: There havebeen a very large number of meetings that have taken place at the foreign secretary level, at the minister level, between the prime ministers, and I think all of those have been very important meetings. The most important, of course, was this meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh in mid-July. I’ve seen since reports that they plan to have meetings at the UN General Assembly. And they continue to exchange information and to talk to each other about, for example, the dossier on Hafiz Saeed, the head of LeT. They continue to exchange information about the prosecution of the five Mumbai suspects that are in custody in Pakistan.

So I think that there’s a healthy dialogue going on. And what, in the first instance, needs to be done is for Pakistan to proceed with prosecuting these suspects that are in custody, and then also for Pakistan to take steps to ensure that its territory will not be used as a platform to attack India or the United States or Afghanistan or any other country.

One of the things that Ambassador Holbrooke and the Secretary have consistently stressed is that for the first time in many years, we and India and Pakistan all have a common enemy. And that’s, I think, a very important fact, and I think the governments all understand that. So if Pakistan takes the steps that I just outlined, I think that will really open the way for India to reach out in a significant way, by, for example, resuming some of the steps that they had undertaken in the famous Composite Dialogue between 2004 and 2007, and, for example, resuming things like trade and bus service and train service and all these other important things that are not only symbolic, but also have real practical value.

And trade, obviously, is, I think, the notable example of where there are tremendous opportunities. Bilateral trade is only about $2 billion. And for economies of those size, that’s really quite small and insignificant. If some of the barriers could be lowered to trade, I think there are major opportunities to increase employment on both sides, which would have a direct effect on some of the counterterrorism efforts.

QUESTION: Do you have – I mean, you said that Pakistan needs to do more or needs to show that it’s doing more, are you getting the sense that they are really committed in terms of preventing another kind of attack like the Mumbai attacks, the Indian – I think it was the prime minister yesterday, or this week, said that he believed that more attacks were being planned from Pakistani soil on India?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think the Indians have walked that back a little bit, the statement about immediate attacks being planned and things like that. But nonetheless, I think it’s important for Pakistan to show that and to show that they really are taking steps at all levels, not just against the militants that are based in Swat and so forth. And I think the government – the Pakistani Government is committed to do so. So it’s just a matter of carrying out those steps and you shouldn’t minimize the challenges.

QUESTION: But you think so far that they’re showing good and sort of commitment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They are. I think we’ve been very encouraged by the steps that the government has taken in Swat, also the beginnings of efforts in South Waziristan, the death of Baitullah Mehsud certainly marks a major step forward.

QUESTION: It was with a bit of U.S. help, though, I believe.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well --

QUESTION: The President has said that so – some people are allowed to say it now --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: But nonetheless, I think what’s important is that these steps are occurring and they enjoy the support of the Pakistani people. Recent polling shows that there is increased support for these efforts against the militants, and I think that will provide the basis for continued efforts, and that’s very, very important. And so we’re encouraged by the progress so far and just hope that it can continue.

QUESTION: What about the issue of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba guy who was free? He still hasn’t been, as far as I know, he was on vacation for a bit, but he – and I was in Africa with the Secretary – presently he has not been rearrested? In terms of confidence-building measures, is that something that you think the Pakistanis should do? And it’s – I know that they have an --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- judicial process, but that really didn’t show a great willingness on the side of the Pakistanis and it invoked a lot of anger on the part of –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.

QUESTION: -- the Indians.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think the – I just saw a press report just now that they’re exchanging yet another --

QUESTION: And more information –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: -- dossier on that, and so that the Indians can provide information that would – could provide the basis for Pakistanis to prosecute – to arrest him and then, hopefully, prosecute him. So that’s a good step. The Pakistanis have consistently said they don’t have enough evidence to hold him. And so whatever evidence that the Indians can provide, I think, would be very welcome.

QUESTION: And how helpful are the Indians being in Afghanistan? I mean, they’ve played quite a big role in terms of –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Very helpful.

QUESTION: -- investment. They’ve been extraordinarily –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. India has given a total of $1.2 billion in assistance there and have played a really very important role in, for example, developing infrastructure and electricity and many other projects, in virtually every part of Afghanistan. So we very much welcome the steps that they’ve taken there.

QUESTION: In terms of Afghanistan and Pakistan, when the two the leaders met, they discussed signing a transit agreement which is going to be in September. Is that something that you’re dealing with in your capacity?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, it’s really Ambassador Holbrooke.

QUESTION: That’s really Ambassador Holbrooke’s.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: Okay. So I won’t –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: -- bother you with that question.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: But those talks are ongoing, and I think we’re encouraged by the progress so far, and --

QUESTION: With – just to flip back to England quickly, are there – what about the Kashmir issue? What’s happening there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: In terms of negotiations, you mean?

QUESTION: Yes. This didn’t come up during the Secretary’s visit as far as I can --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- understand. I mean, you were looking at, you know, nuclear security, the nuclear sites. You were looking at a bit of climate change, a little bit of Pakistan –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right, right.

QUESTION: But Kashmir, for some reason, was –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, first of all, Kashmir’s really not our issue. It’s really for the two of them --

QUESTION: Why not?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: -- to decide. Secondly, it’s a very touchy issue, of course. And it will be an issue that the two of them will deal with, I think, down the line. At first, they’re going to have to start the progress on the counterterrorism issues that I already discussed.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: If that happens, then that will enable, I think, wider cooperation on some of these confidence-building measures that were undertaken under the composite dialogue. And if those, I think, succeed, then there may be scope to begin to discuss some of these territorial issues. But again, even there, I don’t think that they would begin by discussing Kashmir. That’s probably the most contentious and difficult, in many ways. There are other ones like the famous Sir Creek and Siachen Glacier and things like that where, again, the negotiators in the 2004 to 2007 time period came close to reaching an agreement. And so if both sides agree to take up where they left off, then they could be relatively close to reaching agreement on those. And again, I think the progress on those would, in turn, be a confidence-building measure for the ultimate one, which is the Kashmir talks.

Both sides got quite a long way on Kashmiri. But I really want to stress these were things that were done by the Indians and the Pakistanis themselves. And I was stationed in India at the time and they made really commendable progress.

QUESTION: Anything else on India that we should be looking at, that we’re not looking at, that you’re involved in? They’re at the IAEA now discussing how to proceed. And --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The only other thing is just we’re actively involved preparing for Prime Minister Singh’s visit here on November 24th. That will be the first state visit by a foreign leader in the Obama administration; therefore, a very important step and a very important signal. And so very active efforts are underway now to try to get all of these dialogues going and to see what kind of deliverables can be arranged by that time.

QUESTION: So what sort of deliverables do you think –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I don’t want to speculate on that. It’s still a little early. But so --

QUESTION: Is the Secretary going to go back to India beforehand? I mean, she is to go to Pakistan – she’s already said she’s going to Pakistan in the fall. Does she plan on tacking that on?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think her travel will be determined a little bit by the outcome of these elections. If the – one of the candidates achieves a majority –

QUESTION: Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: – then the election results can be announced relatively soon, and then that would enable her to make a trip out there relatively soon in the fall. If, on the other hand, there’s a runoff, that would considerably lengthen the process and --

QUESTION: And that would be October 2 or something, I think if –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know the exact timeframe of that.

QUESTION: So are you involved in that at all, or do you just –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not really.

QUESTION: – do you just go – click forward and pass it to Ambassador Holbrooke?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I follow it pretty closely because all of the countries in South Asia and Central Asia have important interests in what goes on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so I do work very closely with Ambassador Holbrooke. And his deputy Paul Jones is a deputy assistant secretary in our bureau in South and Central Asia. And many of the desks are still in the SCA Bureau. So we have kind of a joint management of this, yeah.

QUESTION: Right. So is that working well, that you’ve –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It is.

QUESTION: Yeah.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Because I think we’re all friends and we all work together productively. And so really, there haven’t been any problems at all.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just to flip to Sri Lanka, which I know is –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Please.

QUESTION: -- where you were last. And then you’re going to have to – the reconciliation process, so you’ve been pushing for that quite hard. Are you getting any indication that the government is interested in reconciling, especially with the Tamils following the end of that conflict? Are picking up any good signs there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think the government has expressed its intent to undertake these steps, but hasn’t yet outlined precisely what those would be – whether they would come in the form of constitutional changes of some sort, whether it would be implementation of the 13th amendment, or other steps. What we’ve encouraged is both a dialogue with Tamils and with other communities that have a stake in this, both inside the country and outside the country because, frankly, that Tamil Diaspora is very, very important. And they in the past have given a lot of money to the LTTE. If the government can come forward with a truly credible plan that will provide for devolution and power sharing, I think that would be very helpful to helping to persuade Tamils in the United States and Australia and Canada and everywhere else around the world that they should help to fund the reconstruction process in the north, because the needs will be tremendous there, but it will be up to the government to really persuade them that it has taken the steps to show that it’s really committed to this reconciliation process.

QUESTION: So do you think it’s --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: And it includes not just the kind of political steps, but also, frankly, steps on human rights, because that has also been a concern. And Tamils have been affected more than most by some of the human rights problems.

QUESTION: And also there’s this problem with people who are still in the so-called all safe zones who have not been – I mean, there’s still a problem with displaced persons who are not able to leave and there’s, of course, the demining –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Oh, yeah, in the camps.

QUESTION: – in the camps.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes, uh-huh.

QUESTION: Are you seeing anything? Are you still asking –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I have to say, there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes that most people aren’t aware of, so the donors have a very active conversation with the Ministry of Resettlement, with other members of that government. So there are active efforts underway by the government in consultation and often in coordination with the donors, since we’re helping to fund a lot of this stuff to get that resettlement process going. There’s been some small numbers, a little bit more than 10,000. But the government has told us that they hoped to get much larger numbers in the next two months resettled before the monsoon rains really come in earnest. As you know, there’s already been some rains that have taken place. And so I think that those rains underline the importance of quick action to try to get as many people as possible resettled before the end of September.

QUESTION: You think they’ve been a bit slow on the uptake on that? You think they should quicken up the pace?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We do. We hope that that could take place, because again I think that would reassure the Tamils and Muslims and others that the government is committed to doing this. And really, it would just fulfill their own commitments which they’ve made.

QUESTION: Okay, well, thanks so much for making the time. I really appreciate it.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure. Nice to see you. Okay.

QUESTION: Yes, you too.

[This is a mobile copy of Interview with Reuters]