Interview With Sahasini Haidar, CNN-IBN
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Ms. Haidar: U.S. Assistant Secretary Robert Blake, thanks so much for joining us.
You’re of course here as an observer for the SAARC Summit, but at least three of the countries in SAARC are countries you’re very intensely engaged with right now -- India, U.S. and Pakistan -- and yet there’s a sense in New Delhi that the two countries are no longer on the same page as they used to be. Whether it’s a question of delays in the nuclear deal; whether it’s a question of India’s role, differences of India’s role in Afghanistan; or just the access to Lashkar operative David Coleman Headley. There’s a sense that the two countries are on a slide, they’re drifting apart.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I wouldn’t say that that’s true at all. I think we’re working as closely as we ever have. The President’s decision to invite Prime Minister Singh as his first state visitor of the Obama administration was one sign of that. Another sign was the strategic dialogue that we have started, and we’ll soon have the first meeting of. We are working very closely together on Afghanistan, consulting very closely. The nuclear deal is moving ahead. We’ve just had the reprocessing agreement. We’re now looking forward to the passage of the Nuclear Liability Bill. We’ve just had a major defense sale of C-17s. So I think on every single front there’s a lot of progress. We, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense and many many other Secretaries are very personally involved in working with India and very much value our relations with India.
On Afghanistan, again, we value very much the reconstruction assistance that India has provided. We know that India has security concerns which we share. We also know that India’s following very closely the reconciliation process, and that’s important to both of us. I think it’s important to both of us that that process be led by the Afghans themselves. Indeed I think President Karzai is planning several very important jirgas in the next several months to really follow this process through.
Ms. Haidar: Let me just start with perhaps the latest of the issues between the two countries and that is the access to David Coleman Headley. In November U.S. President Obama met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They discussed it at that very highest level, talking about access. Yet five months later we still see no real movement. Indian officials have not been able to get anywhere near David Headley. What really is stopping that right now?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s just negotiations are ongoing, but I don’t think there’s any political problems at all. We’re working at the very highest levels in a very cooperative fashion between, for example, our Attorney General and the Home Minister. So this is just a matter of working out the modalities. It’s not a government to government thing. Mr. Headley’s lawyers are involved in this, so we obviously have to have his agreement before we move forward with this. So there are some things that have to be worked out. But I’m confident that they will be worked out.
Ms. Haidar: It’s not a question of if but when India will --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I can’t predict anything for sure. But I think there’s will on both sides. We’re working at the highest levels to try to get this done.
Ms. Haidar: When you say there is will, there is certainly also a feeling in India that the U.S. is stalling, that certainly there have been reports about David Headley perhaps being in fact in touch with U.S. agencies in the past. And the idea that Headley was able to come to India as frequently as he was, and perhaps it wasn’t something that the U.S. tipped off India about in time. There’s a certain sense of [heart attack] with Headley which is why I’m pushing the point. Do you think India will have access to him?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to make any predictions, but I will say that a lot of information sharing goes on at many different levels with India. Certainly if we were aware of any information about imminent threats to India we would certainly share that right away. So I think all of your viewers should be reassured on that point.
Ms. Haidar: Okay, because according to the U.S. charge sheet that was presented in court, David Headley was said to have links with at least one Pakistani Army major. According to you, were there deeper links between David Headley, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani establishment?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to get into sensitive questions like that, in part because some of these are legal questions that we’ll have to await the outcome of the legal process. But again, let me just come back to the point that I made earlier which is that the United States and India have a very intensive exchange on the intelligence side and on the law enforcement side on all of these matters. I think that if you talk to your senior ministers they will confirm that and they will confirm that it’s quite a satisfactory dialogue from both of our sides.
Ms. Haidar: This is one of the issues India has brought up with the U.S., even asking the U.S. at times to intervene perhaps in getting Pakistan to crack down more on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, see the kind of action they’ve seen on their western front against anti-India groups as well.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.
Ms. Haidar: That’s a concern that many in India feel the U.S. does not share. That it’s really only about fighting the Taliban and not groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I just spent five days in Pakistan and every single day I gave press interviews in which Is aid publicly that Pakistan needed to do more on this. So this is a very high priority for the United States and I think it should be a priority for Pakistan too. Because these are groups that are threatening not just India but the United States and many other countries, and indeed have the potential to threaten Pakistan itself.
So I think Pakistan has an interest in abiding by its own pledge which is that it will not allow its territory to be used by terrorists of any kind. And we’re very encouraged by the progress that has been made in Swat and South Waziristan and against some of the Taliban that have been arrested. But we think that progress should also include action against groups like LET Jaish-e-Mohammed and others.
Ms. Haidar: Do you see, the U.S. has been involved in certainly some of those operations. Do you see those operations against the Lashkar-e-Taiba that really operates out of places like Punjab and [Kashid]?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, we haven’t seen -- I think there needs to be much more progress on that. I think that would have wider benefits. Because as we all know from 2004 to 2007 or so, Pakistani and Indian relations actually progressed quite a bit. I think a lot of that was predicated on the fact that the Pakistani government at that time made serious efforts to try to curb cross-border infiltration by groups like LET, and that in turn made possible some of this dialogue. And again, if they can make a similar effort I think the Indians would be prepared to relaunch a wider dialogue with the Pakistanis.
Ms. Haidar: You spoke about the dialogue. You’re here at the SAARC. We are expecting the two prime ministers to meet at the SAARC summit. What are your real hopes of dialogue if any between the two of them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As Foreign Secretary Rao said a few days ago, dialogue is always the best course of action. I don’t have any particular news about the dialogue between the two prime ministers, but we always welcome that. We think the meeting that took place between the foreign secretaries in late February was a good step. Certainly having the two prime ministers would be a very welcome step if that were to occur.
Ms. Haidar: One of the other issues that has cropped up between India and Pakistan in the last few months, if you like, has been on Afghanistan, the role of India in Afghanistan. The more India does the less Pakistan likes it, and the U.S. seems to be needing to use Pakistan’s help over there certainly much more. What role really do you see for India in Afghanistan? Is it really about the reconstruction you were talking about? Would you like to see a larger role?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to in any way criticize what India is doing. India’s role has been exceptional and I think it’s been one of the key drivers in the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. So we very much welcome everything that India has done, and it’s really up to India to decide what else it might want to do in the future. But again, you will find that the Secretary of State and the President and everybody very warmly welcomed all of India’s efforts.
As I said earlier, we share an interest in following very closely this reconciliation and this reintegration process that is now beginning. I think we also agree that should be led by Afghanistan itself. But both India and the United States and Pakistan obviously have an interest in following that and seeing how that’s going to progress because all of us have a shared interest in stabilizing Afghanistan so that it can never again be a platform for attacking the United States or any other country.
Ms. Haidar: Hasn’t there been a sort of straining almost over the differences the two countries have on this particular issue? India has made it very clear it’s not in favor of bringing elements of the Taliban into government sharing of this sort of reconciliation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Actually I think that India’s position has evolved a bit, and that they have I think taken a more nuanced position than you describe.
For our part, we’ve set out some fairly clear parameters as well about how we’d like to see the reconciliation process conducted, the most important of which is that any of the Taliban that are involved in this process must renounce violence, must renounce any ties with al-Qaida, and most importantly, perhaps, must agree to abide by the terms of the current Afghan constitution which includes things like respect for women which would be quite a change for some of these Taliban. So I think that those criteria by themselves would help to weed out some of the more radical people that India would probably be concerned about.
Ms. Haidar: Besides those concerns, of course, are the concerns over the nuclear deal. You said there had been progress on reprocessing, you’re looking forward to the Civil Nuclear Liabilities Bill. It’s quite clear that that bill is not coming up in this session of parliament. Are you disappointed?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Of course we always want to see progress on these important things. And I think it’s in India’s interest to get this done as quickly as possible only so that we can get these investments going and India’s energy future can be better secured. So I think we have a shared interest in that respect. But we very much respect India’s role in determining the timing of this. Obviously they have the best sense of how this can be done within the Indian parliament and we really trust their judgment on that.
Ms. Haidar: Because there is a philosophical opposition to the Civil Nuclear Liabilities Bill that’s coming from the opposition groups within parliament, also among the groups talking about incidents like the Bhopal gas leak, and the capping of any kind of liability on American companies. Is that something that the U.S. can work with?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to in any way imply that India’s being asked to do anything that many many other countries that have civil nuclear cooperation with the United States and other countries don’t already do. The simple request is that whatever legislation is passed, is consistent with the worldwide governing standard which is called the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. Again, I think that’s really our principal interest, and that’s what we ask of all of our partners where we invest in nuclear reactors of this type.
Ms. Haidar: What can we expect from the strategic dialogue between the two countries in June?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think you're going to see progress across the board. Really the purpose of the meeting is to review the progress and then to kind of chart our way forward, looking ahead to the President’s visit in this fall, and we don’t yet know a date. I think you’re going to hear from each of the five pillars where we’ve made progress, and again, look ahead to see what might be done in the future.
Ms. Haidar: All right. Robert Blake, thank you so much for joining us.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you so much.
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