Interview With Smita Sharma of IBN-7
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
IBN-7: Mr. Blake, you are here for the second India-Afghanistan trilateral talks with the Americans. How crucial are the talks with the Taliban to this entire process of stabilization in Afghanistan?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Of course they’re one piece of this. There are three important transitions going on. The political transition, but also the economic transition and the security transition. So all are of great importance and all were discussed today.
IBN-7: But during the recent Chequers Summit also when President Karzai, President Zardari were also there in UK, it did seem as if there was an agreement on moving ahead with the talks within our timeframe of possible release of certain Taliban commanders from Pakistani prison, was one of the preconditions. Is that on the track? Is that the right way forward? Does India have reservations about it, which has been possibly discussed in talks with you?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, you'll have to talk to India about whether they have reservations about the process or not. But as I said, reconciliation is one part of this, and everybody recognizes there cannot be a military solution to this, and that it would be far better to have the Taliban as part of an Afghan-led dialogue process. So we’re all working towards that end and we very much hope that that will happen.
IBN-7: Because New Delhi has constantly mentioned the red lines that must be adhered to in a lot of ways, so hasn’t New Delhi brought up these reservations in talks with the U.S. whenever Afghanistan has been discussed?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I don’t want to characterize India’s views. They are very capable of doing that themselves.
IBN-7: Is there a fair amount of, is there a feeling that there is still maybe a select approach when you deal with Taliban, when you look at the Haqqani Network, they are dealt with perhaps in a separate sort of way who attack the Indian interests of Afghanistan constantly, and also get some sort of refuge on the Pakistani soil?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Certainly not. We take a very stiff view about the importance of Pakistan taking action against terrorist groups that are based in Pakistan. Not only those that are attacking U.S. troops, but also those that are attacking India and others. And so that’s a very important part of those discussions.
IBN-7: Right, but when we talk of the terror groups that attack Indian interests and terrorists, we see the likes of Hafiz Saeed moving around in the streets of Pakistan freely. Very recently in fact he was seen sharing the dais with local Kashmiri separatist leader Yasin Malik in Islamabad. There is a bounty that is there on his head, but he seems to be roaming around everywhere from Lahore to Islamabad to Karachi. How have things actually changed as far as Hafiz Saeed’s question is concerned?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I think we share India’s concerns about LET and about Hafiz Saeed. As you said, there is a Rewards for Justice program and he is part of that program. We continue to urge Pakistan to take action against the LET because not only are they attacking India but they’re also attacking American troops in Afghanistan.
IBN-7: So, do you expect Pakistan to actually take action against it? Because urging is something different, action is something different.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I don’t want to get into the specifics of this, but this is one of the most important parts of our dialogue with Pakistan. It’s no secret that we’ve had our differences with Pakistan over the last year or two. I think there’s been some more recent, slightly encouraging progress and we’re certainly looking to build on that. But again, this remains one of the most important parts of our bilateral dialogue with Pakistan.
IBN-7: But do you buy the Pakistani arguments that the kind of evidence that has been provided to them on the Mumbai trials does not stand the test of court? Because these are similar evidences based on which we saw David Hadley getting sentenced in an American court, in a Chicago court. We saw Ajmal Kasab being hanged to death in an Indian court. What is the difference in the evidence there?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t know. I don’t have direct access to that evidence. But certainly we’ve been very clear in our public messaging that it’s very important to bring all those responsible for the Mumbai attacks to justice. And we’ve done our part, as you say. We’ve encouraged this process that’s now underway between India and Pakistan to try to share as much evidence between their respective judiciaries so that Pakistan can move ahead with the prosecution.
IBN-7: There are a lot of internal dynamics here in South Asia. As you continue talking about stabilization in Afghanistan there is also a fear factor here within certain sections in India that we could possibly see a spillover of what is happening in Afghanistan once the troops pull out in 2014. Especially in the Kashmir context. They recently post the hanging of Afzal Guru. There have also been talks about alienation between the Kashmiri youth and New Delhi. Is that your sense of assessment as well as the possible spillover that one could expect in 2014?
Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s certainly not what we’re planning for, and that’s certainly not what we’re hoping for. We’re very focused on helping to strengthen the Afghan National Security Forces now and as the President said during the State of the Union, we feel that they’re making quite good progress. The Afghan forces are now in charge of security in territory where 90 percent of the Afghan population lives, and they also have the lead on 80 percent of the security operations that are taking place in Afghanistan. So they’re making good progress, and we still have two years until the end of this security transition. All of the NATO Alliance will be providing training and assistance to them to continue to strengthen their capabilities and we’ll be watching this process very very closely to make sure that they are in fact ready to assume complete responsibility at the end of 2014.
IBN-7: Why I ask is because we’ve heard even from the American, the former Defense Secretaries, two Foreign Secretaries themselves have spoken of an unholy nexus between Lashkar-e-Taiba, Taliban, as well as al-Qaida. How do you sense that threat, especially in the Kashmiri context?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I think Secretary Clinton and many many others have talked about how many of these groups work together and that’s always been a concern of ours. But again, our focus now is on helping the Afghan forces to deal with the challenges, and also talking to the Pakistanis, to address the challenges in their territory, as part of this overall effort on transition.
IBN-7: Just a last few couple of questions. Moving on to our other neighbor, the Maldives. The former President Nasheed is at the Indian High Commission, he continues to be there seeking refuge. It’s something that the Maldivians are saying that amounts to interference in their domestic affairs. Would that be a U.S. point of view as well? Or how does --
Assistant Secretary Blake: We’ve been in very close touch with the Indian government on this matter. We believe that President Nasheed is certainly entitled to due process. We also believe that it’s very important now for everybody to focus as much as possible on the preparation for these important elections that will be taking place later this year. As you know, Maldives had their freest and fairest elections in their history in 2008 and it’s important to now build on that process.
Part of that is to have the parties work more closely together, and that includes the MDP and President Waheed’s party and the other parties.
And then lastly, we think that, again, it’s important for us to stay in very close touch with each other and with groups like the Commonwealth that are very active.
IBN-7: But President Nasheed has been citing fears that if he moves out, steps out of the Indian High Commission, once he’s arrested there will not be free and fair elections as well, and perhaps even there are possible threats to his life. That’s his assessment of the entire situation.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I don’t think there are threats to his life, but again, we’ve always said there needs to be due process for President Nasheed. We also believe that all of the parties in the Maldives need to be able to choose their candidates to prepare for these elections.
IBN-7: You’re confident there will be free and fair elections there?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, the United States is going to put a lot of our own resources into that, to do everything we can to ensure that.
IBN-7: Just the last two questions. We have very recently seen the European Union revoke its ban on Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Is the U.S. doing a rethinking because we’ve seen Britain do that, we’ve seen EU do that. They are engaging now with the Chief Minister directly. The ambassadors are meeting him as well. What is the U.S. thinking on this?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Our policy on that has not changed.
IBN-7: The policy is basically a visa process. If and when, if there is a possibility of Mr. Modi actually being a BJP Prime Ministerial candidate and coming to power, will the U.S. engage with him?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I don’t want to engage in speculation about that. We’ll have to see if it comes to that.
Again, I’ve said what I need to say about the visa process. But with respect to Gujarat, our companies, of course, have enjoyed great success there and we’ll continue to support those companies because I think there’s been, again, a very good business environment up in Gujarat.
IBN-7: Do we see the American Ambassador sharing a dais any time soon with Narendra Modi? Which is not in the context of the visa process, but --
Assistant Secretary Blake: But our Consul General visits there quite regularly, and again we send very high-level business delegations very frequently.
IBN-7: But will Washington engage with anybody who is in power in New Delhi? Because elections are any time soon now. They could even be in 2013.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, of course, we’re going to engage with whoever are the elected representatives of your government.
IBN-7: Thank you so much for speaking to IBN-7. Mr. Robert Blake, speaking there.