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India a key stakeholder in Obama's AfPak strategy

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
March 28, 2009 10:35 IST
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As US President Barack Obama took ownership of a new comprehensive strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan to counter the Al Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban, senior Administration officials acknowledged that India would be a key stakeholder in these efforts too, although New Delhi will not be invited to put boots on the ground in this renewed fight against terrorism because of its regional problems with Pakistan.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, the Obama Administration's point man for South Asia, told during a conference call with a select group of journalists, following President Obama's unveiling of this new strategy that "we recognise India's strong interest in stopping terrorism in the region."

"They've made an important contribution in Afghanistan -- I think their total (contribution to the rehabilitation and reconstruction in Afghanistan) is up to about $1.2 billion. They've been very instrumental in key areas like training, civil service, and helping build Afghan institutions," he noted.

"So, we see a continuing role for India and we certainly see a strong interest in India."

Boucher added, "And, let's face it, the whole goal is to stop terrorism that threatens everybody in the region, including India, and we all recognise that's going to require a sustained interest."

Asked if India would be invited to contribute troops to President Obama's new strategy, besides its other forms of assistance in Afghanistan, Boucher said, "India is a special case. There are regional issues involved and India has said they are not trying to do anything militarily or put boots on the ground and we all respect and appreciate that."

With regard to Obama's mention of the US pursuing constructive diplomacy to ease tensions between India and Pakistan, as part of this new strategy, and if such a role by Washington can be played without touching on the contentious issue of Kashmir, which Islamabad maintains is the core issue and which Obama too during the presidential campaign had said is what leads to the militancy in the region, Boucher said, "They've not asked us to broker Kashmir, and we've not suggested it."

He said, "First, we want to have good relations with India, good relations with Pakistan. We want to do everything we can with each of these countries to develop solid relations that benefit the people of both places."

"Second of all, we want to make sure that we are fighting terrorism together in the region -- that each country is doing whatever they can and that we are supporting all their efforts, whether it's working with the Indians on protecting India or working with the Afghans and the Pakistanis on ending the terrorist threat that comes out of their territory."

Boucher added, "And, the third thing is, we've always been very supportive of efforts that they themselves have made with each other and see if India and Pakistan together can get back to really working to reduce the tension and to create a better situation between the two."

"As they move forward, we will support them," he said.

Earlier, Boucher, like several other Administration officials who fanned out after President Obama unveiled his new strategy, to explain the process of how this 60-day review came into being, said, "There is a very strong commitment to taking a regional approach -- to working first and foremost to empower Afghanistan and Pakistani governments -- and second, working for the cooperation with each other and then working to make sure everybody in the region was pushing in the direction of supporting them."

He acknowledged that in the $1.5 billion annually for five years aid package on the cards for Pakistan as part of the strategy, would necessarily include a military component. "I am sure there will be a military component," he said, though, "we haven't announced specific numbers yet. So, I can't give you any numbers for the new year."

"But, yes, the President is very committed to supporting the Kerry-Lugar legislation which talks about much higher levels of non-military assistance, but also talks about military assistance as well," he said. "So, we are going to have to keep working on both tracks."

Asked about Obama's assertion that Pakistan would be not given a 'blank cheque,' as in the past, and if there would be scrupulous benchmarks and periodic reviews, Boucher said, "There will be both. This was one of the ideas we discussed and came out of the trilateral discussions with the Pakistani and Afghan delegations when they were here (in Washington)."

"We all want to make sure that each of us is doing what's necessary. They have things they expect from us, we have things we expect from them and they have things they expect from each other. So, we are going to try to do this in a structured way so that we are all making sure that benchmarks, matrix, we can evaluate very clearly to make sure everybody is doing their part."

Boucher explained that "President Obama wants to make sure, we, in the US government, are carrying through our commitment. So, we are going to measure ourselves as much as we measure them."

He reacted testily when told that no country has jumped on board this new strategy, particularly vis-a-vis contributing troops, saying, "You are measuring this after two hours. Is that it? Is that the time for measuring whether this is getting out of it?"

Boucher argued that, "First of all, give him more than a few days to start measuring the results of other countries' contributions. Second of all, the President made sure we are going to do what we think is necessary and we want other countries to do what they think is necessary as well."

He claimed that "there have been quite a series of countries actually, who have announced that they are adding more troops -- thickening their effort, and more important than that, the big headline here would be more on the civilian side than the troop side. That they are going to do what is necessarily to help the Afghan and Pakistani governments serve their people."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC