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Chidamabaram makes progress with US, but draws blank on Pak

By Aziz Haniffa
September 11, 2009 15:14 IST
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Home Minister P Chidambaram's visit to the US, reports Aziz Haniffa From Washington, ensured that good progress was made on India-US security cooperation.

There is no denying that Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram's three-day trip to the United States will advance the further institutionalisation of India-US counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing cooperation.

During his visit the minister met virtually all the top intelligence and security heads of the Obama administration, in addition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior lawmakers.

But it is an open question if he achieved much on the priority issue of urging the US to persuade Pakistan to halt its hedging and chicanery on bringing those who perpetrated the Mumbai terror attacks to justice and dismantling the terror infrastructure in Pakistan.

Sources told that for all of Clinton's symbolic visit to Mumbai in July and her stay at the Taj Mahal hotel, which was attacked on 26/11, and her pledge to prevail on Islamabad to prosecute the Mumbai terrorists, Washington's strategic interests apparently had superseded putting such pressure on Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's still shaky civilian government.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, with support from Obama's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, are now calling the shots with regard to Pakistan and prosecuting the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and maintaining a healthy equation with the Pakistan military had taken precedence over all other matters.

Chidambaram, at a press briefing at the Indian embassy, scrupulously eschewed giving any impression that India's angst over Pakistan had permeated his discussions with US officials.

But he did acknowledge that at virtually every meeting, he had briefed US officials of the 26/11 trial and also expressed India's concern over Islamabad's inaction that was impeding any resumption of an India-Pakistan rapprochement that the US has been calling for.

"We've had very fruitful discussions," Chidambaram said, "and I am pleased with the level of interest shown by the officials and leaders of the administration, as well as the positive attitude that they take to the security issues that confront India."

"I have requested them for closer cooperation in matters relating to sharing of intelligence, sharing of analysis of intelligence and working together to improve the skills sets of our scientists, technicians and investigators in matters relating to intelligence," he added.

"The response has been quite positive and I hope we can take this forward in the days and months ahead," he continued. "Even today, when there is actionable intelligence, it is shared by US agencies with Indian agencies. We share any intelligence that we have vis-a-vis the United States and this will continue."

Sources said this was essentially a given and that tangible cooperation -- which has been going on in these areas for some time and had taken on a much great level of cooperation after 26/11 -- would be further solidified.

Chidambaram, while noting that there is already a joint Indo-US Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, said, "We did not sign any agreements, and in fact, it was not my intention to sign any agreement. My intention was to establish a working relationship and speed up the work that we do and deepen the engagement that we have."

"Both the US and India believe that we can learn from each other's experiences and share our best practices," he added.

Chidambaram acknowledged that at his meeting with Clinton although he did not "specifically ask her to push for this or push for that (meaning put pressure on Pakistan regarding 26/11), I did brief her on the state of the trial of Ajmal Kasab in India. And, I also mentioned about the no progress in Pakistan even in respect of the five or six people they've arrested. And that Lashkar-e-Tayiba founder Hafiz Saeed remains a free man."

The home minister added, "I think the US understands the difference between the way India has approached the post-26/11 situation and the way that Pakistan has approached the post-26/11 situation. I think it's enough to draw attention to the difference and leave it there."

Sources told, "There certainly no argument on that score," and said Clinton and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, whom Chidambaram met, were "sympathetic to India's legitimate concerns and frustration," about Pakistan's giving Delhi the run-around regarding the prosecution of the Mumbai conspirators.

But they said that at the diplomatic level while Clinton had been strongly bringing up this issue with Pakistan, at the strategic level where Gates, Admiral Mullen and Holbrooke called the shots, "this is no more a pressing priority."

According to the sources, "After the scare in the Swat valley (when the Taliban took that area over and held it for some time till the Pakistani military retook the area and drove out the Taliban), the stability of Pakistan has become a sort of overarching priority -- and this means the continued professionalism of the military too -- and no one seems to want to rock the boat as far as the civilian government is concerned."

Chidambaram said in recent months there had been a significant increase in cross-border infiltration, "based upon human intelligence and technical intelligence."

"The numbers are now running at about 50, 60 (terrorists) a month, I think. And the number of people that we apprehend is also very high. So, our assessment is that the level of infiltration has increased since May."

Perhaps, the most clear-cut manifestation that strategic interests seemingly had eclipsed Pakistan's indiscretions was Chidambaram's reply when asked about his meetings with United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, US Senator Joseph Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and US Congressman Sylvester Reyes, chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

"All three were extremely positive. Senator Feinstein, for example, promised to take up the matter with the agencies," he said. "Senator Lieberman was very warm and very pleasant and promised to follow up on things that we have discussed."

When asked if he had shared his frustration about Pakistan's inaction on the 26/11 investigation, Chidambaram said, "I always do."

When asked what their response was, he said, "I think they share my frustration too."

Besides, Clinton, Jones, and the lawmakers, Chidambaram met with US Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, which included a lunch and a tour of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre in Virginia.

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Aziz Haniffa Washington, DC