The new U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was sworn in Feb. 27, is facing criticism from the Indian government and analysts in India and the United States, for comments he made in 2011 accusing India of using Afghanistan as a 2nd front against Pakistan.
The Department of Defense was forced to issue a retraction of sorts to Hagel’s 2-year old comments even as he was being sworn in as the first combat veteran ever to head DOD. It praised India’s Afghanistan policy and its aid to that country. “The US Defense Department strongly supports the positive role India continues to play in Afghanistan,” DOD spokesperson Maj. Catherine Wilkinson told News India Times. “We support India’s bilateral assistance program with Afghanistan, its leadership on private sector investment there, and its leadership promoting regional economic integration and linkages,” Wilkinson added. “A secure and stable Afghanistan is in the interests of all countries in the region. Secretary Hagel is strongly committed to the US strategic partnership with India and to fostering an even closer defense relationship with India that builds upon the work of Secretary Panetta, Deputy Secretary Carter, and their Indian counterparts.”
Experts say Hagel may still have to explain his comments, or face a barrage of criticism and bad press when he makes his official trip to India. The comments surfaced at a time when American business is looking to the vast opportunities for defense sales to India and appear contradictory to Hagel’s otherwise pro-India stance.
Defense Chief Under Fire The former Republican Senator was under fire from the moment President Obama floated his nomination for Secretary of Defense Feb. 12. He was grilled during his Senate confirmation hearings on other more controversial issues relating to Israel and Iran.
The Free Beacon article, entitled, “Hagel’s Indian Problem” containing the audio, sparked a sharp reaction from the Indian Embassy and hit headlines in India. Some members of the Indian American community tried to rally support against Hagel’s nomination at the last minute, but it was too late to put a break and he was cleared by a majority vote Feb. 26. ‘Deep’ Convergence of Interests The Indian Embassy issued a statement in which it called Hagel’s comments “contrary to the reality”, and expressed some element of surprise that it came from a “long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-U.S. relations.” The statement reiterated that New Delhi is committed to a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan, at the same time as “Our opposition to terrorism and its safe havens in our neighborhood is firm and unshakeable.” India does not view its engagement with Afghanistan as a “zero-sum” game, the statement said and pointed to how “deeply” Washington appreciates India’s Afghan policy signifying a “shared perspective and a deep convergence of interests.”
Hagel’s 2011 comments sounded contrary to this “deep convergence” of interests the Obama administration has outlined with India. The president has often referred to India as a natural partner and strategic ally and praises its work in rebuilding Afghanistan’s institutions.
The media coverage in India raised a furore. A former Indian diplomat, K.C. Singh is quoted in the Washington Post saying, “Chuck Hagel’s simplistic remarks surfacing amid the rushed U.S. exit from Afghanistan, co-option of Pakistan as facilitator with benefits, and beatification of unreformed Taliban, have India on edge. The situation requires immediate retraction of Hagel’s statement to avoid damage to India-U.S. relations, particularly defense cooperation.”
Analysts Differ Hagel’s past comments also left analysts shaking their heads. Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., says Hagel has to personally address his past comments. “The problem is the way he characterized India - that India was financing some nefarious activities in Afghanistan, or that its policies were driven by Pakistan. Certainly the Pakistanis see it that way. And certainly it is not the view of the Obama administration or others. He does have to make a correction,” Curtis told News India Times. She conceded views voiced in his speech ran counter to his record on U.S.-India relations. “But the fact remains he mis-characterized the situation and needs some explanation,” Curtis added. India is a major player in Afghanistan and so is Pakistan. And the U.S. is going to be there for a long time into the future. “His comment on India is part of a long list of troubling statements in the past which he has sought to clarify and this one is in his own interest to counter. He would certainly face a challenge on a visit to India.”
Professor Stephen Cohen of the moderate think tank Brookings Institution differed. Implying that it was a storm over a teacup, Cohen said, “I would hope that he will have his own views. It’s no news that India is playing a balancing game for the last 60 years in the region.” In the ultimate analysis, Hagel will have to follow the Obama administration’s views on policy, he surmised.
Focus on Asia-Pacific “As we turn the page on more than a decade of grinding conflict, we must broaden our attention to future threats and challenges,” Hagel said in his swearing-in speech to troops and DOD personnel. “That means continuing to increase our focus on the Asia-Pacific region, reinvigorating historic Alliances like NATO, and making new investments in critical capabilities like cyber.” Hagel, who earned numerous military decorations and honors, including two Purple Hearts, was a U.S. Senator from 1996 to 2006, and ran a large cellular phone business, reassured troops he would take care of them despite cutbacks in defense expenditure and troop levels. Even as the U.S. Senate cleared Hagel’s nomination, Robert Blake, assistant secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Feb. 26, stressing the importance of India to U.S. policy alignments.
“Any discussion of South Asia has to start with India. It is one of our most trusted and valuable partners in the region, and really the foundation upon which greater regional economic cooperation and expansion will be built. Our relationship, from our burgeoning trade, to defense sales and exercises, to our growing education and clean energy partnerships, has never been stronger,” Blake declared.