Interview with Suhasini Haider, CNN-IBN

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Colombo, Sri Lanka
November 10, 2011

Question: The U.S. is one of the observers at the SAARC Summit here in the Maldives, but of course it’s keenly watching the India-Pakistan summit meeting as well, and with me to discuss that is U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robert Blake. Thanks so much for speaking with us, Bob.

Assistant Secretary Blake: My pleasure.

Question: Just to start with, India and Pakistan seem to have got their talks back on track right now. Give us a sense of how you view the recent developments in talks between them and what is your real expectation of how the summit may play out in the future?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think there’s been a lot of recent progress and I think we’re very encouraged by that. I would point to several things. First, the very important decision by Pakistan to grant Most Favored Nation status to India, which continues the very strong momentum on the economic ties between the two countries.

Secondly, the decision by Pakistan to send a judicial commission to India, which, again, I think will be a helpful step forward on the security front.

Third, the recent efforts by both sides to resolve very quickly the incident where an Indian helicopter accidentally strayed across the border and we were very impressed by the fact that that was very successfully resolved without any kind of antagonism.

So that I think shows that both sides are committed to this process and again, I think that the two prime ministers will be meeting here and it comes one year after their famous meeting in Thimphu, which really began a lot of this process. So we hope very much that the meetings will sustain that momentum.

Question: About a decade ago the U.S. would have actually read a statement about India-Pakistan ties. Would you say that the time for mediation from any third party is really over? That’s not something the U.S. would be part of.

Assistant Secretary Blake: We never have been part of any mediation efforts. We’ve always said that it’s up to the two sides to resolve their differences and to determine the pace and scope and character of their dialogue. And again, I think the two sides are making very welcome progress.

Question: On 26/11, the Mumbai trial that is continuing in Pakistan, one of India’s real concerns has been the speed of the trial that is ongoing inside Pakistan. Is that something that comes up in your discussions with Pakistani officials? Because, of course, there were American citizens who died in that attack as well.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Certainly. We continue to encourage a rapid resolution of that, so that’s one of many issues that we discuss with Pakistan.

Question: In the U.S.-Pakistan equations we’ve seen recent run-ins between the two sides, particularly an action on the Haqqani Group. Are you hopeful that Pakistan is now actually going to take action on the members of the Haqqani Group?

Assistant Secretary Blake: We are. As you know, Secretary Clinton was recently in Pakistan with a very high level delegation. She met with all of the senior officials of Pakistan and made it very clear that if we hope to see rapid progress against the Haqqani Network but also against the other groups that are based in Pakistan, like Lashkar-e-Taiba. So again, we’ll be looking for rapid progress on that.

Question: It’s interesting , you say that India’s perception is that while the U.S. maybe pushes for action on groups that attack U.S. forces, particularly alongside the Afghan border, there isn’t the same push on the Lashkar-e-Taiba and [camps] of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other arms, like the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, continue to exist and thrive in Pakistan.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Those are a concern to us as they are to you. And again, those groups are not just attacking India; they also are attacking the United States and targeting, for example, American troops. So it’s very much in our interest to encourage progress on those as well. And again the point that the Secretary and many others have made is that it’s not, you can’t really make a distinction between one terrorist group and another. It’s important for Pakistan and indeed very country to address all of the terrorist activities within their borders.

Question: Ms. Clinton spoke very sharply of snakes in Pakistan’s back yard. We’ve also heard from our Afghan President Karzai talking about the fact that the Taliban does not have an address inside Afghanistan. Are you worried that as the U.S. begins its pullout from Afghanistan that it’s really the Taliban that is growing in control in Afghanistan and perhaps in Pakistan?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think that all of our military leaders and Secretary Clinton have been clear that we continue to make progress on the military front, but that’s only one front. As the Secretary said in her recent congressional testimony, we are pursuing three fronts, really -- fight, talk, and build at the same time, simultaneously. It’s a very important part in getting them to the table, we continue the fight part of it as well. So while we have a broad range of contacts we continue to maintain and insist that this is going to be an Afghan-led process and one that we support very strongly, and --

Question: But if President Karzai says he can’t talk to the Taliban anymore, does the U.S. support that? Or will the U.S. continue to try and find ways of talking to the Taliban?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No. He has not said that, though . I think he wants to continue talking to the Taliban, and again, we do support that.

Question: When it comes to Afghanistan, how does the U.S. really view the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership? Particularly the clauses in there that talk about the election, talking, as well as equipment from India to Afghanistan?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think that’s a very modest part of the overall package of assistance that the Indians are providing. The vast majority of the assistance is coming on the capacity-building front and on the economic front to help build up the infrastructure inside Afghanistan. We’ve said many times that we strongly welcome the assistance that India is providing to Afghanistan and that as you know now an increasing focus is building up this regional integration and promoting this vision of a New Silk Road and again, India is a lynch pin of that entire process because India’s the largest market in the region and will be so important not only to transit trade but also to some of these big energy links such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline.

Question: And that can only work if India and Pakistan are able to cooperate when it comes to Afghanistan. I would like to ask you as the U.S. does contemplate its pullout from Afghanistan, are you worried about a second great game playing out? President Musharraf has said India and Pakistan may now be involved in a great game inside Afghanistan. Does that worry you?

Assistant Secretary Blake: We’re making clear to all of our partners that even though there is an important transition underway, security transition, but also an economic transition, and that’s why we want to support for example, private sector development inside Afghanistan and embedding Afghanistan more closely into its regional neighborhood that the United States will remain strongly committed to Afghanistan’s future. We will have a residual military presence inside Afghanistan. And certainly we will continue to have very strong economic assistance programs.

So nobody should doubt our resolve to continue to help Afghanistan and to continue to be an important player in this region.

Question: Finally I’d like to address U.S.-India ties. There’s a perception that you [inaudible] now, particularly after the rejection of the USA for fighter aircraft, but also India is a very independent voice when it comes to Libya and Syria. Is that a concern for you?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Not at all. I think that we’re very very encouraged by the progress that we’ve made. If you look at the joint statement that India and the United States put out after Secretary Clinton’s recent visit in July, it was I think 40 paragraphs of very detailed work that we’re doing together. We continue to sustain that momentum. We’ve just had a very important Higher Education Summit that Secretary Clinton chaired with Minister of Human Resources Development Kapil Sibal. We’ve had a number of high level visits that have continued. Our two Presidents will be meeting next week in Bali. So we remain very strongly committed and very satisfied with the progress that we’re making with India.

Question: You spoke of momentum, yet the big ticket item between India and the U.S., the nuclear deal seems to be hanging fire over the [inaudible] clause. How serious is that problem for the deal to go forward? And what happens if India does not meet that conceptual deadline [inaudible]?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, we’ve had many many commitments from our Indian friends that they remain committed to ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation and we have no reason to doubt that. So we will continue to talk about this and it remains a very high priority. But these things take time. These are, we understand, very sensitive matters inside India as well. So it’s very important that India be given space to manage the politics inside India of this important question for them.

Question: Is there any room for flexibility here ? Because given what happened in Fukushima, is there any room for renegotiating the supply liability, for example, with India?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t think we’re talking about that. Again, I think both of us have a strong interest in seeing this cooperation move forward and we’ll continue to have, I think, productive talks about this.

Question: Thanks so much for joining us. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Bob Blake. They are in fact pointing to that next meeting between U.S. President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Bali next week.