Karan Thapar: What sort of relations can India expect from America ruled by Barack Obama? That’s the key issue I shall explore with former assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and a former member of Election Advisory Body team of the Obama campaign Karl Inderfurth.
Ambassador Inderfurth, Barack Obama will become the President of the United States at a time when the relations between the two countries are better than ever before. Many people in India believe this because of the commitment and high priority given to them by George Bush. But clearly Barack Obama will have priorities of his own and that commitment may not last. Should India be concerned about that?
Karl Inderfurth: No.
Karan Thapar: Not at all?
Karl Inderfurth: No, not at all. The President-elect wrote a letter to PM Manmohan Singh in September and said US-India relations will be a priority for his administration.
I have no doubt it will be and will not only build on the excellent foundation in work that President Bush has done but before that what President Clinton did (during) that very important visit to New Delhi in March 2000. So you have a democratic administration, a Republic administration both working in the same direction – to strengthen US-India ties. I am convinced they will continue till into the next Democratic administration.
Karan Thapar: So the sharply rising trajectory in relations is going to continue to rise as sharply as it has been?
Karl Inderfurth: Yes, it will. Just like that very successful Indian moon shot, it’s going to continue to go up.
Karan Thapar: Okay. Let me test the confidence with which you say that and let me begin by first focusing on the interview the President-elect gave to the Time magazine in October.
He said he wants to try and resolve Kashmir in a serious way; he called it a critical task and said he will devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there and seemed to suggest it might even be Bill Clinton. Is this firm intention or just loud thinking?
Karl Inderfurth: It wasn’t firm intention. I think that as an interview that got a great deal of attention. I think there’s no question of right approach to Kashmir but to allow the two parties – India and Pakistan to address themselves bilaterally taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. I have no doubt at all (that should be) the approach of the administration and I also believe the US is supportive of that process.
I don’t believe that President elect has made any decision about how he intends to accomplish helping support that process. If that special envoy role is looked at, it’’ only be pursued if it’s helpful and appropriate, he has said that. So I think too much is being made of that. Let him take off. He has few more days to get through the transition and January 20 we will see where the administration goes.
Karan Thapar: You say too much us being made of the Time magazine interview but the truth is that’s not the only occasion that the President-elect has spoken in such manner.
Few days after the Time magazine, he gave an interview to MSNBC where he seemed to speak in very much the same language and earlier, when he wrote an article for Foreign Affairs, he seemed to touch upon Kashmir as well. Many people in India think this is a case of well considered comments rather than off-the-cuff remarks.
Karl Inderfurth: He’s also given interviews for Outlook magazine where he’s talked about the appropriate role of the US to be supportive of this process and the fact is there has been progress between India and Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.
There’ve been important discussions behind the scenes, there’ve been important discussions in the front channel when the Pakistani national security advisor Mahmud Ali Durrani came to Delhi and met Mr Narayanan (MK Narayanan, National Security Advisor). They had some important talks. There’ve also been steps like cross-border trade across the Line of Control. This is where the action should be – between the parties and the US should be supportive of it. I do believe more has been made of it than need be at this stage.
I think the new administrations understands the right approach. There’s not going to be any meddling or interference in India’s affairs on this and for the simple reason that if this isn’t supported by India and Pakistan, there’s nothing that the US can do to make them resolve anything.
Karan Thapar: It’s interesting you should say that because many of the people who are or were advisors around the Obama campaign – and I include yourself and your colleague Bruce Riedel – have actually written articles, advising the Obama presidency to “undertake quiet but effective steps towards Indo-Pakistani rapprochement over Kashmir… Washington should quietly try to engage the parties to find a solution to Muslim Kashmiris’ desire for greater self-rule”. The question that arises is what did the two of you mean by engage and what do you mean by effective steps?
Karl Inderfurth: Engagement is support for the process…
Karan Thapar: Nothing more?
Karl Inderfurth: Nothing more if you’re asking what we are writing here. That was in an article that we wrote titled Breaking More Naan with Delhi. That was an interesting part of the article. Breaking More Naan with Delhi was our advise on a whole new areas of engagement with India for the next administration.
Karan Thapar: But you’re simply saying engagement doesn’t mean involvement. It simply means bringing two sides together. It’s friendly facilitation.
Karl Inderfurth: It is friendly facilitation.
Karan Thapar: It’s not third-party involvement?
Karl Inderfurth: It’s no unfriendly interference. I can assure you of that.
Karan Thapar: Might be friendly interference?
Karl Inderfurth: No. I don’t want to interfere in India’s internal affairs and neither does my colleague Bruce Riedel. But we also know that these issues have been long festering between the parties and that it is holding both back and if US can be helpful to resolve it, that’s exactly what it should do.
Karan Thapar: I’ll tell you why people in Delhi were concerned about the Time magazine interview and why they are reading meanings…
Karl Inderfurth: …Oh, I know why. You don’t need to tell me that. I can read into it.
Karan Thapar: When the President-elect speaks of deploying massive resources…
Karl Inderfurth: …I don’t think he said massive.
Karan Thapar: He didn’t say massive but he talked about deploying serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there. Now the concept of the special envoy and the possibility that he might be Bill Clinton suggests to people in India that this is a lot closer to direct involvement rather than simply facilitation.
Karl Inderfurth: Well, again I think there’s more being read into this that should be. I can tell you there’s one point when I was very proud to be a part of the efforts. In 1999 during Kargil crisis and I was at the Blair House – when (Pakistan) PM Nawaz Sharif came there. Kargil was a major issue, Indian soldiers were dying and President Clinton played an important role in trying to persuade the Pakistanis to remove their troops and to cease and desist from a crisis that could have gotten further out of control. That kind of assistance – and by the way during that time President Clinton spoke with (Indian) PM Vajpayee, not to ask for directions or to tell him anything, except to inform him about what he was trying to do in those discussions (with Sharif) (was) to try and get the crisis resolved. That came out very well. I think the US can sometimes be of great assistance to India and working with India.
Karan Thapar: It’s very interesting that you should bring up the Kargil instance when Sharif met Clinton at Blair House because your colleague Bruce Riden has written an account of it. That account suggests that Nawaz Sharif asked Clinton to involve himself in directly sorting out Kashmir and Clinton gave an assurance he would butnever had the time to fulfill it.
Karl Inderfurth: No, no. I was there. The Pakistanis have always wanted the US to get involved and sorting out the issue and this is not the role for the US to involve itself in that fashion. But what the US can do and what President Clinton said it would do was to try and support a return to the dialogue taking place between India and Pakistan. You remember that Kargil came right after Lahore. Lahore was a high point in terms of diplomacy and then we went to the low point with Kargil. What President Clinton said he would do is to try and work with parties to get back to, if you may, the spirit of Lahore. The spirit of Lahore, in the communiqué, also talks about addressing the Kashmir issue. That’s all he said he would do.
Karan Thapar: That was then. Since then, 11 years have passed and there’s a new situation, a new context. Afghanistan is the highest priority of the in-coming President. Many people in India fear the President-elect might try and encourage Pakistan to devote more attention to Taliban and Afghanistan on its western border, if he can, in return, secure some concession from India on Kashmir on the east. That trade-off and the possibility that it may be one reason why he wants to send a special envoy to India is what worries Indians.
Karl Inderfurth: But you’re saying he wants to send. He hasn’t said he wants to do that. As I said any decision would be on the basis of whether or not it’s helpful and appropriate.
Karan Thapar: He’s getting advice to that effect from Barnet Rubin who’s the former advisor, from Ahmad Rashid who’s joint up as counselor to General Patraeus. These are people who are as close to him as you are.
Karl Inderfurth: You are making great leaps here. I doubt that Ahmad Rashid, Barnie Rubin and myself – describing us as close advisors will be stretching it a bit. We are all supporters. I can’t speak for Ahmad, he’s not an American but Barnie and I have been supporters of Obama because we feel he’ll take our country in the right direction.
Karan Thapar: But this is the advice they are giving him. They are calling for a grand bargain.
Karl Inderfurth: Then I think for the next time you have this interview, you should have Rashid and Rouben to answer. I can’t answer for them. I think it was a very good article. There was a great deal in it. The one thing that they talk about is a regional approach to deal with that kind of stand. I think that’s the right approach. Regional approach would include not just Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two key players here, but also India, Iran. There will be no solution to what’s taking place in Afghanistan unless India is seen as a player in the process and bring in Iran and China and other countries.
Karan Thapar: They also talk about a sustained international effort to secure a solution in Kashmir and, this is equally important, a diminishing India’s role from Pakistan.
Karl Inderfurth: You mentioned there were two authors of the article. I am not one of them. Please talk to them.
Karan Thapar: What worries people about President-elect Obama’s own interview, about the articles being written in Foreign Affairs and about things that people once associated with Obama were saying. What worries them is that a hyphen may be once again inserted between India and Pakistan.
Karl Inderfurth: Oh please, please. The hyphenation in that relationship was pulled out during the Clinton administration from my perspective, including his very important trip in March 2000. Bush administration underscored that point through out – de-hyphenation. A number of people including Ashley Tellis wrote an article – a good one to read on that subject.
There’s no hyphenation left in that relationship. The US will be dealing with India on its own merits and Pakistan on its own merits. By the way, there should not be a hyphenation between India and China. US would deal with China on its own merits. So those days are past and the years of hyphenation will be in the dustbin of history.
Karan Thapar: Do you think the President-elect and his close advisors believe that India and Pakistan can sort out Kashmir bilaterally or do they think that after 60 years they need to be pushed to do so?
Karl Inderfurth: I can’t answer that question for President-elect and his close advisors. But do you want to ask me that question?
Karan Thapar: Yes, go ahead.
Karl Inderfurth: The former. They can do this bilaterally. And if we can support that process, it would be a good thing.
Karan Thapar: And this will be your advice if President-elect were to ask you?
Karl Inderfurth: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: Let’s widen the lens of this discussion. The nuclear deal was the high point in the relationship and the big achievement while Bush was President. Will President-elect Obama honour the fuel supply assurances given by Bush or might they now unravel?
Karl Inderfurth: No, I think he is a strong supporter of that agreement. Both the hard agreement and then in the final stages. Brajesh Mishra described President Clinton’s trip to India in March 2000 as the turning point in the relationship. I would describe the US-India civilian nuclear deal agreement signed and pursued by President Bush and PM Manmohan Singh as the tipping point.
I consider this as a fundamentally important, new part of our relationship and I have no doubt that the new democratic administration will take that agreement and build on it. I think what you have seen is a significant agreement concluded and to be pursued.
Karan Thapar: If BJP was to win the elections and implement their demand to renegotiate, what would Barack Obama do? Would he use this as an opportunity to try and improve on the deal because initially, he did have some reservations about the deal.
Karl Inderfurth: He did have concerns about non-proliferation aspect. We can talk about it. For me to talk about if who’s going to win the upcoming elections here and what that would mean – don’t want to go there. That’s a matter India would decide.
Karan Thapar: All I was doing was trying to ask might the incoming administration want to reconsider if BJP wants to renegotiate.
Karl Inderfurth: That is a lot of ifs. What we have right now is a concluded agreement, a significant milestone in the relationship and my hope is that we now implement that and see how we can now extend our cooperation into other areas that, for a very long time, were off-limits to the US.
Karan Thapar: What are you talking about?
Karl Inderfurth: Space cooperation, the lunar probe - this wonderful and successful mission to moon with two NASA payloads. Also, dual-use, high-technology transfer. These are the three areas we once described as litmus test to the seriousness of the US being apartner in growth.
Karan Thapar: You see the movement on all three?
Karl Inderfurth: I think we are passing that litmus test right now.
Karan Thapar: What about CTBT? President-elect Obama has committed himself to represent the treaty to Senate. If that happens, could there be pressure from Washington on Delhi to sign it?
Karl Inderfurth: Washington would be delighted if we ratify first. It was the US senate that defeated that treaty. It was a major defeat for President Clinton and those of us in admin. I believe the US does not need to pursue any further nuclear testing and if the US did pursue, that would reopen it for Russians, Chinese and there will be pressure on all nuclear states. It’s time for us to say enough to nuclear testing. A long-standing disarmament goal by US and Indian leaders.
Karan Thapar: When you say enough and ratify, will there be pressure from Washington on Delhi to sign as well.
Karl Inderfurth: You say pressure, I would say encouragement. I would say the US would encourage India to follow suit. I would also want to make sure China is part of that and I was part of a lot of discussion with Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott and I believe that if India were to sign the CTBT, Pakistan would. Pakistan would move in the same direction as India’s. If India tests, Pakistan will also test. If India signs, I believe Pakistan would too.
Karan Thapar: So India becomes critical?
Karl Inderfurth: Of course.
Karan Thapar: Let me put another issue to you – outsourcing. There are some quarters in India worried that President-elect concentrates on creating jobs and stopping jobs from going out, he might curtail outsourcing. Is that likely or just an exaggeration?
Karl Inderfurth: I think it’s an exaggerated fear but there will be steps to make sure that American businesses are operating abroad that are not detrimental to American workforce. Having said that, the big issue right now for Obama will be on economic and financial crisis we find ourselves in and will be working with the international community to address that. That’s why this meeting at G20 was a very important departure. There you had India, China and Brazil at the table with leading industrial countries.
`Karan Thapar: But the main point is Bangalore need have no fear from Obama administration.
Karl Inderfurth: I do not believe Bangalore should have fear but I am Treasury Secretary designate. I am not much of an economist either. So I will leave that to others.
Karan Thapar: You’ve been assistant secretary of state for south Asia, there are reports that you could be the next ambassador to India.
Karl Inderfurth: It’s unfounded…
Karan Thapar: Let me ask you what could be the three top priorities for President Obama regarding India?
Karl Inderfurth: Continue, continue, continue. The fact is that we have seen a long relationship develop from President Clinton to eight years of President Bush and President Obama should continue, continue, continue in that direction. We are getting a strong relationship and a sustainable relationship and it’s got nowhere to go but up.
Karan Thapar: Ambassador Inderfurth, a pleasure talking to you on Devil’s Advocate.
Karl Inderfurth: Thank you.