Top State Department officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been working behind the scenes to assuage Indian anger following the attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin over the weekend by an Army veteran and alleged former white supremacist.
Indian government officials and Sikh leaders across India were outraged by the attack that left 6 dead, including 4 Indian nationals, at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee and called on the U.S. to do more to protect Sikhs living in the United Sates. Clinton called Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna from her stop in South Africa Monday after Krishna criticized the U.S. for failed policies and a growing trend of violent incidents against religious minorities.
"I have seen messages of condolence from President Obama and others. They've emphasized protection of all faiths. The U.S. government will have to take a comprehensive look at this kind of tendency which certainly is not going to bring credit to the United States of America,'' Krishna said.
Protests broke out in several Indian cities in response to the news of the attack, some calling for stricter U.S. gun laws. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal wrote to India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to urge the Indian government to press the Obama administration to do more to protect Sikhs living in the U.S.
"The government of India must get more actively and vigorously involved in getting the U.S. administration to address the issue in right earnest," wrote Badal.
"That this senseless act of violence should be targeted at a place of religious worship is particularly painful,'' Singh, a member of the Sikh community, said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell met with Indian government and Sikh community leaders over the weekend to express U.S. government condolences and pledge a thorough investigation. She also visited a Sikh temple in New Delhi to pay her respects.
Back in Washington, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman spoke with India's ambassador to Washington Nirupama Rao to condemn the attacks and offer condolences.
"Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and the Sikh community. This is a tragic incident, especially because it happened in a place of worship. Religious freedom and religious tolerance and fundamental pillars of American society," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at Monday's press briefing.
Singapore - Security in the South China Sea, tensions in North Korea, and the changing nature of Asian security will top the agenda this weekend at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the largest annual gathering of Asian and Pacific defense officials and experts in the world.
Your humble Cable guy is already on the ground as the top delegations from 28 countries, including 16 defense ministers, convene on the island city-state this weekend for the 12th annual iteration of the conference, run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) out of London. Last year's event was packed with news, as when then Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a new U.S. plan to increase the U.S. military commitment to Southeast Asia.
Gates met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at last year's event and Liang fought off verbal attacks from several regional powers on China's aggressive activities in the maritime domain. He even answered several questions posed by The Cable. Although the United States and China tried to portray an image of improving U.S.-China military ties, last year's event highlighted the deep disparity between the two country's visions for the region.
This year, the United States is sending a large, high-level delegation led by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert.
There will also be a hefty U.S. congressional delegation here in Singapore, including Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Panetta, who is also traveling to Vietnam and India on the trip, will focus his speech in Singapore on the U.S. military shift toward Asia. He previewed those remarks in a May 29 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
"America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots," Panetta said. "America's future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific."
Panetta will travel to China for the first time as Defense Secretary later this year. For Washington, the conference is a chance to drive home its commitment to Asian security, said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of IISS. For China, the conference is an opportunity to defend its actions and intentions toward its neighbors.
"This year the U.S. will reaffirm its rebalancing to Asia, what they earlier called the ‘pivot' to Asia that they are now calling ‘the rebalancing,'" Chipman said. "China has had a challenging year with the region, which is simultaneously attracted and intimidated by Chinese power."
In a change from last year, China won't be sending an official at the defense-minister level. Sources familiar with the discussions said that due to the sensitive nature of China's impending leadership transition, the Chinese government is being unusually cautious about its public interactions.
That will shift some of the attention to the other regional powers, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and Malaysia. For example, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will give the opening keynote address. Thai defense minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat will attend for the first time, as will the defense minister of Myanmar, Lt. Gen. Hla Min. Indian defense minister A K Antony will deliver another one of the keynote speeches.
"We know what the U.S. and China think. It will be interesting to see how the medium powers seek to frame the discussion," Chipman said. "Indonesia sees itself now not just as a leading country in Southeast Asia but as a G-20 power. It wants to play a larger role in defining the security agenda in the region."
As with many of these conferences, much of the real action will take place on the sidelines -- in a series of bilateral, small group, and off the record meetings that will occur alongside the official festivities. This year there will be an off-the-record session on tensions in the South China Sea in which Chinese and Filipino officials will participate.
Other special sessions will cover the role of armed forces in international emergencies, the evolution of submarine warfare, cyberwarfare, and the emergence of new military systems such as unmanned vehicles.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea will use the opportunity of the conference to hold a trilateral side meeting, where the North Korea nuclear issue is expected to be discussed. Indonesia, Australia, and India will hold another small multilateral meeting, possibly including Japan.
There will be more than 200 bilateral meetings in Singapore as well, in addition to the dozen or so small multilateral gatherings. That's the whole idea of bringing these officials to Singapore for three days, Chipman said.
"Almost all the defense ministers refer to it as ‘the indispensable forum' for defense discussions," he said. "It really allows for a larger variety of discussions that no other forum in Asia -- official or unofficial -- permits."
We'll be blogging and tweeting (@joshrogin) the entire time. Watch this space.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman has decided to go to New Delhi on his whirlwind trip around the region to gather support for reconciliation talks with the Taliban, only days after Pakistan said he was not welcome there.
Grossman is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) today as part of a multi-nation tour that is aimed at gaining broad buy-in for the administration's plan to start a reconciliation process with the Taliban. He left Jan. 15 on a trip that includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Afghanistan, and Qatar, where he reportedly will be finalizing the arrangements for the opening of a Taliban representative office in Doha.
The State Department admitted on Tuesday that Grossman wanted to visit Pakistan but that Islamabad asked him not to come, as they are finishing their overall review of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship following the Nov. 26 NATO killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan border. NATO supply routes through Pakistan have been blocked ever since and the Obama administration, though it has privately offered condolences, refuses to publicly apologize for the incident.
So, to fill in time in his schedule, Grossman added a stop in New Delhi, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland revealed at Wednesday's press briefing. He'll be there on Friday, just before going to Kabul, and the stop was just added to his agenda. No word on who he'll be meeting there.
"Is that a message to Pakistan because they rejected him?" The Cable asked Nuland.
"In no way," Nuland responded. "We made clear that we would welcome a stop by Ambassador Grossman in Islamabad on this trip. You know that the Pakistanis are looking hard internally at our relationship. They asked us to give them time to do that, so he will not be going there on this trip."
Still, it's hard not to notice that Grossman is filling the time left open by his Pakistan rejection with a visit to that country's bitter rival. Nuland said India is a crucial player in the way forward in Afghanistan.
"We believe that India has a role to play in supporting a democratic, prosperous future for Afghanistan," she said. "They're very much a player in the New Silk Road initiative. These are all part and parcel of the same ‘fight, talk, build' strategy. India does, as you know, support police training and other things in Afghanistan. So it's important that we keep those lines of communication open."
This will be Grossman's second visit to India since joining the administration. He last visited India as well as Pakistan with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October.
While Washington grappled with the consequences of Kim Jong Il's death, the United States, Japan, and India held the first meeting of what is shaping up to be a robust trilateral dialogue -- but all sides have been quick to say that it's not aimed at isolating China.
The four-hour meeting was held at the State Department on Dec. 19, and the U.S. delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Bob Blake. Other U.S. officials in attendance included State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and NSC Senior Director for Strategic Planning Derek Chollet.
The Japanese contingent was led by Koji Tsuruoka, deputy vice minister for foreign policy, who was visiting Washington with Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. The Indians flew in two officials, Joint Secretary for the Americas Jawed Ashraf and Joint Secretary for East Asia Gautam Bambawale.
Two State Department officials described the meeting for The Cable. "What I really loved about it was that it just seemed like a very natural conversation among friends," one of the officials said. "The amazing thing about our governments is that we really have shared values. That's the foundation of it all. That's the glue that binds us together."
The officials defined those shared values as democracy, human rights, rule of law, transparency, open markets, freedom of navigation, and an interest in international development work. "There wasn't a moment of dissonance in the whole thing," the official said. "The challenge now is to figure out what specifically we can focus on."
This was the first trilateral meeting between the three countries; the main objective of which was to set the foundation for future talks, discuss what issues would be on the agenda going forward, and set the goal of meeting again in Tokyo next year.
Topics that were discussed inside the meeting included Afghanistan, where Japan and India are large donors, the recent East Asia Summit, Central Asia, and Burma.
"We talked about how we can work together within all these Asian organizations to advance our shared values ... and what can do to help improve the workings of all these various fora," the State Department official said. "We agreed that we need to focus our collective efforts in Afghanistan to make sure all the values we share in Afghanistan are upheld and observed."
The U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue is just the latest of the "mini-laterals" that the United States has undertaken recently. These groupings, which are smaller than often cumbersome multilateral groups, are becoming a preferred way for the United States to build consensus around policies with friends and allies.
There is another trilateral strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, and Australia that has been ongoing for five years, and now has half a dozen working groups. The United States and India have had a bilateral dialogue about East Asia for over two years now, led by Campbell and Blake. That dialogue has held four official meetings.
The State Department official said the United States is interested in setting up some "mini-lateral" structures that include China. U.S. policymakers also want to start a U.S.-India-China trilateral dialogue, the official said, but the Chinese won't sign on.
"Our Indian friends are happy to do it, we're willing to do it, but our Chinese friends are a little wary," the official said. The Japanese have also put forth the idea of a U.S.-Japan-China trilateral dialogue.
The State Department wants to be clear that this week's meetings were not about China. In fact, they said that the rise of China and how to deal with it wasn't discussed at the Dec. 19 trilateral meetings.
"We did talk about China, but it was in the context of other things," the official said. "We were actually looking for things we could do jointly with China."
Experts said that even if the trilateral dialogue wasn't about China, the fact that all three countries are cooperating in the effort to deal with China's rise looms over the discussions.
"The growing cooperation with India and Japan is driven by China's rise, there's no doubt about that. That doesn't mean it's directly aimed at China," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). "They are all trying to respond to China's rise but not antagonizing China. From China's perspective, any cooperation is encirclement."
The initial Chinese reaction to the meeting was cautious. "U.S., Japan and India are countries with great influence in the Asia-Pacific region. We hope the trilateral meeting will be conducive to regional peace and stability," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.
Countries like India are interested in deepening their ties with China as well as the United States, but joining U.S.-brokered diplomatic architectures allows India to approach its engagement with China from a position of greater strength, said Cronin.
He also said that the effort was part of the U.S. goal of increased burden sharing with India, to offset the financial cost of maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia.
"The U.S. is not looking to spend a fortune, it's looking to be a facilitator," he said. "It brings India into East Asia and Japan into the Indian Ocean and it does that at a very low cost to the United States."
The State Department officials acknowledged that part of the driving force behind encouraging India to take on more responsibility was to shift some of the financial responsibility to countries whose economies are on the rise.
"The Indian government, for the first time in a long time, has money. It's a country that can greatly complement U.S. efforts in the region.... This theme of them being a net provider of security takes on more significance when all of a sudden they finally have the resources to expand their role," the official said.
"The whole world has been a free-rider on the United States for so long, if the Indians can help with that in an era when we face budgetary constraints, the more the better," the official said. "The U.S. has had the luxury in the past of going it alone, but it certainly makes sense to do it with your friends."
For Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), the path to reelection might go through New Delhi. He's pushing the Obama administration to nominate former California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who recently endorsed him, as the next ambassador to India.
"We write to support our friend, former Lieutenant Governor of California, Cruz Bustamante for the position of United States Ambassador to India," Sherman wrote in a letter he is planning to send to President Barack Obama, obtained by The Cable. "Mr. Bustamante has proven himself to be a capable, hard-working and dedicated civil servant. Given his long career of public service and his extensive work on issues of international trade and economic development, we are confident that Mr. Bustamante's appointment would bring strong leadership to the relationship between the United States and India."
The letter, which Sherman circulated this week to all California Democratic offices in search of co-signers, argued that Bustamante "has a wealth of experience and an extensive knowledge of Indian culture, politics and business." As chairman of the California Economic Development Commission, Bustamante helped open new international trade offices, including six in Asia (although none in India).
Other than that, his ties to India or foreign policy in general appear to be thin and he doesn't have international stature comparable to the last ambassador to New Delhi, former Rep. Tim Roemer.
Bustamante endorsed Sherman for reelection earlier this month. Sherman is currently in need of high-powered California endorsements because he is running against another well-liked incumbent Democrat -- House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA).
Berman and Sherman were both drawn into a newly created district in the Los Angeles area and will have to run against each other in what's shaping up to be a highly competitive and costly race. Berman has already announced that California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Henry Waxman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will all serve as honorary co-chairs for his campaign.
So far, Sherman's got the endorsements of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, California State Controller John Chiang, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, and others. Sherman also has poll numbers showing him in the lead, but it's still early in the race. Berman and Sherman might also have to run against each other twice, because the top two contenders coming out of the "jungle primary" next June will face off again in the November 2012 general election.
Sherman's chief of staff Don MacDonald told The Cable today that there's no linkage between Bustamante's endorsement and Sherman's letter recommending him for the India post.
"As to any suggestion that Sherman is doing this in return for some political benefit, Sherman actually urged that Bustamante seek this position well before redistricting, and a likely very tough race, came into focus. The endorsement came months after Sherman first mentioned the ambassadorship to him, well after Sherman had decided to undertake these efforts," MacDonald said.
Cruz placed second to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger 2003 election to recall Gov. Gray Davis and then lost an election in 2006 to become California Insurance Commissioner.
"When voters of California elected him lieutenant governor, they knew that on any day that person could become arguably the second or third most important government official in America," MacDonald continued. "So Cruz Bustamante has tens of millions of Californians who believe in his ability as well. With all due respect to the foreign policy wonks of the world, Governor of California is a much tougher job than ambassador."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a huge interagency team in New Delhi on Tuesday that has a strong focus on opening up Indian markets to U.S. companies, especially those in the defense and energy businesses.
"With regard to trade and investment, the ties between our countries are strong and growing stronger. The United States is proud to be one of India's largest trading partners and direct investors, and we welcome India's investment in the United States, which is rapidly on the rise," Clinton said at the start of the 2nd U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue. "This is a good news story -- but we would be remiss if we didn't strive to make it even better."
A State Department official told The Cable that the United States is aiming to reach $100 billion in two-way trade with India within a couple of years. "Our whole focus on this trip was to set some ambitious goals," the official said.
"Priorities include, number one, trying to deepen our economic cooperation, which has been growing substantially year on year, and she'll point out a few ways we think we can take it to the next level," one official told reporters on Clinton's plane.
Clinton was accompanied by a host of high-level U.S. government officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the President's Advisor for Science and Technology John P. Holdren, Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman, Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt, Export-Import Bank Chair Fred P. Hochberg, Overseas Private Investment Corporation Chair Elizabeth L. Littlefield, U.S. Trade and Development Agency Director Lee Zak, White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, and Acting National Security Staff Senior Director for South Asia Michael Newbill.
From the State Department specifically, Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake, Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, and Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer.
The meetings were not limited to trade, and covered almost every aspect of the bilateral relationship, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, East Asian strategy, counterterrorism, cyber security, science and technology, education, civil aviation, and climate change.
But economic issues and trade is certainly the primary focus of Clinton's time in India. Tomorrow, she will travel to the Indian city of Chennai, a huge manufacturing and information technology hub. Meanwhile, the administration's economics team will go on to Mumbai, India's financial center.
The Obama administration has been working hard to drum up defense and civilian nuclear business for U.S. companies in India. The United States lost out when India passed over U.S. companies for a $12 billion contract for new fighter jets. Clinton, however, praised a smaller subsequent deal to purchase $4 billion worth of U.S. transport planes.
"The Indian Air Force went in a different direction with the fighters, but we don't see that as the end of the world," the State Department official said. "We see billions of dollars of other defense deals coming down the pipeline."
Clinton also promised to stand by the U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement signed during George W. Bush's administration, despite a change in rules by the Nuclear Supplier Group that restricts the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) equipment. She urged India to sign the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) this year.
"Our strong view is that the NSG decision regarding ENR technologies changes nothing about the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal," the official said.
U.S. defense and nuclear trade with India always riles Pakistan, but the administration is determined to show both sides that the United States will not pick one over the other.
"The era of zero sum calculations with respect to U.S. relations with India and Pakistan should be over," said Karl Inderfurth, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It will be necessary to make it clear to both parties that the U.S. will not exercise a Sophie's Choice in these relations."
The meeting comes only one week after a terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed 19 people, and one week before Pakistani and Indian leaders are set to resume talks that broke off following the devastating 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
Tuesday's meetings were also Clinton's first opportunity to explain President Barack Obama's strategy for drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan to the Indian leadership. India fears that Pakistan may exploit a power vacuum in Afghanistan, where it has both economic and security interests..
The U.S. government, however, is internally divided between those who want to see more Indian activity in Afghanistan and those who are concerned that increased Indian involvement there endangers U.S.-Pakistan cooperation.
"Half of the U.S. government wants India to play a useful role in Afghanistan," said Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Stephen Cohen. "It's ludicrous because India is a crucial player in Afghanistan... We don't have an integrated policy."
President Obama's 10-day trip to Asia kicked off with a three-day stay in India - and that's no accident. The administration has been expanding its cooperation with India on a range of issues outside the South Asian subcontinent since this spring, when it began a high-level dialogue led by the State Department regarding how the two countries could collaborate in East Asia.
The effort, led jointly by the State Department's East Asia and Pacific (EAP) and South and Central Asia (SCA) affairs bureaus, has involved two high-level meetings between U.S. and Indian officials. The first meeting, held in New Delhi last spring, was led by Assistant Secretary of State for EAP Kurt Campbell but also included Derek Chollet, deputy director for policy planning, and SCA's Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Owens. The second round, which took place in Washington in September, also included Assistant Secretary of State for SCA Robert Blake. Defense Department and National Security Council officials participated as well.
The U.S.-India dialogue on East Asia is the first of a series of new consultations between the United States and India. Two State Department officials tell The Cable that similarly structured dialogues are planned for coordinating U.S. and Indian policy on Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere. But the East Asia-focused dialogue is the first and the only one that has had formal meetings so far.
"One of the reasons the president went to India is to consecrate this notion of India as a global power," one State Department official said. "Asia is one of the key areas where we see India increasing its role and its influence and its engagements overall."
Along with Obama's endorsement of India for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the joint statement issued by Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh codified the idea that the U.S.-India relationship was expanding to tackle global problems, specifically those in East Asia.
"The two leaders agreed to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia, and decided to expand and intensify their strategic consultations to cover regional and global issues of mutual interest, including Central and West Asia," the statement read.
The officials made it clear that the U.S.-India dialogue on East Asia is not meant solely to devise strategies for combating China's political and military rise.
"Both the Indians and the U.S. would 100 percent agree with the idea that the most important thing we have to do is we have to get China right. But this is not some conspiracy theory on containing China," one official said. But he did say that "India's role can become very important when it comes to managing a variety of shifts that are taking place in the Asia-Pacific."
So far, the discussions have centered around how the U.S. and Indian approach to regional organizations like the East Asia Summit, and how the two countries can cooperate on issues like climate change, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response.
Many East Asia experts, however, suspect that the dialogue's primary purpose is ultimately related to China's growing power.
"It all comes down to China," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. "China is right now an absolute ascendant power, even to the point where people are over projecting China's rise. If you can deny China its two ocean strategy, you have the potential to enlarge the chess pieces."
The move is part of an overall administration effort to develop a more cohesive U.S. strategy in Asia, Cronin said.
"What the State Department has done is break down the previous geographical barrier that was raised between East and South Asia," said Cronin. "India just gives you so much more maneuvering room. State is trying to take advantage of that, deliberately so and wisely so."
He warned that the Indians might not be able to move toward such seamless coordination as quickly as those in the United States might want them to.
"There's a massive hedging going on in Asia both for and against the U.S. and China. The Indians don't want to be drawn into a tight alignment against China. They want to play it both ways," Cronin said.
Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the dialogue represented "a significant change" in the countries' cooperation in East Asia.
"India not only wants to be part of that game, they want to make sure the United States is. The United States is very interested in having India being part of that game," she said. "This is a shift of emphasis for both countries."
The State Department's Sajit Gandhi will join the professional staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to be Chairman Howard Berman's (D-CA) new lead advisor on all things South Asia, The Cable has confirmed.
Gandhi, a young and well-respected foreign affairs officer, currently works in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research covering South Asia and before that was on Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke's staff.
He replaces Jasmeet Ahuja, Berman's previous South Asia advisor, who played a large role in the crafting of the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar-Berman Pakistan assistance package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama earlier this year. She began her studies at Stanford Law School this month.
Gandhi started out at State in 2004 as a foreign affairs officer, entering the diplomatic corps through the Presidential Management Fellowship program. Gandhi served as the action officer for South Asia in the office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism and as the political officer at the U.S. embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was also an advisor on South Asia in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, where he received a Meritorious Honor Award for his work on the State Department's annual country reports on human rights.
He has also worked as an associate for the Cohen Group, a Washington-based business consulting firm, and as a research associate for the National Security Archive. He holds a master's degree from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and a bachelor's degree from the Elliott School at the George Washington University. He is married to Bhumika Gandhi and the couple just welcomed to the world their first child, a beautiful girl named Seva.
Congrats to Sajit and the whole Gandhi family!
During President Obama's trip to Canada this weekend for the G-8 and G-20 meetings on global economic reform, the real action will be taking place in his meetings with several top Asian leaders on the sidelines of the events.
"We also want to use these meetings as an opportunity to underscore America's commitment to leadership and increased engagement in Asia," said a senior administration official about the trip. "We see this is an opportunity to continue our efforts to renew our leadership in Asia."
Five out of the six precious bilateral meetings Obama will grant over the weekend will go to leaders from East Asian countries. After the first meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in Toronto, his one-on-ones will be with President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, and the new Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan.
"That is, I think, an eloquent demonstration of the importance that the president attaches to Asia, the importance of Asia to our political security and economic interest," another senior administration official said.
For the Korea bilat, the sinking of the Cheonan will be at the top of the agenda. The U.N. debate over how to reprimand North Korea for sinking the ship is going on now and strategies for finishing that effort need to be discussed.
With the Chinese president, Obama will likely follow up on the slight change China made to its currency policy this week. Congress isn't quite yet satisfied with the move and is still pressing legislation, so Obama needs to find out whether Hu intends to go further.
In a blistering New York Times column Friday, Princeton University economist Paul Krugman argued that China's currency adjustment was "basically a joke" and called on Beijing to "stop giving us the runaround and deliver real change" or face trade sanctions.
Obama may also want to raise Beijing's refusal to resume military-to-military dialogue, as shown most dramatically when China refused to let U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visit last month when he was traveling in the region.
"It's our view and it's the president's view that military-to-military relations between the U.S. and China are in China's interest and in the U.S.'s interest," the senior administration official said. "This is not a favor that either side does to the other."
"We believe they should be continuous and should not be subject to ups and downs based on events in the relationship," he said, a reference to the administration's decision to go ahead with arms sales to Taiwan over Beijing's vociferous objections, as well as Chinese anger over Obama's welcoming of the Dalai Lama in February.
With Japan's Kan, Obama's mission is to make nice and get off to a better start than he did with ousted Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. The Kan administration definitely seems to be on board with that idea and the White House is sending the message that, as far as the United States is concerned, the dispute over the Futenma air station on Okinawa is settled.
"Prime Minister Kan has made clear that he endorses the agreement that we reached on basing in Okinawa. He does not question it, and he's looking to strengthen the alliance," the senior administration official said.
Obama is scheduled to visit India, Japan, and Korea on a trip in November, so the meetings are also meant to prepare for that as well. No word yet on whether Indonesia will be added as a stop.
Most will point to President Obama's announcement that he will visit India in early November as the biggest news to come out of the ultra-swanky reception he attended at the State Department Thursday evening to celebrate the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.
But the real news was buried deeper in Obama's remarks. Did you know that during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's July trip to India, a local restaurant named a dish after her called the "Hillary Platter"?
"What does it have, chapati?" Obama joked, to the delight of the assembled elites of the U.S.-India policy community, who convened in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room to celebrate what was clearly a warm and friendly set of interactions between the two sides, led by Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna over the last two days.
"It's got all kinds of things," Clinton responded, getting a good laugh from the crowd, which included a host of officials and luminaries, including Policy Planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter, her deputy Derek Chollet, Under Secretary Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, NSC South Asia Director Anish Goel, Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar, U.S. Ambassador Timothy Roemer, Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, India expert Ashley Tellis, and many others.
Obama promised to try the dish when he gets to India, in response to a yelled-out question from an Indian member of the audience, and declared, "I intend to create an ‘Obama Platter.'"
Man, that guy is competitive!
He also gave a shout-out to 2009 National Spelling Bee champion Kavya Shivashankar, who is an Indian-American.
In her remarks, Clinton gave credit to employees of the State Department and other agencies, who did the heavy lifting to make the Strategic Dialogue happen.
"Mr. President, we have worked hard today, and we've actually been working hard ever since the strategic dialogue was agreed to between you and Prime Minister Singh. Many of the people you see before you are the people who are actually doing the work that make minister Krishna and I look like we're fulfilling our responsibilities," she said.
The reception was elegant, with a menu that included savory parmesan flan, carrot and apricot fritters with vanilla-apricot chutney, Argentinean pulled chicken, petite lamb burgers, samosas, and sesame-encrusted salmon. Your humble Cable guy felt it was his duty in reporting on the event to sample each dish, washing them down with glasses of champagne flavored with hibiscus flowers.
By the way, Clinton isn't the only Washingtonian to have an Indian dish named after them. Next time you are at your local Indian restaurant, try ordering the Rogan Josh (seriously).
Ron Sachs-Pool via CNP
U.S. and India officials are meeting in Washington today for the first U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, an important powwow between the world's oldest democracy and its largest -- two countries seeking to improve their ties after decades of mutual wariness and missed opportunities.
But who's in charge of India policy in the Obama administration?
Obama's India team is centered at the State Department, but includes contributions from the Defense and Commerce departments, the National Security Council, and elsewhere. But according to insiders, what's remarkable about the senior officials working on India is that most of them are not India experts by training. The list includes China hands, Japan hands, Af-Pak experts, along with top diplomats and policy generalists, but few specialists for whom India is a prime area of concern. As a result, many on the Indian side feel their interests haven't been as well represented within the Obama administration as they could be.
"The U.S. commitment to India is at one level emotional, on another level intellectual. The third dimension is how that's reflected in the personnel and bureaucratic choices," said one India hand close to the administration. "There are just not a huge number of champions of India at the highest level."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has good relations with India, and traveled there as first lady and also as secretary last July. But the trip didn't yield too many big results, some say, and it's not clear how Clinton intends to deepen and grow bilateral ties.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns has been doing most of the heavy lifting leading up this week's dialogue, even traveling to India to prepare. Burns, whose prior experience is mainly in the Middle East and in Moscow, is an able diplomat with wide-ranging responsibilities. For example, he's the point man on Iran sanctions negotiations, and has been deeply involved in Russia policy. Experts contrast his efforts with those of his predecessor Nick Burns (no relation), who focused on India constantly and used his close connection to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to push for warmer ties, notably in the form of a civilian nuclear agreement.
Below Bill Burns is Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, who manages the U.S.-India relationship on a daily basis for the State Department. A well-regarded former ambassador to Sri Lanka and deputy chief of mission in New Delhi, Blake is seen as more of a caretaker than a strategic thinker when it comes to India policy. Blake replaced Richard Boucher, the former Bush administration spokesman who clashed with Af-Pak special representative Richard Holbrooke at the very start of the Obama administration. Blake is more of a team player.
"Bob Blake is a sherpa. He looks after all the day-to-day affairs that have to be managed," one insider said.
As for Holbrooke, the Indians have been very successful in keeping their country out of his portfolio, out of concern at being linked too closely to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke still travels to India, though not as much as he would like, and the Indians still meet with him, probably more than they would like. Holbrooke isn't at this week's dialogue; he's on vacation celebrating his 15th wedding anniversary.
Other State Department officials heavily involved in India policy include Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Principal Deputy Director of Policy Planning Derek Chollet. Campbell is a big proponent of the U.S.-India relationship, which he largely sees in the context of traditional balance-of-power politics in Asia. Campbell is influential enough to have an impact, but some see him as another example of India policy being run through East Asia experts. Chollet is described as wanting to be active and helpful on India, but by virtue of his position is dealing with many different issues all the time.
"The number of people who care about India in this administration are really just a handful," one expert said. "That is the heart of the problem."
That concern about India battling with China for administration attention also carries over to the National Security Council. The Senior Director for South Asia is Anish Goel, who was recently promoted to the position. Goel, a bright, young staffer who came over from State, is an MIT-trained chemical engineer and is particularly knowledgeable about nuclear issues. But outsiders and many in India worry that he doesn't have the public profile or experience to argue for more attention India at the NSC, unlike Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader, a preeminent China expert.
We are also told, but can't confirm, that Goel reports up to Dennis Ross rather than Bader, making it even more unclear how much access he has to senior White House leadership.
Over at the Defense Department, Deputy Secretary Bill Lynn and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Pacific and Asian Affairs Wallace "Chip" Gregson deal with India the most on joint military exercises and military sales. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is also a key India player in the sense that nuclear issues -- still an important topic given the civil nuke deal -- sooner or later go through his shop.
The Commerce Department is becoming increasingly important in the U.S.-India relationship, as the Obama administration seeks more access to Indian markets and the Indians ask for more ability to buy "dual-use" technologies from American firms. For that thorny issue, Matt Borman, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, is crucial. He has a very long history of working with India and is well respected.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers who have shown a lot of interest in U.S.-India relations include Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, who is very active on nonproliferation issues. But in general, experts warn, Congress isn't driving India policy in any meaningful way.
"If they are lucky, they can stop the administration from doing things, but they can't compel the administration to do the right things," one expert said.
When India looks at the United States these days, it sees a world power that is too consumed with crises and problem countries to give it the attention and respect it deserves. When the U.S. looks at India, it sees a growing market for goods and services that can help it recover from years of economic malaise.
That's the frame for this week's first-ever U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington, when a host of senior leaders from both sides will spend days going over various aspects of the complex relationship and seeing where improvements can be made. Some big issues are on the table: Afghanistan, nukes, China, Iran, etc. But with few expectations of new advancements on those issues, the key deliverables the U.S. side is seeking are mostly on the economic front.
The Obama administration made some missteps in its first months in dealing with India, leading many there to conclude that the Bush administration's drive to improve ties was not being continued by the Obama team.
Since those early days, said Ashley Tellis, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "both sides are making really strong efforts to show that the momentum has not lapsed."
"Whether that has paid off will depend on what they will announce at the end of the dialogue," said Tellis. "The burden on the administration with respect to showing their commitment to the relationship is higher than usual."
But the success or failure of the dialogue will be more about tone than substance, analysts say. The U.S. side has some specific "asks": the Obama team wants India to open up its economy by increasing caps on foreign direct investment, allowing increased market access, indicating openness to genetically modified foods, paving the way for American insurance firms to enter India, and increasing access for American retail firms like Walmart.
But since these are decisions that have to be made in New Dehli in accordance with the next budget cycle, there probably won't be any more than general acknowledgement by the Indians that they intend to move in that direction.
"We're really not focused that much on deliverables," Assistant Secretary Robert Blake said about the dialogue. "The purpose of this dialogue is really to think strategically and to get the key people who work on these issues together to think ahead to the president's visit and to think strategically about what we can do." Obama is due to visit India later this year, but no date has yet been announced.
India's wish list is of a more diplomatic and political nature. Manmohan Singh's government, like its predecessors, is looking for overt U.S. support for its drive to be named a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. U.S. officials say that could only come as part of an overall U.N. reform effort (which nobody predicts is imminent). India also wants assurances that the United States will not link U.S.-India relations to Pakistan, China, or any other issue that might constrain U.S. decision making.
Under Secretary of State Bill Burns referred to that concern directly in remarks Tuesday.
"Some in India worry that the new administration is tempted by visions of a G-2 world," he said, referring to last year's popular buzzword for the U.S.-China relationship, "... that we've downgraded India because we see Asia exclusively through the lens of an emerging China, with India's role secondary."
"Let me speak plainly to those concerns. This administration has been, and will remain, deeply committed to supporting India's rise and to building the strongest possible partnership between us."
Indian anxieties about China were exacerbated during Obama's trip to Beijing in November, when he issued a joint statement that said the U.S. and China would "work together to promote peace, stability and development" in South Asia. The Indians are extremely sensitive to any hint that China, a close ally of Pakistan, has a role to play in what it sees as Indian affairs -- like the fraught subject of Kashmir.
The Obama administration quickly had to clarify that its intention was never to legitimate a Chinese role in South Asia, and the Chinese themselves disavowed any intentions of meddling. The wording was an oversight by the Obama administration, U.S. officials have said, not an intentional slight or a change in U.S. policy.
Burns addressed the controversy obliquely Tuesday, saying, "We do not see relations in Asia as a zero-sum game. Instead, we attach great significance to India's expanding role in East Asia, and welcome our partnership across the region." (Some might say Burns's comment risks a fresh diplomatic protest -- this time from China.)
President Obama himself irritated the Indians when he came into office, saying that working with Indian and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir crisis would be a "critical task" of his administration. He now says the U.S. would only play a role if asked to do so by both sides -- and India won't be asking.
Most experts see the Obama administration as being on message about the India relationship recently, despite Indian diplomats' ongoing concerns about the level of attention they are getting from Washington.
"The Obama administration is doing OK. It's a crisis-driven administration and India is non-crisis country. That's misinterpreted in India as ‘We don't love them enough,'" said Teresita C. Schaffer, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
She said that the apparent U.S. focus on India's economy does not indicate a lag in the Obama administration's commitment to engaging India on strategic issues.
"That's a false distinction," she said, "because the strategic significance of the relationship rests on India's expanding economy and economic issues have become national-security issues and factor strongly into India's strategic calculus."
Nevertheless, U.S. and Indian priorities regarding perhaps the most important international issue among them -- the ongoing U.S.-led war in Afghanistan -- are somewhat different, particularly when it comes to the role of Pakistan.
"India does not want to see the U.S. involvement end in failure or the U.S. leave too soon. What it mostly does not want to see is Afghanistan as a client state of Pakistan," said Schaffer. "Pakistan's objective in Afghanistan is to minimize India's influence ... The rub is that U.S. is trying to keep Pakistan in the mix so they don't become a spoiler."
The agenda this week is full. On Wednesday, Burns and his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, will lead a foreign-policy dialogue that will cover Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, China, and other issues. Separately that day, top White House economic advisor Larry Summers will give the keynote address at a related meeting of the U.S.-India Business Council.
Then on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the full dialogue session with her counterpart, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna. There will be a working lunch and a reception that evening. Other notable officials on the Indian side will include Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy head of the planning commission, Education Minister Kapil Sibal, and Prithviraj Chavan, the minister for science and technology.
On the U.S. side of the table, important officials include National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and others. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will not be there. He's on travel and will be represented by Under Secretary Michèle Flournoy. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will also be absent.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will also not be in attendance -- but don't read anything into that, U.S. officials say. His spokesman said he was away on a pre-arranged trip to Barcelona to celebrate his 15th wedding anniversary. His deputy Paul Jones and senior advisor Vali Nasr will attend in Holbrooke's absence.
The State Department is being extremely cagey about how it views the prospect of a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, which multiple reports say the Pakistani delegation is likely to propose this week in Washington. But the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Not so much.
When you think about it, the State Department's position makes perfect sense. Why throw cold water on the idea only one day before the brand-new U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue? Even though the practicalities of giving explicit nuclear assistance to Pakistan are extremely complicated, to say nothing of the politics -- giving that country's proliferation risks, ties to extremists, and failure to punish one-man nuclear arms merchant A.Q. Khan -- it doesn't hurt to let them dream, right?
"I'm sure that that's going to be raised and we're going to be considering it, but I can't prejudge or preempt what the outcome of our discussions will be," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Pakistan's Express TV Group in a Monday interview. She was quick to point out that a similar deal with India "was the result of many, many years of strategic dialogue."
At Tuesday's State Department press conference, spokesman P.J. Crowley was equal parts polite and vague when questioned about a nuclear deal.
"As far as I know, we have not been talking to Pakistan about a civilian nuclear deal," he said. "If Pakistan brings it up during the course of the meetings in the next two days, we'll be happy to listen."
OK, so the administration is open to listening to Pakistan's desire for a deal within the context of the strategic dialogue. And the Pakistanis made it clear in their 56-page prep document that they want such a deal.
On Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are still smarting from the last deal they made with Pakistan (when Pakistan complained about the billions of dollars U.S. taxpayers are giving them) and still fighting over who gets to spend those billions, the prospect of a sweeping new nuclear deal with Pakistan seems too far-fetched to even discuss right now.
"I don't think it's on the table right now considering all over the other issues we have to confront," Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry, D-MA, told The Cable. "There are countless things that they would have to do in order to achieve it. If they're willing to do all those things, we'll see."
Kerry emphasized that he believed a nuclear deal was not "directly" part of the strategic dialogue this week.
"There are a lot of things that come first before that. It's really premature," he went on. "It's appropriate as something for them to aspire to and have as a goal out there, but I don't think it's realistic in the near term."
His words were echoed by his Republican counterpart Richard Lugar, D-IN, who told The Cable he believes the idea of a nuclear deal should be delinked from the strategic dialogue.
"I think it's premature. It's not likely to be part of the agenda at this time," he said.
Lugar said he totally understands Pakistan's desire for energy cooperation and even gets why the country would sign a gas pipeline deal with Iran, which could certainly irk the United States as it pursues petroleum sanctions against that very regime.
"Everybody is desperate for resources and that has superseded a number of other considerations," Lugar said.
Kerry and Lugar each met separately Tuesday morning with Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was in Washington ahead of the State Department talks.
Is there any connection between Pakistan's stunning arrests of top Taliban leaders and last week's rare meeting between senior Indian and Pakistani diplomats? And did the Obama administration somehow deliver India to the table in exchange for Pakistan's cooperation?
Those were the questions lingering in Washington Friday as a handful of South Asia experts sat down for lunch with Vice President Joseph Biden. But two India and Pakistan experts who attended the lunch saw no link between the events, though they said it's in the administration's interest to act as if they were.
"The story is far more prosaic than it appears," said Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wouldn't comment on the specifics of his conversation with Biden. "I don't think the administration is sure that there actually is a fundamental change in Pakistani behavior. Only time will tell on that score."
"For various reasons, the administration is happy to insinuate they had a role, because if nothing else it gives them a little more leverage against Pakistan. But I think they know very clearly that these talks occurred because the Indian prime minister wanted them to happen," said Tellis. "I don't think there is anyone in the administration that seriously believes that it is what they did that brought [Indian Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh to the point where he was willing to talk to the Pakistanis."
The Obama team has been advocating for a renewed India-Pakistan dialogue for many months, and the speculation that U.S. intercession influenced India's decision also allows Pakistani government to defend its cooperation with the Obama administration to a skeptical domestic audience, Tellis said.
"It's almost wishful thinking," Tellis said. "This is one instance where both Pakistani and American interests are satisfied symmetrically by the survival of the story."
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council, agreed that the U.S. role in both the Pakistani decision to change its approach and the Indian decision to resume talks was minimal.
"All of this was really motivated by their own interests ... It appears that it was almost an accidental coming together of the objectives of the U.S. and Pakistan," said Nawaz, who also was in the Friday lunch with Biden and wouldn't comment on their conversation. "I frankly don't think there was any deal done; I don't think there was any strategic shift."
There are plenty of conspiracy theories out there, mostly in the Pakistani press, claiming that the U.S. made some deal with the Pakistani government in exchange for the recent arrests, but Nawaz was skeptical.
"What did Pakistan get out of this at this point from the U.S.?" asked Nawaz. "I don't see an awful lot that appears to have emerged."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, agreed that while the administration has been active on encouraging the Pakistanis to move against the Afghan Taliban, there was no quid pro quo.
"There's a lot of U.S. role in terms of the long discussions over what's in their interest, but we didn't give them anything," said Kerry, who was just in Pakistan only two weeks ago.
He also said the United States wasn't directly involved in pushing for or setting up the India-Pakistan summit.
"We didn't broker it; we urged both sides that they needed to get it going," Kerry said. "So it's been on our agenda but they finally just decided it was in their own interests."
There is still a laundry list of things the Pakistanis want from the United States, including increased military aid (some of which is coming) and reimbursement of what Pakistan sees as its outlays for operations already completed.
Following the recent visit of Special Representative Richard Holbrooke to Islamabad, the U.S. agreed to reimburse Pakistan some $349 million for military operations covered by the Coalition Support Fund, a congressionally appropriated pool of money designate for that purpose.
But Pakistan estimates its out-of-pocket expenses covered under the fund were $2 billion through 2009, leaving a hefty tab left to be paid. That's all separate from the $1.5 billion set to go to Pakistan this year under the Kerry-Lugar aid bill.
When the Kerry-Lugar aid money gets disbursed, that will be the next test of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Nawaz said, because the ability of the Pakistani government to responsibly handle the money could reduce the need for costly and intrusive American monitors and inspectors. That's crucial in the trust building between the two governments and the two populations.
"The Obama administration understands that it's still not a perfect relationship, that there are questions on both sides," he said. "We also have to understand that public sentiment in both countries appears to mirror each other and that complicates the state-to-state relationship."
In his landmark strategy speech Tuesday, President Obama stressed the importance of Pakistan to the success of the fight against terrorism and extremism in South Asia, but he didn't offer many details. One reason could be that there are no new concrete deliverables or changes in approach related to Pakistan to announce, and all of the ideas Obama has for advancing the relationship are waiting for Pakistani buy-in.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that that Obama didn't want to trigger Pakistani sensitivities by talking too much about the U.S. military operations there. In reality, the substance of any new items of cooperation Obama is proposing to Pakistan are a long way from being finalized.
At West Point, Obama talked about the need to help Pakistan economically, build Pakistani civic institutions, and even work on some sort of rapprochement between Pakistan and India, all while pressing Pakistani leaders to do more to confront extremists in their midst.
"Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust," Obama said. "We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear."
But everything Obama said regarding Pakistan was already administration policy, so what's new as of Tuesday's announcement? Nothing yet.
"Beyond what the president said in his speech in terms of a roadmap for building U.S.-Pakistan relations, I do not believe there is anything else [planned or agreed at this point]," a State Department official involved in the issue said in an interview with The Cable.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Obama sent Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari a letter, delivered by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, offering Pakistan a new strategic relationship with the U.S. in exchange for really tackling the extremist problem once and for all, in what some insiders are calling a "grand bargain."
But the State Department official downplayed the significance of the letter (which he had not personally seen), describing the administration's outreach to Pakistan as a "methodic, long run policy."
"We're not pivoting this relationship on any big transaction," the State Department official said. "I do not believe the new Pakistan strategy is based on suddenly introducing a big offer on the table to get the Pakistanis to carry out a specific act. It's trying to really build a long-term partnership that hasn't existed in a long time."
Then on Wednesday, the New York Times came out with a story about how Obama had secretly authorized a significant expansion of U.S. military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan, including expanded drone strikes targeting Afghan Taliban in addition to those insurgents attacking the Pakistani government.
But even the Times piece acknowledged, regarding Obama's Pakistan expansion, that "the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr. Obama's intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed."
Pakistani sources told The Cable that Zardari has not responded to Obama's letter and while the Zadari government was generally open to greater cooperation, negotiations could take months.
That didn't stop Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from testifying today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "We will significantly expand support intended for Pakistan to develop the potential of their people." Of course, that's true based on the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan aid bill, which passed in September, and other initiatives, but that's not new.
Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, honed in on the gaps in the administration's announced strategy.
"It is not clear how any expanded military effort in Afghanistan addresses the problem of Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens across the border in Pakistan," he said. "If these safe havens persist, any strategy in Afghanistan will be substantially incomplete."
Underlying the dynamic is the open question of whether the Pakistani military, which has been getting attacked ruthlessly and repeatedly by extremists lately, has either the capacity or the will to expand its fight to militants who are only interested in creating havoc on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
"[The Pakistani military] feels that they're stretched; they feel that they need to maintain [their ties to the Afghan Taliban] due to potential hostilities with India and uncertainty about the long-term American presence," said J Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace.
He said getting Pakistan's government to give up supporting the Afghan Taliban, "out of all of this stuff, is the hardest sell."
Shuja Nawaz, director for South Asia at the Atlantic Council, said that until the Pakistanis respond to Obama's overtures, there is no "grand bargain."
"Basically I think it's a reaffirmation of the commitment to Pakistan," he said, "which is probably all the president can do in letter form."
When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes to Washington next week, the Obama administration will be challenged to reassure India, and the Washington foreign-policy community, that the relationship is keeping up the momentum established during the Bush years.
The visit comes at a time when the Obama administration is making overtures to China and focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Indians are worried their rank on the White House priority list is falling. While U.S.-India relations are generally strong, in what is often seen as the zero-sum struggle for White House attention, New Delhi simply can't compete with Beijing and is increasingly worried about what that means for power politics in Asia.
"From the Indian point of view, they are very unhappy with Obama," said Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, "Indians are really bent out of shape by what they see as a shift of American policy from India to China in Asia. This is complicated by America's dependence on Pakistan."
Administration critics saw Obama's joint statement with Hu Jintao in Beijing as an implicit downgrading of the U.S.-India relationship. The statement said the "two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region."
"If China and America work together on South Asian issues, such as peace between India and Pakistan, then China is the great power while India is simply another South Asian country that needs help from others to solve its problems," wrote former Pentagon official Dan Blumenthal, "With the joint statement, Obama officially accorded India junior status in Asia."
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security, said that while "the relationship with India is clearly coming second," progress in the U.S.-China relationship indirectly benefits India.
"If the United States and China can't figure out a way to manage their strategic competition, then India and all of us lose," said Cronin. "They need to give the administration more space to try to put the U.S.-China relationship on the most positive trajectory possible."
Nevertheless, the Obama-Singh summit will stand in stark contrast to Singh's 2005 tête-à-tête with George W. Bush, when the two countries embarked on a "strategic partnership" that has taken the relationship far and paved the way for the U.S.-India nuclear agreement.
"Bush already capitalized on what you could from that relationship," said Cronin. "They picked already the low-hanging fruit."
The trip is likely to result in agreements to move forward on second-tier issues, such as an educational agreement, some new military sales to the Indians, or shared information on homeland security. But on big issues like Iran, moving forward with nonproliferation, and coming to terms on climate change, India hands expect little movement.
Underlying the dynamic is a sense that the Obama administration has yet to really commit to a real plan for advancing the U.S.-India relationship. A State Department review is ongoing.
One issue is that there is no real powerful driver for India policy within the administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is well versed on India, but too busy to address it day-to-day. That work has fallen to Under Secretary of State William Burns, but he too has a broad portfolio. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake is the highest identifiable official with a constant, determined focus on the relationship. Even at the National Security Council, India doesn't have a strong advocate yet.
India lobbied against having Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as its lead interlocutor, leaving the relationship without a specific manager.
Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is hoping the Obama administration will take the opportunity to announce its support for India to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
"Although it would have no short-term practical consequence, it would provide the benefits in ‘atmospherics' sought from Prime Minister Singh's visit," he wrote.
That's not likely, according to most observers, but many argue that Obama must make some show of commitment to actually advancing the relationship, not just maintaining it.
"Obama needs to show that we are trying to institutionalize what is the growing strategic relationship with India," said Cronin. "He can't have the prime minister go back to New Dehli without having a sense that we know where we are going together."
Cohen pointed out that the White House might also be frustrated that India hasn't come through in the one area that could really benefit U.S. interests right now: reducing tensions with Pakistan so that Pakistan can divert its attention and resources toward cracking down on terrorism and militancy.
"Where is their contribution to what's going in Afghanistan and what are they doing with respect to Pakistan that might make our problem there easier?" asked Cohen of the Pakistanis. "What have they done for Americans lately?"
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The Indian government wants the United States to "stay the course" in Afghanistan, New Delhi's ambassador to Washington said Monday evening.
Speaking at a meeting of the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, Indian Ambassador H.E. Meera Shankar said the Indian government would not favor a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite recent trepidations expressed by senior U.S. Democratic lawmakers.
"We believe that peace, stability, and security in this region will require a sustained U.S. commitment and will not in a short time come to pass," she said. "We do think that the imperative to stay the course is strong and we would hope that this is something which the U.S. would find a way to accept."
Shankar also called on the U.S. government to make changes to the character and oversight of U.S. military assistance to Pakistan, in light of recent claims by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that he diverted U.S. aid meant to fight extremists to Pakistan's Indian front.
Although India supports the economic and development aid given to Pakistan, "We do feel that in the security field, the assistance should be more tightly focused on building counterinsurgency capabilities rather than conventional defense equipment, which can be diverted for other purposes," said Shankar, adding that there may be a need for greater accountability for how the funds are spent.
She also criticized the Pakistani government for what she sees as its slow-walking of the investigation and trials of suspects in the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Pointing out that the India-based trial for one of the alleged perpetrators is already well underway, she said that "Pakistan has yet to bring those responsible for the Mumbai attacks to trial."
"We would like more vigorous investigation of people who might have been responsible for the terrorist attacks and who at present have not been apprehended, including several key leaders," she added.
On the topic of climate change, Shankar addressed differences over the issue that were highlighted during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's July visit to New Delhi. According to reports, Indian officials told Clinton during that visit that India would not accept limits on carbon emissions, complicating the Obama administration's effort to secure an effective worldwide climate-change accord.
Looking ahead to December's U.N. climate-change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, Shanker said that due to India's rapid growth and sparse energy availability, "absolute reductions in emissions may become very challenging and perhaps impossible."
But she added that India could be guided by the declaration that came out of the July major-economies meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, which said that developing countries could alter their emissions in a way that represents a "meaningful deviation from business as usual."
"That provides a more realistic basis to move ahead and represents the consensus that could be forged at the end of that [next] meeting of major economies on climate change [in Copenhagen]," said Shankar.
The CIA played a back-channel role in serving as an arbiter and vehicle for intelligence sharing in order to ease tensions between India and Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks, the Washington Post reports today. "In the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the CIA orchestrated back-channel intelligence exchanges between India and Pakistan, allowing the two former enemies to quietly share highly sensitive evidence while the Americans served as neutral arbiters, according to U.S. and foreign government sources familiar with the arrangement," the paper writes.
Former U.S. intelligence sources concerned about the potential for the situation to escalate had brought the channel to the attention of The Cable a few weeks ago. A few days before Christmas, they said, the United States sent then Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell and veteran CIA analyst Charlie Allen, who at the time was a top DHS intelligence official, to India. Allen and McConnell were there to talk about Mumbai. Both have since retired and could not be immediately reached.
Also on the trip to India, another U.S. government official said on condition of anonymity, was Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "It was a quick in and out trip," the US official said, of the previously undisclosed visit of the three intelligence officials to India. "They got in on a Sunday [Dec. 21], and were out on Tuesday morning," Dec. 23. McConnell had previously visited India last June, the official said.
But the former intelligence officers said the person the United States should be sending to defuse a potential India-Pakistani conflict is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "The only guy in this administration they are likely to listen to is Gates," one former U.S. intelligence official said. "He's done this twice before." Gates, who was then deputy national security advisor for the first President Bush, was sent to "talk the Indians and Pakistanis out of war" in both 1988 and 1990, the former official, who had been among those involved in briefing Gates at the time, said.
The former official said the message Gates told India is, "If you go to war with Pakistan, you'll win. But your industrial infrastructure will be destroyed." And the message Gates told Pakistan is, "If you go to war with India, you'll lose. And at the end, you will not have a country."
"Bob Gates was the cool hand in keeping the Indians and the Pakistanis from going to war during Brass Tacks (Indian military exercise) in 1987," another former U.S. intelligence officer said, referring to when Gates was then serving as acting Director of Central Intelligence. "It was very tense."
"They are constantly shooting at one another along the line of control," the first former intelligence official said. "These little skirmishes risk getting out of hand. Both [India and Pakistan] feel they are great players at brinkmanship. But in fact they are terrible at it. They lose control very quickly. They don't know where their people are and what they are doing."
The former intelligence official strongly supported the regional approach to Afghanistan suggested by US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. "Afghanistan is a classic power vacuum," the former official said. "Neighbors see it as point of instability to guarantee their own stability or an opportunity to score points."
While the U.S. media has frequently reported on Pakistani ties to jihadi elements launching attacks in Afghanistan, it has less often mentioned that India supports insurgent forces attacking Pakistan, the former intelligence official said. "The Indians are up to their necks in supporting the Taliban against the Pakistani government in Afghanistan and Pakistan," the former intelligence official who served in both countries said. "The same anti-Pakistani forces in Afghanistan also shooting at American soldiers are getting support from India. India should close its diplomatic establishments in Afghanistan and get the Christ out of there."
"None of this is ever one-sided," he added. "That is why it was so devastating and we were so let down" when India got taken out of Holbrooke's official brief.
Holbrooke flew to India Sunday night after visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. "Mr. Holbrooke ... said he was shocked by the problems he saw in the country [Pakistan], which he last visited a year ago," the New York Times reports. "He said he was especially concerned that the Swat Valley, a onetime ski resort about 100 miles from Islamabad, had been seized by Taliban guerrillas, who blow up schools, assassinate police officers and beat -- or behead -- those who do not adhere to their strict version of Islam." On Sunday, the paper also reports, the Taliban declared a 10 day cease-fire with Pakistani forces in Swat valley.
The Post report, sourced initially to unnamed Pakistani officials, could be interpreted as an effort by Pakistan to prevent Indian actions against the country that some U.S. military analysts predict are likely before Indian elections this spring.
"The Indians are almost certainly going to do something before [their] elections," said AEI military analyst Thomas Donnelly. "They will strike camps in Pakistan. They are really pissed about the incompetence of the response to the [Mumbai] attacks. .... It doesn't look like the Pakistanis are willing to or even can do anything that will satisfy the Indians. I would really be surprised if something doesn't happen, unless that changes. They got an election coming up in March or April. It will be an interesting test for the United States."
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it would have no comment on travel taken by the DNI.
UPDATE: A Washington South Asia expert, among others, wrote to dispute the allegation made by a former U.S. intelligence official cited in the piece that India is aiding the Taliban, although he said such support may be going to other anti-Pakistan insurgent groups. "It doesn't square with my observations/sources, even though lots of Pakistanis will say it is true," one said. "The Indians have - by many accounts - had a longstanding connection with Baluch nationalists/separatists in Pakistan, but these are not Taliban and they aren't active in Afghanistan fighting against US/NATO forces. So yes, India gives Pakistan grief (as Pakistan has in India), but I've seen no evidence that it comes from Pakistani or Afghan Taliban.
"As for the consulates, that's a regular refrain from Pakistani government and military," the expert added, "but there's very little US evidence to support the claims of major Indian activity in these locations, which appear to be minor operations with rather few personnel." The former U.S. intelligence officer who made the allegation said that U.S. policymakers do not require the U.S. government to collect intelligence on the issue.
At an off-the-record Aspen Strategy Group meeting held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. in early December, a high-level delegation from India told American foreign policy experts -- including three officials who were part of the formal Obama transition team -- that India might preemptively make Richard Holbrooke persona non grata if his South Asia envoy mandate officially included India or Kashmir, people familiar with the meeting said.
Among the Obama transition figures who attended the meeting, held as part of the Aspen Institute's U.S. India Strategic Dialogue: former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig; Kurt Campbell, the director of the Aspen Strategy Group who is expected to be named assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs; and former Pentagon official Ashton Carter, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Such foreign-policy events occur throughout the city every week, of course, and it's certainly no surprise that top foreign-policy hands, including some who advised President Obama's campaign and his transition, were included.
But Obama administration officials have insisted to Foreign Policy that the Obama transition held no meetings with foreign governments or representatives of foreign governments at all during the transition. "The transition met with no foreign governments and no representatives of foreign governments pursuant to a policy laid out by the then President-Elect," one administration official said by e-mail. What's more, he said, in effect, they did not have to be influenced to exclude India from Holbrooke's official mission, because it was "not contemplated" for the South Asia envoy's portfolio to have an Indian role.
India's exclusion from the envisioned mission was not so obvious to everyone, however, including the Indians and several Washington South Asia hands. The New York Times' Mark Landler, moreover, reported Jan. 7 that Holbrooke would likely be named "a special envoy to Pakistan and India."
"The notion of an envoy on Kashmir or that would include Kashmir came up as soon as Obama mentioned it" in an October 2008 interview with Time, one Washington South Asia expert not associated with any of the campaigns and who did not attend the dialogue said on condition of anonymity. "It was widely discussed by the 50 key South Asia watchers."
And while the Obama transition may not have met with any foreign governments or representatives of foreign governments in any official capacity, foreign governments including India's did try to influence the future administration's policy decisions by working the phones, meeting with Obama transition figures at the margins of conferences, at Washington receptions, and through third parties.
"The message was clearly conveyed by India to the Transition and received," The Cable was told. "It led to a change in how Richard Holbrooke's mission was publicly described and unveiled."
The Obama people may be overly sensitive to the perception they were lobbied, suggested one person baffled by the new administration's insistence that no such contacts regarding South Asia occurred. "And then since the President-Elect said they were not meeting with any foreign government officials. [But] it seems unimportant to me," he said, referring to what he perceived as the Obama team's touchiness on this issue.
"There was a whole delegation of Indians who came through in early December through the Aspen dialogue," he said. "They were almost all former officials. They were interacting ... with people in various capacities, in addition to formal meetings inside the government. They were all over this - what Holbrooke's portfolio would be. The Indians were preemptively irate and were reacting in perhaps a disproportionate way" due to concerns that Holbrooke's mandate might officially include India or Kashmir.
The National Security Council did not respond to messages left by Foreign Policy. Campbell and Danzig did not immediately respond to messages. Carter e-mailed to say he only attended the lunch of the December U.S.-India dialogue.
Photo: File; Alex Wong/Getty Images
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- flanked by President Obama -- introduced Richard Holbrooke as the formidable new U.S. envoy to South Asia at a State Department ceremony on Thursday, India was noticeably absent from his title.
Holbrooke, the veteran negotiator of the Dayton accords and sharp-elbowed foreign policy hand who has long advised Clinton, was officially named "special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan" in what was meant to be one of the signature foreign policy acts of Obama's first week in office.
But the omission of India from his title, and from Clinton's official remarks introducing the new diplomatic push in the region was no accident -- not to mention a sharp departure from Obama's own previously stated approach of engaging India, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, in a regional dialogue. Multiple sources told The Cable that India vigorously -- and successfully -- lobbied the Obama transition team to make sure that neither India nor Kashmir was included in Holbrooke's official brief.
"When the Indian government learned Holbrooke was going to do [Pakistan]-India, they swung into action and lobbied to have India excluded from his purview," relayed one source. "And they succeeded. Holbrooke's account officially does not include India."
To many Washington South Asia experts, the decision to not include India or Kashmir in the official Terms of Reference of Holbrooke's mandate was not just appropriate, but absolutely necessary. Given India's fierce, decades-long resistance to any internationalization of the Kashmir dispute, to have done so would have been a non-starter for India, and guaranteed failure before the envoy mission had begun, several suggested.
"Leaving India out of the title actually opens up [Holbrooke's] freedom to talk to them," argued Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who served until December as a consultant for a lobbying firm, BGR, retained by the Indian Government.
But to others -- including Obama himself, who proposed a special envoy to deal with Kashmir during the campaign -- the region's security challenges cannot be solved without including India. Obama told Time's Joe Klein, that working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve their Kashmir conflict would be a critical task for his administration's efforts to try to counter growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Kashmir in particular is an interesting situation where that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically," Obama told Klein. "But, for us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this? ... I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won't be easy, but it's important." Obama also suggested in the interview that he had discussed the special envoy idea with former President Bill Clinton.
Whatever the case, the evidence that India was able to successfully lobby the Obama transition in the weeks before it took office to ensure Holbrooke's mission left them and Kashmir out is testament to both the sensitivity of the issue to India as well as the prowess and sophistication of its Washington political and lobbying operation.
"The Indians freaked out at talk of Bill Clinton being an envoy to Kashmir," said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The reason they were so worried is they don't want their activities in Kashmir to be equated with what Pakistan is doing in Afghanistan."
"They [India] are the big fish [in the region]," Markey added. "They don't want to be grouped with the 'problem children' in the region, on Kashmir, on nuclear issues. They have a fairly effective lobbying machine. They have taken a lot of notes on the Israel model, and they have gotten better. But you don't want to overstate it. Some of the lobbying effort is obvious, done through companies, but a lot of it is direct government to government contact, people talking to each other. The Indian government and those around the Indian government made clear through a variety of channels because of the Clinton rumors and they came out to quickly shoot that down."
Once Holbrooke's name was floated, the Indian lobbying campaign became even more intense. "The Indians do not like Holbrooke because he has been very good on Pakistan... and has a very good feel for the place" said one former U.S. official on condition of anonymity. "The Indians have this town down."
Initially, when Obama's plans for a corps of special envoys became public after the election, The Cable was told, the idea was for a senior diplomat to tackle the Kashmir dispute as part of the South Asia envoy portfolio and whose mandate would include India. But soon after the election and Holbrooke's name began to appear, the Indians approached key transition officials to make clear that while they could not affect what the new administration did with respect to envoys, that they would expect no mediation on the Kashmir issue.
"I have suggested to others, though not directly to Dick [Holbrooke], that his title should not/not include India, precisely so that he would be freer to work with them," Zelikow said. "If you understand Indian politics, this paradox makes sense."
"I did nothing for the [Government of India] on this," Zelikow added. The Indian government "talked directly to folks on the [Obama] transition team and I heard about it from my Indian friends. I think Holbrooke needs to talk to the Indians. But they are trying, understandably, to break out of being in a hyphenated relationship with America (i.e., comprehended on a mental map called India-Pakistan)."
Other sources said India's hired lobbyists were deployed to shape the contours of the U.S. diplomatic mission. According to lobbying records filed with the Department of Justice, since 2005, the government of India has paid BGR about $2.5 million. BGR officials who currently work on the Indian account, who according to lobbying records include former Sen. Chuck Hagel aide Andrew Parasiliti, former U.S. State Department counterproliferation official Stephen Rademaker, former Bush I and Reagan era White House aide and BGR partner Ed Rogers, and former House Foreign Affairs committee staffer Walker Roberts, did not respond to messages left Friday by Foreign Policy. Former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, who previously served as a lobbyist for India, left BGR in 2008 for the Rand Corporation. In addition, the Indian embassy in Washington has paid lobbying firm Patton Boggs $291,665 under a six-month contract that took effect Aug. 18, according to lobbying records.
"BGR has been a registered lobbyist for the Indian government since 2005," noted one Senate staffer on condition of anonymity. "The Indian government retained BGR for the primary purpose of pushing through the Congress the civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and India - hence the strategic hires of Bob Blackwill, the former U.S. Ambassador to India, and Walker Roberts, a senior staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee responsible for vetting past such agreements. BGR continues to actively lobby on behalf of the Indian government - their lobbyists sought to influence a recent Senate resolution on the Mumbai attacks. So I would be very surprised if BGR were NOT involved here."
(For its part, Pakistan has spent about $1,175,000, on lobbying during the past year, including on trade issues. That includes Dewey and LeBoeuf's work for the Ministry of Commerce, and Locke Lord's work for the Embassy of Pakistan and the Pakistan International Airlines Corp, according to lobbying records.)
It's not clear to experts and officials interviewed exactly who in the Obama transition team was contacted as part of the Indian lobbying effort. The White House did not respond to queries.
Asked about the decision to exclude India from the special envoy's official mandate, former NSC and CIA official Bruce Riedel, who served as the senior lead of the team advising the Obama campaign on South Asian issues, said by e-mail, "When Senator Clinton originally proposed the envoy idea in her campaign it was only for Afghanistan and Pakistan." He didn't respond to a further query questioning why Clinton's campaign comments on the issue mattered as much as Obama's, since, obviously, it was Obama who won the presidency and ultimately appointed her to carry out his foreign policy as the Obama administration's top diplomat.
UPDATE: An administration official responded that the transition met with no foreign governments and no representatives of foreign governments, pursuant to a policy laid out by the then President-Elect. He further said that it was never the intent for the South Asian envoy portfolio to include an Indian role.
UPDATE II: See related follow-up piece, "India's special envoy anxiety," here.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.