India Needs to Learn from Hagel Episode, Says Dhruva Jaishankar

Chuck Hagel is sworn into office as the 24th defense secretary by Michael L. Rhodes, the Defense Department's director of administration and management, as Hagel's wife, Lilibet, holds a Bible at the Pentagon, February 27, 2013

Must read

Washington, DC – The US Senate yesterday (February 26, 2013) confirmed former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, ending a protracted confirmation process. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, ruffled feathers in Delhi when he suggested in a previously unreleased 2011 video-taped speech that India has, “for many years,” sponsored terrorist activities against Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Hagel was shown accusing India in a video obtained by the Washington Free Beacon from Oklahoma’s Cameron University under Oklahoma’s Open Records Act.

Contradicting the sentiment expressed by Hagel, the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC reacted with a statement, saying, “Our attention has been drawn to some media reports about comments made by Senator Chuck Hagel in 2011 in which he reportedly alluded to ‘India financing problems for Pakistan in Afghanistan.’ Such comments attributed to Senator Hagel, who has been a long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-US relations, are contrary to the reality of India’s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people.”

The diplomatic statement went on to emphasize India’s commitment “to a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan,” concluding, “We will continue to work to help the Afghan people build a peaceful, prosperous, democratic and inclusive future for themselves in an environment free from terror and intimidation.”

As the new Secretary of Defense Hagel was sworn in on February 27, 2013 to replace the outgoing Leon Panetta, India America Today asked Dhruva Jaishankar, a Transatlantic Fellow with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC, to share his political analysis and the way forward.

What is your reaction to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel suggesting in a 2011 speech that India has “for many years” sponsored terrorist activities against Pakistan in Afghanistan?

Chuck Hagel’s words are certainly ill-advised, but they capture what is still unfortunately the prevailing view in Washington about India’s activities in Afghanistan: that they are part of an ongoing proxy conflict with Pakistan. Statements to that effect inadvertently justify Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, and legitimize their sense of insecurity with dangerous consequences for American interests and regional stability. If, however, India’s efforts in Afghanistan were to be portrayed as state-building in support of the Karzai government and the region’s security, it would be logical for the United States to promote those efforts and work more closely with India. I suspect Senator Hagel is only repeating what he has heard from Pakistani interlocutors. For example, he has also said that sanctions against Pakistan following its nuclear tests were short-sighted as they made it difficult to work with Islamabad in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This is a very one-sided reading of what happened, but it is probably influenced by conversations he has had with Pakistani civilian and military leaders.

You have said that Hagel is not predisposed towards liking or not liking India; what is the point that Indians are missing here?

I have discussed some of these issues at length with Hagel in person. It seems, we overestimate the amount of attention most American policy makers – including Hagel – spend thinking about India and its interests. I don’t believe his views on India are fully developed. Hagel has voted in favor of India on many occasions during his Senate career, so is not inherently anti-Indian as some have argued. But this incident does illustrate the work we in India need to do to better articulate Indian perspectives on matters of regional and global security to someone like Hagel, particularly when out of government. I am unaware of any Indian effort to engage him between 2008, when he retired from the Senate, and last year when he was nominated for Secretary of Defense.

Do you think Pakistani diplomatic machinery briefed Hagel, while Indians have been missing in the arena of essential diplomatic moves to showcase the Indian standpoint?

It’s not a question of a single briefing or lobbying efforts. There’s a lack of appreciation in New Delhi that Washington is a complex place where ideas and narratives compete and that the outcome of these debates have important consequences for Indian interests. New Delhi’s efforts at competing in the contest of ideas have been feeble. For example, Hagel spent much of the past few years as chairman of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, but Indian attempts at systematically engaging think tanks have been episodic at best. To their credit, I think Pakistani diplomats understand the value of proactive engagement with the broader American policy community, beyond the confines of government, and they have always managed to punch well above their weight as a result.

Do you have specific recommendations for the Indian diplomatic team in Washington, DC, as we know there is sluggishness and are no initiatives being taking?

It is not really my place to advise professional diplomats how to go about their jobs. To be fair, they have made immense strides in their outreach efforts since the late 1990s, despite being short-staffed and overworked. But I do think the Indian government as a whole can use this episode to learn some lessons. Hopefully, as a consequence, it can develop a strategy to engage with think tanks, journalists, business interest groups, universities, and NGOs in Washington and other major international capitals. It’s not enough for India to convince itself it is right on a given issue, it has to start convincing others too.

More articles

Latest article