Devil's Advocate: SM Krishna on India and Af-Pak
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Karan Thapar speaks to External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on India’s key relationships with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Karan Thapar: Foreign Minister, let us start with Afghanistan. Both the Associated Press and ‘The Washington Post’ believe that the attack on Indians in Kabul on the 26th of February was the work of the Lashkar-e-Toiba. As Foreign Minister are you convinced of the same?
S M Krishna: We have absolutely no evidence otherwise. I think it has been the handiwork of those forces who are out to see that the relationship between India and Afghanistan is jeopardized.
Karan Thapar: After initially expressing his doubts, Richard Holbrook has accepted that Indians were targets. But has the United States Government accepted that this was the work of the LeT?
S M Krishna: I am very happy that Mr. Richard Holbrook has come out with a contradiction about the earlier statement that he had made. It is for everyone to see that the network that you find operating from the soil of Pakistan - the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the other terrorist outfits and all – they are fused both ideologically and operationally.
Karan Thapar: And America has accepted this?
S M Krishna:And certainly the United States, being a close observer of these developments both in India and in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, because they have so much at stake in Afghanistan.
Karan Thapar:But have they accepted that this time round the work was that of the LeT?
S M Krishna: They cannot come to any other conclusion other than to accept that it was the handiwork of these terrorist organizations.
Karan Thapar: Did the Government have any advance warning that the LeT or the Hekmatyar and Haqqani groups at the instigation of the ISI were targeting Indian assets in Kabul?
S M Krishna: There have been earlier attacks on our Mission in Kabul.
Karan Thapar: Linked directly to Haqqani and Hekmatyar. So, did you have advance warning?
S M Krishna: There have been earlier attacks and then these attacks were at one point of time--it was conveyed to us by the Government of Afghanistan--that they were carried out by forces from outside of Afghanistan. So, this latest attack, also, in which seven of the Indians who had gone there on humanitarian work were killed.
Karan Thapar: But the reason I ask is this. The press has suggested that in fact there was a meeting of the National Security Council on the 12th of February, where apparently you were present, when RAW warned the Government that Indian targets in Kabul were vulnerable and under threat from the LeT. Did the Government have warnings that perhaps it did not heed?
S M Krishna: We generally had that warning that our Missions and our volunteers who have gone there on humanitarian work are going to be under attack because what India has been doing in Afghanistan is the visible symbol of what India intends to do in building up Afghanistan.
Karan Thapar: That I accept. If you generally had warnings, why were we caught unprepared?
S M Krishna: I think the nature of the work on which the Indians have gone there is such that we cannot arm them.
Karan Thapar: In other words there is not much we can do to protect them because they are vulnerable because of the work they do.
S M Krishna:You could put it that way also. But I would rather put it this way that the Indians who have gone there to Afghanistan on humanitarian purposes are unarmed. So, naturally they become easy targets, soft targets.
Karan Thapar: In that case let me put this to you. There is no doubt that the Indian embassy and Indian consulates have to remain in Afghanistan. But has the time come for us to consider withdrawing or reducing the four thousand civilian Indians involved in reconstruction, education and training?
S M Krishna: We have been assured by the Government of Afghanistan that they will be able to protect the Indian personnel who have gone there on the call of duty.
Karan Thapar: But is that a meaningful assurance we can rely on? They failed at least three times in the last eighteen months to protect the Embassy or individuals. They could easily fail again to protect us.
S M Krishna:Apart from what the Afghanistan Government is doing, I think we will have to take some additional measures ourselves.
Karan Thapar: Such as what? Can I ask what are the measures you plan?
S M Krishna:These things cannot be spelt out. But we will have to be on our guard. We will have to realize the tremendous risks that are involved when we are on a humanitarian mission like the one that we have in Afghanistan.
Karan Thapar: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that Indians in Kabul face tremendous risks but these are risks that have to be faced because India’s interests require a presence in Afghanistan. And, therefore, if there is a danger, that is a danger that has to be accepted.
S M Krishna: Wherever such missions go, naturally they are always the targets of attack.
Karan Thapar: The press has been informed by Home Ministry sources that the Indian Government is considering sending an advisory to Indians in Kabul about their security situation. In contrast, your spokesman speaking to The Hindu has explicitly and expressly denied this. Is there a difference of opinion between your Ministry, the MEA, and the Home Ministry over this issue?
S M Krishna: I do not think so. I think any suggestion to that effect has to be denied with all the vehemence at one’s command.
Karan Thapar: So, the Government is of one thinking.
S M Krishna: There is total convergence of opinion and assessment of the situation between the Home Ministry and the Ministry of External Affairs. We always exchange notes with each other.
Karan Thapar: Let us broaden the discussion. Many analysts believe that Af-Pak has put at risk the dynamics of India’s relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan to India’s disadvantage. To begin with, as American pressure on Taliban and Al Qaeda increases, they or their allies will seek to deflect attention by either carrying out terror strikes within India or by targeting Indian soft targets in Kabul. In a sense that has already happened in Pune and with what happened in Kabul on the 26th of February. Does this worry you?
S M Krishna: It certainly causes grave concern to the Indian Administration. That means that we will have to be prepared for all such eventualities. We will have to be extra cautious in terms of protecting our nationals wherever they are and particularly in Afghanistan.
Karan Thapar: The corollary to this is that in the short-term at least Af-Pak could make India more vulnerable rather than less vulnerable.
S M Krishna: I am inclined to agree that we are a target alright and we will continue to be a target.
Karan Thapar: A second fear or concern that analysts have is because President Obama’s Af-Pak depends critically on Pakistan’s support and cooperation, he might become vulnerable to Pakistani pressure to try and reduce India’s presence in Afghanistan. Does that worry you?
S M Krishna: We have in our interactions with the US Administration at various levels not got the impression that the United States is trying to convey directly or indirectly to the Indian Government that our presence in Afghanistan should be minimized. That is not my impression.
Karan Thapar: America remains completely supportive of the role India plays?
S M Krishna: I am sure that America is appreciative of the role that India is playing in Afghanistan as much as the people of Afghanistan themselves are appreciative of the role that India is playing in Afghanistan.
Karan Thapar: Thirdly, as President Karzai looks for reconcilable elements of the Taliban to make peace with, a policy about which India has reservations to say the least, Pakistan’s importance and leverage could grow exponentially, both as a gateway as well as someone who helps identify and bring these Taliban on board. Again, does it worry you?
S M Krishna: The recent Conference in London on Afghanistan convened by the British Prime Minister has drawn certain redlines. Those redlines are that any effort in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led, should confine to the Constitution of Afghanistan, and that there should not be any direct linkage between those organizations which are preaching terror and which are perpetuating terror in Afghanistan.
Karan Thapar: The problem with those redlines is that the second Afghanistan begins to look for reconcilable elements of Taliban, Pakistan’s role in identifying and bringing them onboard grows. Does that worry you because Pakistan is looking to increase its role at the cost of India.
S M Krishna: I would not put it exactly that way that it is at the cost of India. In the London Conference these questions came up and then we took the line that those who believe that in Afghanistan, the Constitution and the rule of law and disassociation with all terrorist organizations (is important), if somebody, it could be individuals or it could be organizations, if they give up violence and if they give up allegiance to these terrorist organizations, and if they accept the Constitution of Afghanistan, then they should be, I think, integrated into the main stream of Afghanistan.
Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this. On Thursday in Islamabad President Karzai referred to India as a close friend but he said Pakistan was a twin brother. In fact, he went further. He called Pakistan a conjoined twin. Does that not suggest that the relationship is already changing?
S M Krishna: President Karzai has conceded that India is a friend.
Karan Thapar: But Pakistan is a twin.
S M Krishna: It is a question of gradation of the relationship.
Karan Thapar: But then that grades India below Pakistan.
S M Krishna: In President Karzai’s assessment, I think that is the scheme of things.
Karan Thapar: That does not worry us?
S M Krishna: We take note of that.
Karan Thapar: The press is speculating, as you know, that whilst Pakistan’s influence is growing, India is either left out of the loop or is being squeezed out.
S M Krishna: I do not think that India has been squeezed out. I think India is playing a stellar role in rebuilding Afghanistan which has been acknowledged by the people of Afghanistan and by the legitimate Government of Afghanistan, and that is what matters.
Karan Thapar: Let us talk about Pakistan. On the 13th the Home Minister said: “nothing has come out of the recent Foreign Secretary level talks”. As Foreign Minister. do you agree with him?
S M Krishna: Let me put it this way that nothing dramatic was expected in the meeting between the two Foreign Secretaries. We invited the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan to come to India so that we can start the talks, so that we could know what Pakistan’s position is.
Karan Thapar: So, you had no expectations, therefore, you were not disappointed by the outcome either?
S M Krishna: Certainly not. I was not disappointed because I did not expect much from that meeting. And it was only an icebreaker. It was a situation where we were trying to size up what Pakistan’s present thinking is. There I think we succeeded in assessing what Pakistan’s thinking is.
Karan Thapar: So, from that point of view, to the extent you succeeded in assessing Pakistan’s thinking, it was actually successful.
S M Krishna: I think it is a plus point.
Karan Thapar: So, there is no disappointment but there is a plus point in a sense that you have understood Pakistan a little better.
On the 13th the Home Minister also has said that India believes that at least one serving Pakistani Army officer - a certain Major Samir Ali - and another retired officer - a Major Abdur Rehman - were in the Control Room in Pakistan giving instructions to the 26/11 attackers. Does India now have proof of Pakistani state involvement in 26/11?
S M Krishna: If the Home Minister has made a statement of this kind, I am sure that he would be having enough evidence to substantiate that.
Karan Thapar: Do you know of this evidence?
S M Krishna: I have also heard and I have also read what the Home Minister has said. And then we have provided dossiers to the Pakistan Government.
Karan Thapar: Is this evidence in those dossiers?
S M Krishna: I do not know. I am not aware whether the dossier would have contained what the distinguished Home Minister has said.
Karan Thapar: Have we made our close allies in the West--Britain and America-- aware that we have evidence of Pakistani state involvement?
S M Krishna: In our own way we conveyed to our friendly countries.
Karan Thapar: What was their response? Because this is a very serious level now. It is no longer non-state actors; it is a member of the Pakistan Army, a serving member. What was their response?
S M Krishna: What was the reaction of the United States or the United Kingdom or for that matter any other third country for what we have brought to their notice, I think is something between ourselves. I do not think it could be aired in public domain.
Karan Thapar: But are you satisfied with the response or are you a bit worried?
S M Krishna: We are satisfied that we have been able to bring this to the notice of the friendly Governments like the United States.
Karan Thapar: But not necessarily satisfied with their response to it thereafter?
S M Krishna: I did not say that.
Karan Thapar: Let us come to David Coleman Headley who is in the news. Now that he has decided to plead guilty and he is likely to get a lesser sentence, are you beginning to suspect that he could be an American double agent who turned rogue?
S M Krishna: That is what is being speculated by the media in our country.
Karan Thapar: Do you share that fear or apprehension?
S M Krishna: We are closely watching what Headley will be saying or what Headley would be committing himself to in any court of law.
Karan Thapar: And then you will make up your mind?
S M Krishna: Perhaps then only we could come to some conclusion.
Karan Thapar: Has America been upfront and transparent or do you have a feeling that they have withheld details and information about Headley because they want to either protect what he knows or protect institutions like the FBI and CIA?
S M Krishna: We are cooperating with the United States and they are reciprocating in ample measure to fight terrorism. I think terrorism is a top priority with reference to the Government of the United States.
Karan Thapar: Does that mean they are cooperating?
S M Krishna: We are in close cooperation with the United States in fighting terror.
Karan Thapar: Does that mean they are upfront and honest about Headley?
S M Krishna: I think it goes without saying.
Karan Thapar: You have no reservations about that?
S M Krishna: No, I have no reservations.
Karan Thapar: It emerges that Headley was on the FBI radar for at least a year before he was arrested, which means that for a whole month before 26/11 he was under American surveillance. Yet, just five months later in April 2009 the Americans allowed him to come to India without informing the Indian Government. Have you taken that issue up with them?
S M Krishna: We have taken up all relevant issues with reference to Headley.
Karan Thapar: Including the fact that he visited India and they did not inform you he was doing so even though he was under their surveillance?
S M Krishna: Whatever has come to the knowledge of Government of India through our media or through what we hear from others, we have conveyed to the United States.
Karan Thapar: And have you got responses that satisfy you? Or are you still in need of greater information?
S M Krishna: I have said it earlier that the United States is fighting terror. We are on the same page as far as fighting terror is concerned.
Karan Thapar: Has India asked the United States for access to Headley?
S M Krishna: We have asked for certain reports after they finish with their interrogation, after they finish investigating into Headley because it is the United States Government which has moved against him.
Karan Thapar: That I understand but those are reports after they finish.
S M Krishna: We are awaiting the report.
Karan Thapar: But you have sought access to Headley himself as yet?
S M Krishna: It all depends upon the kind of report that we get.
Karan Thapar: So, you are awaiting the reports before you make up your mind?
S M Krishna: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Minister, a pleasure talking to you.
S M Krishna: Thank you.