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Strengthening U.S.-India Cooperation

Interviewee: Robert D. Blackwill, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria
September 16, 2011

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A powerful and influential India is in U.S. national interests, and the two countries should collaborate more closely on all major global issues, says Robert D. Blackwill, co-chair of a new joint study report by the Council on Foreign Relations and Aspen Institute India. Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India, stresses the need for coordination on Pakistan and Afghanistan. He singles out concerns over the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and the importance of conditioning U.S. military aid to Pakistan on its cooperation against terrorist groups that target Indians and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Blackwill also points to the report's recommendation that the United States maintain a combat presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline and its support for training of Afghan security forces by Indians, which is anathema to the Pakistani security establishment.

With such high-level strategic thinkers on both the Indian and the U.S. sides, was it easy to reach a consensus on the report?

There were good and bad parts about the participation of the strategists. The good part was all the brainpower. They're all preeminent intellectual strategists, both in India and the United States. They're strong minded, very experienced, and that was an enormous contribution to the quality of the report.

At the same time, if you have strong minded people, they don't always agree on everything, including within the delegations. I don't mean only between the Indian and American strategists, but among the Indian and among the American strategists.

What were some of the main points of divergence on which the Indians and the U.S. side had the most difficulty coming to a consensus?

The most difficult issue, and this may be amusing in some sense, was Afghanistan. But it was among the Americans. It wasn't between the Americans and the Indians, because American strategists have very strong views about the likelihood of success of the current U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan. So we had to work out, as we went through these processes, words that both the advocates of the current U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and the critics could agree to.

The Indian side on Afghanistan very much wants us to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and in the end both Indian and American strategists unanimously -- and it's one of the most important prescriptions in the report -- recommended that the United States maintain a combat presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline.

The report believes that Pakistan may well be in systemic decline. And that makes it very hard for either the United States or India to have an effective policy.

On Pakistan, of course, every Indian thinks he or she is an expert. America has this very complex relationship with Pakistan. What I found, having looked at this issue from both the U.S. and then tried to understand how the Indians saw it, is that the United States and India today, analytically, are closer than they've ever been. There's a greater recognition on the U.S. side that India has complex problems [on] dealing with Pakistan. And there's now widespread recognition in India that there's a crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

We developed specific policy prescriptions, including that the United States and India should discuss in great detail, possible contingencies regarding developments in Pakistan. In that context, the report says that the [decade-old] U.S. strategy [of] using military and civilian assistance to try to persuade the Pakistan military to cease its support for terrorist groups that kill Indians and kill Americans in Afghanistan has failed.

[The report] recommends that the United States heavily condition, from now forward, military aid to Pakistan on the basis of Pakistan moving against these terrorist groups that target Americans and Indians. That's one of the most important policy prescriptions of the report.

I hope the readers who look at the report will conclude that it's analytically powerful about Pakistan, and it's almost all bad news about what's happening inside Pakistan, and that it has a series of policy prescriptions for India and the United States to deal with Pakistan. Neither the Indians nor the Americans can wave a wand and have a successful policy with Pakistan. The report believes that Pakistan may well be in systemic decline. And that makes it very hard for either the United States or India to have an effective policy.

As you mentioned, the report recommends: "The United States and India should begin classified exchanges on multiple Pakistan contingencies, including the collapse of the Pakistan state and the specter of the Pakistani military losing control of its nuclear arsenal." Could you please elaborate on this? At what level should these exchanges take place, and is there an appetite for this in the United States and in India?

That, of course, would be up to the governments. India's and America's most vital interest regarding Pakistan is the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It now has, according to published, unclassified reports, well over a hundred nuclear weapons. Pakistan is producing more fissile material than any other country in the world every year. So if any of those weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists, which could use them against New Delhi or Mumbai or Washington or New York, this would change the world.

The Pakistani military, in charge of being custodian of these weapons, assures the outside world that they're safe and secure. [But] if the society at large becomes more chaotic, more violent, if Islamic extremists have more influence inside the country, then one has to worry whether at some point in which the Pakistan nuclear complex has been penetrated by terrorists or Islamic extremists of other persuasion, the United States and India should be talking in a contingency way about what one country or the other might try to do in those circumstances. And what the two of them could try to do to prevent that from happening.

What the report says is that the United States should not permit Pakistan to have a de facto veto over the Indian relationship with Afghanistan.

The discussions would be at a very high level between the United States and India. They would be completely private, and of course it's difficult these days for governments to carry on any conversation that's private. It would be absolutely crucial that they remained secret; that the media didn't get a hold of them. That's possible but it would have to be done very carefully. I don't know how much appetite there is in the two capitals to do that, but we can only make our recommendations and hope that the power of our analysis will be persuasive in New Delhi and in Washington.

On Afghanistan, the report recommends: "The United States and India should discuss whether large-scale Indian training of Afghan security forces, whether in Afghanistan or in India, would be beneficial." Given Pakistan's expected reactions and Washington's current strategy which articulates Pakistan as an important ally in this war, how do you propose this would ever happen?

After 9/11, when I was the U.S. ambassador to India, [then] Indian government volunteered to train Afghan military forces after the overthrow of the Taliban. Whether the Indian government would be willing to do it now is a matter for the Indian government to decide.

What the report says is that the United States should not permit Pakistan to have a de facto veto over the Indian relationship with Afghanistan. We shouldn't excite the Pakistani concerns unnecessarily, but we shouldn't allow those concerns to veto Indian involvement in Afghanistan. [India] gives billions of dollars of aid to Afghanistan, and now [it] might be [able] to train at least some portion of the Afghan national army. The advantages it would have over, for example, American or German or British trainers is they're from the region. The Indians have people who speak those languages, who understand those cultures, who understand the history. And so there's no doubt that if India were to do this, it would have some comparative advantages in training over at least some other trainers that are involved in this from other countries.

One would have to take into account the Pakistan reaction. And the report says that should be assessed very carefully and then a decision should be made. But that idea, the report says, should not be ruled out prima facie simply because Pakistan wouldn't like it.

From the U.S. perspective, India at times seems trapped dealing with volatile internal politics and domestic priorities, impeding its readiness to assume greater responsibilities that come with its emerging power status. Plus India's position and its voting pattern at the UN have sometimes caused concerns in Washington. What is your view on how India would tackle this going forward and how the United States might be able to help?

No American should complain today about India's preoccupation with its domestic problems. But you put your finger on something that is addressed in the report: India taking more and more international responsibility.

The report begins with three convictions: A more powerful India is deeply in American national interest; an America which maintains its power and influence in Asia and beyond is deeply in India's interest; and the closest possible collaboration between the two governments is good for both governments.

In that context this report says the United States would like India to assume more international responsibility consistent with the rise of India as a great power [but that] doesn't mean we won't disagree about some things. And the report enumerates various areas in which we don't have perfect agreement, for example what to do about the Iranian nuclear program.

But the history of America's relations with its closest allies, the British, the French, is replete with examples of disagreements. So the United States, as it urges India to take more responsibility, understands that inevitably we're going to have some disagreements. But that an India that assumes more of this international role over the longer term on the major issues from the rise of Chinese power to nonproliferation to international terrorism to climate change, is deeply in America's interest.

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