March 05, 2010

Holbrooke regrets callous comment on Kabul attack on Indians

Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN, Mar 6, 2010, 12.00am IST

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/Holbrooke-regrets-callous-comment-on-Kabul-attack-on-Indians/articleshow/5648895.cms

WASHINGTON: A top American official on Thursday reeled back his remarks about a terrorist attack on Indians in Kabul that New Delhi found callous and offensive, providing a brief respite from growing US support for Pakistani interests in the region.

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had caused dismay and anger in India earlier this week by suggesting that Indians were not the target of the terrorist attack in Kabul and there were ''other foreigners, non-Indian foreigners,'' who were also victims. ''Let's not jump to conclusions,'' Holbrooke advised about an attack that Indian and Afghan officials said had Pakistani fingerprints.

Holbrooke's assertion came even as Afghan intelligence officials said the terrorists, speaking Urdu, specifically sought out Indians after attacking a facility that was known to house Indians. Other US officials too initially subscribed to the theory that the attack was a broader Taliban strike against foreign interests even though six of the 16 victims were Indians.

The latest strike followed two massive attacks in preceding years against the Indian Embassy in Kabul by the Haqqani group backed by the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, according to US accounts.

But in a hair-splitting turnaround, Holbrooke said he regretted any misunderstanding caused by his comments. ''I did not say Indians were not the target, but that initially it looked like the target was not an official Indian facility,'' he said in a statement, adding, ''Early reports on events like this are often unreliable, and I try not to jump to conclusions.''

''We all know that Indian citizens have and continue to be targeted by terrorists, including inside Afghanistan. My heart goes out to the families of all of the victims,'' Holbrooke, whose senior advisor for communications is an Indian-American official named Vikram Singh, added in a statement evidently aimed at placating New Delhi.

Holbrooke also richly endorsed the Indian role in Afghanistan, which Washington is loath to recognize publicly for fear of offending its ally Pakistan, which resents India's growing clout in Afghanistan built on a foundation of development and democracy that contrasts sharply with Pakistan's Talibanist outreach.

''The Afghan people and international community deeply appreciate the very substantial humanitarian and reconstruction assistance that India provides Afghanistan,'' Holbrooke said in the statement. ''The willingness of India to take risks and make sacrifices to help Afghanistan is testament to India's commitment global peace and prosperity and a vital part of the international commitment to Afghanistan's future.''

But the sentiment did not exactly square with the current mood in Washington, where US officials have largely fallen in line with Pakistan's argument that its interests in Afghanistan, built largely on its backing for the medieval, nihilistic forces of Taliban, needs to be recognized against India's growing influence. The US also appears to have given up trying to persuade Pakistan that its own home-grown extremists, and not India, constitute an existential threat to it after Pakistan's military leadership forcefully asserted that its India-centric policy will not change.

The Obama administration, especially its military mavens led by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, is now back to fawning over the Pakistani military, after briefly trying to get the country civilian rulers to assert their primacy. In effect, Indian officials fear that Washington is backing the Pakistani assertion, which, shorn of spin and sophistry, amounts to continuing the use of terrorism to achieve it objectives.

Although the current administration began by emphasizing social sector aid to Islamabad, there have been a flurry of announcement in recent days of military goodies to Pakistan, including laser guided bombs and fighter jets, aimed at mollifying Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military is headquartered.

On Thursday, the Pakistani media reported that the country's navy will be acquiring a retiring US Navy frigate worth $ 78 million, ostensibly as a freebie. The State Department, meanwhile, has sought an additional $ 1.7 billion for Pakistan from Congress (besides the $ 1.5 billion annual dole under the Kerry-Lugar Bill) in the coming financial year.

All these matters will be on the table when India's foreign secretary Nirupama Rao will visit Washington on March 14-15, just ahead of President Obama's departure for Indonesia and Australia. The discussions will also include Obama's proposed visit to India later this summer, an engagement that is now weighed down by Washington's Af-Pak policy that New Delhi sees as inconsistent.

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