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The Rediff Interview/R Nicholas Burns, former US diplomat

'Pakistan bears a tremendous responsibility'

January 27, 2009

Former United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R Nicholas Burns, chief US interlocutor during negotiations of the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, says South Asia will be a priority for the incoming Barack Obama [Images] administration.

Burns, who retired last April, is currently Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and also serves on the Board of Directors at the School's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs. He spoke to Rediff India Abroad's Aziz Haniffa.

As someone who was intimately involved in the development of the US-India strategic partnership during the second term of the Bush administration, what do you think will be the Obama administration's key challenges vis-a-vis South Asia?

I would say that it's very clear that South Asia has become, along with the Middle East, the most vital region in the world to the United States for both positive and negative reasons. One of the positive reasons is the fact that India is such a good partner to the United States and a good friend, and we have the opportunity to further develop that relationship and expand it, which is positive for us.

The negative part, of course, is the war in Afghanistan and the need to try to stabilise the situation there in a war that is becoming increasingly dangerous, as well as the situation in Pakistan -- given the instability in Pakistan and the fact that the United States has major interests in defeating the terrorist groups there. This makes South Asia, for the first time in memory, a vital region for the United States, and so you'll see a considerable amount of American attention to that region.

There is no question that the economic crisis is going to be the number one issue for the new administration -- it has to be, considering the recession that we are in both nationally and globally. But, beyond that, there are many different foreign policy challenges, and those in South Asia rank in the first tier.

How concerned are you over the mounting tensions between India and Pakistan?

First of all, I hope the Indian public felt the tremendous support and sympathy from the United States government and the American people after the Mumbai [Images] attacks.

(Then) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice [Images] did a very good job of trying, in her trip to Delhi [Images] and Islamabad [Images], to convince Pakistan to work with India and to try to make sure that this type of terrorist act does not recur in future.

Obviously, we would all want to see Pakistan come forward with the type of cooperation that will reassure the Indian public and the Indian government that Pakistan will cooperate in the fight against terrorist groups, and we all want to see India and Pakistan being able to resolve their problems.

In that sense, the composite dialogue has been a very critical part of the dialogue between these two countries and one would hope that it could go forward, once this problem has been resolved.

Dr Rice during that trip you alluded to made it clear to Pakistan that it cannot hide behind the excuse of 'non State actors' in relation to terrorist attacks planned and mounted from Pakistani soil...

It's important to remember that this is not the first terrorist attack on Indian soil; there have been several over the years, and many of them bear the signature of the Kashmiri separatist groups, the terrorist groups.

My view is that Pakistan bears a tremendous responsibility, and it has an obligation to work with India and to give India the type of support needed to ensure that these types of attacks will not occur again. Therefore, you cannot hide behind the definition of non-State actors. Every government has a responsibility to control the situation on its own territory.

India needs the kind of reassurances from Islamabad that has not yet been forthcoming.

Is there a fear that with all of the problems that Pakistan is experiencing currently, it could unravel into a failed State, with all associated dangers of such a scenario?

Pakistan is such a centrally important State in South Asia that one would obviously hope for stability and for the success of the new government.

There are multiple challenges. There are the challenges of internal stability and security; the challenge of asking the Pakistani government to do more to crack down on the terrorist groups on its territory that create problems in Afghanistan and India.

So, there are multiple challenges to this new government. Pakistan is a friend of the United States and one would hope that the new Obama administration would be able to work well with the Pakistani government, and I would think that's in India's interest to see it happen too.

I don't want to give public advice to President Obama. He doesn't need that, and I think it's best to let him decide what he wants to do in private. But certainly, there needs to be priority attention to South Asia and as I said before, one of the great changes in American foreign policy over the last decade or so has been the realization that the United States has major and vital interests there.

I think we've done well over the last 10 years -- both President Clinton and President Bush have vastly improved our relationship with India, we have gone into Afghanistan, we have had a good relationship with Pakistan and we've been more involved with countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka [Images] and Nepal. So there has been a more active American policy in South Asia, and I would expect that to continue.

Obviously in the long-term, if there is to be peace and good relations between Pakistan and India, there must be some substantial progress on the issue of Kashmir. How that happens will be up to the two governments of India and Pakistan.

General David Petraeus has said that any strategy aimed at resolving the Afghanistan problem should involve India. Do you share that thought?

I've long believed that for success in Afghanistan, it's going to be necessary to have the support of all neighbouring countries. Obviously, Pakistan has a unique and critical role to play given the situation along its border with Afghanistan, but India has done many positive things in that country include its economic assistance programmes and infrastructure development, and it's going to be necessary to see a continuation of India's involvement in Afghanistan.

But that very involvement that you say is necessary is what Pakistan sees as a threat to its own interests.

I believe that Afghanistan will become very quickly one of the most difficult issues for a new US government, for the United Nations, and for the international community. I don't think we are going to have success as an international community if we say that some countries can be involved and others cannot. So there has to be a degree of flexibility, and certainly India's active role should be welcomed by the UN and the US and others.

As someone intimately involved in shaping the US-India strategic partnership and negotiating the nuclear deal, do you see this as the enduring legacy of the Bush administration?

I believe it is. It's important to remember that the civil nuclear deal had very broad and deep bipartisan support in the US Congress. It is widely seen now as a triumph not only for President Bush but for the United States.

The good thing about US-India relations, and what should reassure us about the future of the relationship, is this support across the political spectrum. In India of course, the Congress Party has been at the governing helm over the last several, but the Bharatiya Janata Party in its tenure in government was also a very good partner of the United States. So I have confidence in the US-India relationship because I think there is substantial support in both countries, among the political leaders of both countries.

Beyond the civil nuclear deal, one would hope that we would continue to broaden military ties between India and the United States. There is also a lot we can do in terms of energy, education, science and technology, space research -- the agenda is very broad, and there is a lot more that needs to be accomplished. I believe this should be a very active relationship and a very positive relationship for the next several years.


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