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South Asia expert to handle India brief at US State Dept

By Aziz Haniffa
September 23, 2010 11:44 IST
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The position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs with responsibilities to work specifically on the India portfolio -- which has remained vacant for nearly a year since the controversial Christine Fair declined the offer of the job -- has finally been filled with longtime South Asian expert Alyssa Ayres.

Ayres, whose portfolio includes -- besides India -- Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives, fills the position that used to be held by Evan Feigenbaum -- currently with the Council on Foreign Relations -- during the Bush Administration.

She told, "I am just thrilled and honoured to join the Bureau at such an exciting time in US-India relations."

Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, told"We were delighted to have a colleague of Alyssa's stature and expertise join the South and Central Asian affairs team.

"At a time when US relations with India are receiving more attention than ever before, Alyssa brings to the Bureau an unmatched combination of regional expertise and familiarity with the business and civil society groups that are helping drive the transformation of this indispensable relationship."

Ayres, who speaks fluent Hindi and Urdu and has lived in both India and Pakistan, has also been the recipient of numerous fellowships, including the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellowship, the Fulbright-Hays doctoral dissertation award, the Franke Institute for the Humanities dissertation award, and the Marshall Memorial Fellowship.

In the mid-1990s, she worked as an interpreter for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ayres, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is an alumna of Harvard College from where she received her bachelors degree and the University of Chicago, from where she received her masters and PhD.

She joined the Department of State from McLarty Associates -- a Washington, DC-based international strategic advisory firm -- where she led the India and South Asia practice.

She had joined the firm in 2008 after serving in the State Department as special assistant to then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns. She was, in fact, the recipient of the State Department's Superior Honor Award for her work on the US-India civil nuclear agreement.

Trained as a cultural historian, her book on nationalism, culture and politics in Pakistan, Speaking Like a State: Language and Nationalism in Pakistan -- which examines the nation's troubled history by exploring the importance of culture to political legitimacy -- was published worldwide by Cambridge University Press in 2009, with a special South Asian edition published by Cambridge University Press India.

In addition, she has co-edited three books, including the recent Power Realignments in Asia, published by Sage, India Briefing: Takeoff at Last? and India Briefing: Quickening the Pace of Change, published by ME Sharpe in 2002 and 2005. She has also written op-ed articles in the Wall Street Journal, Current History, World Policy Journal, and YaleGlobal, among others.

Christine Fair told, "We went to school together and Alyssa's going to be superb. I've known Alyssa since the mid-1990s, and actually she knows the region, she knows India inside-out and she's got language skills. She's just a fabulous appointee for the post.

"In fact, she is the person they should have asked first -- I mean really. She's just fabulous for the job. You can't go wrong with her."

Fair, former Rand Corporation expert on South Asia who infuriated New Delhi by alleging that India was meddling in Balochistan, had been offered this senior position over a year ago by Blake, but after a couple of months of soul-searching she had declined the offer because she did not want to give up her academic research and her current job as assistant professor in security studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, where she's on a tenured track.

She said, "I am a mixed bag for Indians," but "I'm a pretty straight shooter, and say it like it is, unlike some people who are like advocates for countries. I am not an advocate for any country. I am an advocate for my country."

"Let me also be blunt with you," she said. "I think the Indo-US relationship is extremely important, but I know I am not the flavour of the day in India, and I think that it actually would have undermined our moving the relationship forward if I were in that job. And, that's the reality of it."

But she asserted, "What the Indians would have gotten in me is someone who is realistic. I don't believe in the (Special US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard) Holbrooke crap about you solve Kashmir and you make Pakistan sane. I believe it's necessary albeit terribly insufficient condition to get Pakistanis to tell the Army to lay off (in its machinations against India) if you resolve the Indo-Pakistani issue."

"Whether that can ever happen is irrelevant," she said.

In an online discussion in early 2009, convened by the much-respected journal, Foreign Affairs, Fair had said Pakistan has legitimate concerns about India's involvement in Afghanistan and that perhaps Islamabad's paranoia that New Delhi was fanning unrest in Balochistan was not unfounded.

Fair also went on to claim that "Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Balochistan," and that "Kabul has encouraged India to engage in provocative activities such as using the Border Roads Organisation to build sensitive parts of the Rind Road and use the Indo-Tibetan police force for security."

Thus, Fair contended that it would be "a mistake to completely disregard Pakistan's regional perceptions due to doubts about Indian competence in executing covert operations."

When reminded about the controversy her allegations in the Foreign Policy discussion provoked and how she was pilloried in New Delhi, Fair said, "I stand by what I wrote…Yes, I think the Indians are up to stuff in Balochistan, as they should be. (But) It's not what the Pakistanis say they're up to.

"Anyone who read what I wrote, would have seen exactly what I said. Yes, I said, the Pakistanis are exaggerating it, but they are not completely making it up either."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC