'Afghanistan, Pak, and not India were top priority for Obama'

'Afghanistan, Pak, and not India were top priority for Obama'

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and not India were on top of the priority list for the Obama Administration in South Asia, but the Indo-US relationship under the outgoing president is ending on a "high note", according to a former Indian-American White House official.

"It (India-US relationship) is ending on a high note," Anish Goel, the former Senior Director for South Asia at the National Security Council, White House, told PTI.

In this position, Goel was one of the key players in the India-US relationship in the first two years of the Obama Administration that saw the first state visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2009 and the historic visit of President Barack Obama to India a year later.

Goel, a senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation, a top US think-tank, said the relationship between India and the US has gone through some peaks and valleys.

"It started out very strong and then I think everyone knows in the middle years in 2011, 2012 and 2013 it was really short of a low point in the relationship. At that point you had administration officials on both sides openly criticising each other," said Goel, who headed the India desk at the White House in his first two years of the Obama presidency.

"You had cases being filed in WTO, India blocking things that was a priority for the US and on top of things you had (Devyani) Khobragade episode, which really exposed short of a tenuous relationship. So that was the point when everybody wondered if the relationship could cover or this is really going to be how the two countries interacted," he noted.

"But it is ending on a high note. The relationship has really recovered since that time. The flurry of activities in the last two years is great. Both sides deserve credit. The Obama Administration was ready to move forward," Goel said.

After Modi became the Prime Minister, the relationship has seen an upward trajectory, he said.

"And I think, Prime Minister Modi deserves enormous amount of credit for putting the relationship back on track. He could have taken a very very different approach and he could have said that this is a country that denied me entry for 10 years and we have been at loggerheads for the past three years, and that this relationship is not that important for me and I am going to keep a different track," Goel said.

"But he did not. He put aside all of that in the background and said it is important for India to have a string relationship with the United States. I think, he moved forward in this regard," Goel said, giving credit for the revival of the relationship to Prime Minister Modi.

Responding to a question on Obama's vision on India when he occupied the White House, Goel recollected that he wanted to continue the strong relationship.

"One of the successes of the Bush Administration had been building a strong strategic partnership with India and President Obama wanted to continue that. He might not have been quite enthusiastic as President Bush was but he certainly wanted to keep the relationship going," he said.

"I think that is obvious by the fact that the first state visit was by Prime Minister Singh. It was a very conscious signal, a warming to a very strong relationship with India, demonstrates that the Obama Administration was going to do things little bit differently and that a country like India was very important to the United States. That was the broad direction that was given," Goel said.

At the same time, Goel observed that India certainly was not a top priority for Obama when it came to South Asia.

"On South Asia, I do not think India was the top priority. Afghanistan was. That's not a secret," he said.

"I think, coming into office President Obama one of his campaign promise was to really take on the fight in Afghanistan and finish the war that President Bush started. So that was the top priority in South Asia. The Administration was very strongly tied to Pakistan for the efforts in Afghanistan. You saw the structures that they created," Goel said.

"They created the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). They created the Af-Pak Director inside the White House. They created Af-Pak Information Centre in the Department of Defence. So the entire infrastructure of the government switched to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was the top priority in South Asia. India to my view was secondary in terms of importance," he said.

Afghanistan was so important for President Obama that everything was seen through that prism, Goel asserted.

"He campaigned on a pledge to add 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan so that the mission can really be finished. But when he came into the office he ended up adding more than 30,000 troops. I think it was 100,000 troops. So committing that level of resources and attempting to start a real strategic partnership with Pakistan, demonstrates the priority that the Administration placed on those two countries," he said, adding that in 2009 and 2010 the Administration rolled out a red carpet for Pakistan.

"When (the then Pak Army Chief) Gen (Ashfaq Pervez) Kayani came to Washington, he received top high level meetings. There was a real concerted effort to get the Pakistanis to act in our interest out of the believe that the answer to Afghanistan ran through Islamabad, ran through Rawalpindi, actually to be more precise. I think that was the mindset," he said.

"President Obama knew that Afghanistan would be some part of his legacy...good or bad. If he was going to bring it to some kind of satisfactory conclusion it would be part of his legacy and if it was not then...he was going to have owned the Afghan war. Because it was he who was committing to so many troops to Afghanistan. I think the Administration did everything it could in the first two years to turn the war in Afghanistan," Goel said.

Given the bipartisan nature of India-US relationship, Goel exuded confidence that the relationship would continue to be strengthened.

"The beauty of US-India relationship is that no matter who comes to power in either country, I think, the relationship is now strong enough and would continue on an upward trajectory. There are enough linkages on all levels of government that no one person will be able to walk back from this relationship," he said.

"Even in the low point of 2013 there were dialogues going on. The joint initiatives continuing. So even if the Trump Administration decides that it does not want to have a strong partnership with India, I think a lot of things will continue," Goel said.

"The other thing I am encouraged about is that he took a phone call from Prime Minister Modi within one or two days after being elected. Modi was one of the first five people to call Donald Trump. That's encouraging. I am cautiously optimistic," he said.

Goel identified counter-terrorism and defence as the two major focus areas in the Trump Administration.

"President-elect Trump has said that he wants to enhance the fight against terrorism and I think India is but natural a strong partner in that. So I think, to the extent that Trump wants to engage other countries and list their assistance for mutual benefit, I think, India should be on the top of that list," he said.

"The other thing is defence cooperation. Partnering with India is going to be helpful. And its an area which is very very ripe for cooperation. Not only defence cooperation, in terms of contracts and things like this, but also in mil-mil relationship, high level interactions, joint exercises, senior interactions I think all this is something that be focused on. I think that Obama Administration did focus on this, I think this is something that should continue," he asserted.

"The Congress is very much in favour of that. The Congress, I think will continue to have that opinion no matter what Trump Administration says," Goel said.

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