Former Senator Chuck Hagel’s (R–NE) unfounded comments on India’s role in Afghanistan during a speech in 2011 provide yet another indication that he is poorly qualified to lead the U.S. Department of Defense.
In a video recording of an unreleased speech by Hagel at Cameron University in Oklahoma, the nominee for Defense Secretary alleges that India has over the years “financed problems” for Pakistan in Afghanistan and “always used Afghanistan as a second front.”
The statement is not only contrary to reality; it goes directly against the policy of the Obama Administration, which has been to support a robust Indian role in Afghanistan. Senior Obama officials have rightly avoided being baited by the Pakistanis into thinking that India is the source of trouble for U.S. interests in Afghanistan. By contrast, India has been one of the largest donors to Afghanistan, assisting with its humanitarian needs, energy projects, and even the construction of the parliament building in Kabul—the most powerful symbol of the burgeoning democratic process in the country.
New Delhi strongly supports the U.S. goal of ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for international terrorism. Indeed, the Indians would be more directly impacted by a Taliban victory in Afghanistan, since the Islamist extremist group would most likely facilitate terrorist training camps for jihadists seeking to stir the pot in Kashmir, as they did in the 1990s.
The U.S. has long tried to convince Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban leadership and the affiliated Haqqani network, which finds safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, but to no avail. To assert that India is somehow at fault for supporting the same anti-Taliban elements that the U.S. supports in Afghanistan borders on absurdity.
The fact that the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Defense could misjudge so badly the situation in one of the world’s most important regions is alarming. The Indian embassy has also registered its shock at Hagel’s statement but acknowledged that he had been a “long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-US relations.”
Perhaps Hagel misspoke. If he hopes to restore credibility both here in Washington and in this important part of the world, especially with India—a crucial Asian partner of the U.S.—he needs to correct the record. Otherwise, he will have handed his critics one more reason to doubt his credibility for the nation’s top defense position.