NDTV: Within the last few years the world has seen the South Asian region grow in prominence and concern as far as the world community is concerned. SAARC has expanded in 2007 to include Afghanistan, and it also included a number of observers who come in, don’t participate necessarily in the discussions, but certainly are allowed to listen in to what’s going on.
Joining us now is the observer from the United States, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake. Thank you so much, Mr. Blake, for giving us some of your time.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s a pleasure to be here.
NDTV: What does the U.S. think about SAARC? You’re here as an observer. What are you hoping to take away from this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’re here first of all to have bilateral meetings with all of our friends. The South Asian region is probably the most important region in the world for the United States right now. Not only because of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also because of our growing partnership with India. Also we have very important interests in the post-conflict situation in places like Nepal and Sri Lanka. So there’s a lot to talk about with our friends here.
But we also want to see greater progress on regional cooperation between the South Asian countries because we think that would do so much to help enhance stability and development for all of our friends.
NDTV: As you said, this is a region which has a significant place in the world today and it’s also one that’s riddled by all kinds of conflicts. Very often what we have seen in our years of covering SAARC summits and the history of the organization is that these bilateral conflicts or internal conflicts often overtake SAARC agenda. What do you think about that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know if they overtake them. I think in the case of India and Pakistan that probably has had some effect on the relative lack of progress on trade. I think that’s a shame because I think that trade can be one of the most important sources of new jobs for the young populations of South Asia, and particularly for the young populations of India and Pakistan. Your trade is relatively modest, a little under $3 billion in bilateral trade which for two economies the sizes of India and Pakistan is relatively small. Again, I think there are a lot of opportunities.
I was the Ambassador in Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009, and I found that there were Indian companies that were taking advantage of the Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement with India and the Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement with Pakistan, so they were investing in Sri Lanka, rather than just going and trading directly, which is a shame.
NDTV: As I just mentioned, SAARC includes Afghanistan which is a crucial neighbor for everyone right now in the region. But on the question of Afghanistan, U.S. concerns in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, there are differences perhaps where India stands on some of those issues from what I hear, good Taliban versus bad Taliban, and they are very clearly concerned about what the U.S. defines as the good Taliban. Also the idea that Pakistan is really [thriving] in the [inaudible] as far as the Afghanistan country is concerned, the kind of importance the U.S. gives it. Maybe to an extent not looking at [inaudible] and concerns that India may have.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think there’s nearly as much daylight between the United States and India on Afghanistan as you imply. I think that we have a shared interest in trying to stabilize that very important country to make sure that terrorism cannot once again threaten either of our countries. We have set some fairly important criteria that we think should govern who should be allowed to participate in these reconciliation talks by the Taliban, the most important of which is that they must renounce violence, they must renounce any ties with al-Qaida, and perhaps most importantly, they must agree to abide by the terms of the current Afghan constitution. We think that will perhaps weed out some of the so-called bad Taliban that you talked about.
NDTV: But at a time when India is concerned on terrorism, are strongly looking at [inaudible] also that has come from Pakistan, I think this weekend we are perhaps setting the stage for a bilateral meeting [over here] which is still not confirmed. The idea that the U.S. and India perhaps have even some differences, maybe not as wide as you say that India might perceive that they are, but the fact that there are some differences. How do you address India’s concerns on those differences?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, our main interest and I think India’s main interest is to make sure that both Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot again become platforms from which terrorists can attack the United States or India or any other country. That’s our main interest. Those are the goals that President Obama first set when he began to talk about the priority that we attach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those remain our goals. Those are the goals of India, I know.
Again, I don’t think there’s really that much that divides us. And even on these tactical things, I think India’s come around to the idea that there’s not going to be a military solution to this so there has to be some way to bring at least some of the Taliban in, and that includes through the reintegration process which is sort of the lower level Taliban, and then the reconciliation process which is sort of a higher level political engagement.
NDTV: One last question, Mr. Blake. We noticed the United States has been following the Mumbai investigation and the trial very very closely. Pakistan has just handed over the latest dossier of the [flight] to India, again stating that there isn’t enough evidence against people even the United States has mentioned in their own dossier on the last [inaudible]. What do you say to that? Do you see it as sort of a time buying tactic from Pakistan yet again? Or do you think that their concerns on evidence are genuine?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m really not in a position to judge that. I haven’t seen these dossiers. I think that’s up to the judicial authorities on both sides to make their judgments on that.
Again, our interest is in seeing that Pakistan continues to prosecute those who are responsible for the terrible tragedy of Mumbai, and also to see that Pakistan takes action against the militants that are based on its soil including the Punjab based groups.
NDTV: Thank you so much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.