Armitage mission

Print edition : August 13, 2004

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to the subcontinent makes it clear that the Congress-led government is as eager as its predecessor was to strengthen relations with Washington.

UNITED STATES Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made a visit to the Indian subcontinent in the third week of July. It was the first by a high-ranking official of the Bush administration after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was swept out of power.

External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh with United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in New Delhi.-RAJEEV BHATT

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has signalled that strengthening relations with Washington is its top-most priority. Not surprisingly, therefore, protocol was done away with for the visiting dignitary. Armitage, in the course of his day-long stay in New Delhi, was able to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minster K. Natwar Singh, Defence Minster Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit.

Armitage also found time to have a telephonic talk with George Fernandes and apologised for the serious lapse in protocol that occurred during Fernandes' two visits to the U.S. in 2002 and 2003 when he was the Defence Minister of India. Fernandes had to undergo body searches despite the Bush administration having been notified in advance about his visit. The sorry episode came to light only recently, when Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, wrote about it in a soon-to-be-released book.

The controversy surrounding the "strip search", in fact, took centre stage during the Armitage visit. The Left parties in particular were critical about the incident. According to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the failure of the NDA government to raise the issue with the Bush administration illustrated its servile attitude towards the U.S. The Congress spokesman said that the incidents were an "insult to the nation" and criticised former Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee for not raising the issue with President Bush.

Armitage told the media in New Delhi that he did in fact offer "sincere" apologies to his "good friend" Fernandes for the humiliation. Armitage claimed that the Bush administration was not aware of the incident about which, he added, there was no official Indian complaint.

Fernandes, on his part, is trying to downplay the incident, saying that he was not "strip searched", as reported in sections of the media. He said that he was only asked to remove his coat, shoes and socks. He was also quoted as saying, during a recent visit to Bihar, that he would never again visit the U.S.

Many diplomatic observers are of the view that India should follow the Brazilian example and insist that visiting Americans should be subjected to the same kind of rigorous immigration procedures the U.S. imposes on citizens of most countries. Americans visiting Brazil are fingerprinted and their eyes scanned. The Bush administration has had to lump it.

WHILE in New Delhi, Armitage denied that he had come with a fresh request for Indian troops for Iraq. He, however, admitted that the Iraq issue did crop up at his meetings. He added that the Indian government "has indicated there are ways by which they might be helpful" in defusing the situation in Iraq. Armitage mentioned the possibility of the Iraqi security forces owing allegiance to the U.S.-installed government being trained in India. The Kerala government had rejected a request for the training of Iraqi policemen some time ago. Some countries such as Germany, which were opposed to the U.S. misadventure in Iraq, are, however, lending a helping hand to the beleaguered Bush administration by training Iraqi security men in neighbouring countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

ANOTHER purpose of the Armitage visit may have been to brief the government about the appointment of Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington, as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Iraq. Earlier, media reports had indicated that Annan's choice for the high-profile job was India's former Foreign Secretary Salman Haider. The Bush administration evidently preferred the suave Pakistani diplomat, who has been a High Commissioner in India, and exerted the necessary pressure on the U.N. Secretary-General for his approval. The speculation in diplomatic circles is that Qazi's appointment will provide Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf the pretext to send a contingent of Pakistani troops to Iraq under the guise of providing security for the U.N. representative. The Pakistan Foreign Office has denied that there are plans for the despatch of troops to Iraq.

Pakistan has a tradition of helping the U.S. get out of tricky military and political situations. For instance, when most countries, including India, pulled out peacekeepers from Somalia in the early 1990s, Pakistani troops stayed on, battling the warlords on behalf of the U.S. Sending troops to Iraq will help Islamabad accumulate plenty of political and diplomatic IOUs from the Bush administration, provided it gets re-elected. The UPA government has reasons to be wary about the high-level diplomatic moves being orchestrated on the international stage by the Bush administration in a last-ditch attempt to extricate itself from the mess it has created for itself in Iraq. The announcement of Qazi's appointment came as Armitage was visiting the subcontinent. Pakistan has already been designated a "major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally" by Washington.

Armitage with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri in Islamabad on July 15.-AP

The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said that the two sides exchanged views on the situation in Iraq. Armitage claimed with a straight face in New Delhi that the Iraqi people accepted the new government in Iraq with "alacrity" and that the U.S. was no longer "isolated" in that country. The U.S. official was told that the Indian government welcomed the recent transfer of power to the Iraqi authorities. Indian officials said that they viewed it as the first step towards the goal of full sovereignty for the Iraqi people. New Delhi conveyed its concerns regarding the independence and territorial integrity of Iraq. Armitage was told that India would act in accordance with the views expressed by Parliament.

The visiting U.S. official told the media in New Delhi that he did not perceive any differences in the approach to bilateral relations between the NDA government and the present government. "I must say that there is no difference between the Opposition and the government in power on the desirability of enhanced India-U.S. relations," Armitage said.

To the apparent disconcertment of the Pakistani government, Armitage concurred with New Delhi's view that not all terrorist training camps in Pakistan had been shut. He said that Pakistan had not dismantled the entire terrorism infrastructure. He reiterated the same view in Pakistan as well. He, however, also added that there was violence and human rights violations taking place in the Indian part of Kashmir. Armitage said that he had discussed the issue with Indian officials.

He denied reports that he had requested Pakistan to send its troops to Iraq. Public opinion in Pakistan is vehemently opposed to any such move. Besides, even as Armitage was visiting the Indian subcontinent, more countries signalled that they were pulling their troops out of the Iraqi quagmire. The latest to join the exit queue was the Philippines - another traditional ally of the U.S.

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