NEW DELHI – The appointment of Chuck Hagel as the new U.S. secretary of defense Tuesday may have overcome fierce Republican opposition in the Senate, but it has stirred a fresh controversy here.
A video clip of a speech Hagel made in 2011, which shows him being critical of India's role in war-torn Afghanistan, was released by the Washington Free Beacon and is now being circulated among Indian foreign policy analysts.
"India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border," Hagel remarked in his speech at Oklahoma's Cameron University.
Officials in Islamabad have often accused India of using its consulates in Afghanistan for spying and for financing separatist rebels in Pakistan.
Indian officials can be extremely touchy about their role in Afghanistan, a cautious and difficult balancing act of engaging with Kabul without upsetting its neighbor and nuclear rival Pakistan too much.
India also worries about how the U.S. views its role, particularly as the impending 2014 draw-down of combat troops from Afghanistan nears.
Opposition politicians and foreign policy analysts in India are demanding a clarification from Hagel.
"Chuck Hagel's simplistic remarks surfacing amid the rushed U.S. exit from Afghanistan, co-option of Pakistan as facilitator with benefits, and beatification of unreformed Taliban, have India on edge," said K. C. Singh, a former Indian diplomat. "The situation requires immediate retraction of Hagel's statement to avoid damage to India-U.S. relations, particularly defense cooperation."
Hagel's remarks run contrary to Washington's recent pronouncements on India's role.
Foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said India has close and frequent discussions with the United States on Afghanistan, and "we have consistently received support and encouragement from our U.S. partners for our constructive role in Afghanistan."
India has committed $2 billion toward reconstruction and development in Afghanistan, and is building roads, schools, power lines and the parliament building. India also helps train Afghanistan's police force, soldiers and bureaucrats. But it has stopped short of putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
As New Delhi anxiously watches the events in the run-up to the phased pullout from Afghanistan, some analysts say that India will have to assume a more active role.
"It has obviously caused us discomfort because U.S. officials keep telling us, 'We want more of India in Afghanistan, not less,' " a senior official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak candidly on the matter. "There is certainly a dissonance here."
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake sought to dispel doubts Tuesday.
"We appreciate very much the significant role that India is playing in Afghanistan," Blake told lawmakers during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "In fact, we see India as kind of the economic linchpin for the future."
When President Obama took office, there were some concerns that he was less enthusiastic about ties with India than his predecessor George Bush was. But Obama assuaged those fears during a visit to India in 2010, when he endorsed India's desire for a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council.
However, similar concerns emerged recently over the appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state. Many Indians believe that, as the author of the bill that authorized aid to Islamabad, he leans toward Pakistan.
"Will Chuck Hagel clarify?" was the title of the prime time television debate on the Indian news channel Times Now on Tuesday night.
"When a person has a strong personal bias, it reflects eventually in what they do when they are in office," said Arnab Goswami, chief editor of Times Now.