'The US not really leaving Afghanistan' - Indian foreign minister

The view that the United States is going to withdraw from Afghanistan is a bit exaggerated, since their troops will remain in at least six bases currently prepared for them. That's according to our guest Salman Khurshid, the foreign minister of India. Also in this interview: Syrian strife, Iran's nuclear ambition and NSA spying.

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SS:Salman Khurshid, India’s foreign minister, it’s great to have you on our show today, sir.

SK: Thank you.

SS: The situation in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria, is on everybody’s minds these days. How close, or not, are Russia’s and India’s positions on this conflict?

SK: I think we’re quite pleased to be able to say that we’re very supportive of the position Russia has taken. Indeed, we’re very encouraged and we applaud President Putin’s initiative that’s been executed very effectively by Foreign Minister Lavrov. We’ve consistently said there is no military solution, you can’t reorder societies from outside. It’s important that we get everyone to come to a dialogue table, Geneva-2, and everyone must abjure violence and that violence is no solution, that the people of Syria must have a chance to choose their own destiny. And we’re very glad that this is something that we’ve articulated, but it’s being now given physical and practical shape by the agreement between the US and Russia. So, we support this and we would be very happy to be at Geneva-2, if people feel that we can be of help and assistance.

SS:At this point, both sides have very powerful supporters in the world. In your personal opinion, who has the more rightful grounds – Assad or the rebels?

SK: Well, I think, you get information from week to week about who has an upper hand, who is retreating and who is gaining ground or recovering territory. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that there is still lack of clarity of who used the chemical weapons. There are some people, who are convinced the government used them, because the government is known to have weapons and the capacity to use them. There are some people who are convinced, based on some evidence, that they may well have been used by opposition forces that do have, perhaps, access to some form of chemical weapons, even if they are improvised, and that it could well have been done to create a crisis. So I think there are different points of view, but the ground reality remains that we’re all completely opposed to the use of chemical weapons - I think it’s completely unacceptable, immoral and we must bring them [under] control, check, and destroy them. And I think that what is happening in the recent weeks is something that we greatly encourage. We hope that the support the UN Security Council now has given by way of a resolution will see a conclusion that is satisfactory for everyone. There might be some cynicism in some quotas, but I’m rather hopeful that we can move to a satisfactory solution, and in the process also - if we can get to Geneva-2, I would imagine that is even a greater improvement.

SS:Will India be taking any part in dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal?

SK: We have some experience because we dismantled in the past. We joined the convention and we’re very glad that the Nuclear Weapons Convention is being now acceded to by Syria. I think there are already experts available and I’d imagine that an effort would be made to bring experts who come from the region and who would not be seen as partisan in one way or the other. If we get an invite and we get an indication that India can be of help, we’ll certainly consider it seriously.

SS:You’ve mentioned a couple of times that it’s a great thing that Russia actually made this deal with America not to strike and to dismantle the chemical weapons. There was this idea circulating in the social media that now Putin should get the Nobel Peace Prize. What do you say to that?

SK: I think that any contribution that the top leaders of the world make towards peace and this is a major step forward... well, having said that – I think that’s important – it’s the best to get to a point where situations become irreversible, I mean just think of principle of prudence, that we should get situations to become irreversible, so that you can actually seal a decision of this nature and don’t need to half-way suddenly feel something gone wrong. I think, there has been a demand – I’ve read that in newspapers and I’ve seen this in social media – well, I think this is a great achievement and if we arrive at a satisfactory solution in the point of view of all the parties, who want to see peace in the world, this would be certainly a welcome suggestion and a welcome idea for the Nobel Peace Prize to consider.

SS: Iran was another huge surprise at the recent, during the General Assembly, it seems like America and Iran are getting off and starting the relationships from scratch and maybe they’re ameliorating their sense towards each other. Do you think it’s Rouhani’s achievement only, or America was waiting for this chance?

SK: My impression is... as you know, India has a good relationship with Iran, but we’ve taken a principal position on non-proliferation and we’ve always been consistent on non-proliferation. Therefore, we have to depart from what would otherwise have been important – a relationship or friendship with Iran with convergence on many issues. But we did say to them clearly that as far the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] is concerned – there were signatories and that was important that as a matter of principle they remained an adherent of NPT, and that whatever the Non-Proliferation Treaty allows them under the IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency] dispensation to continue with peaceful uses of nuclear energy is something that they are entirely entitled to – but beyond that we had to agree with the United Nations that proliferation is a very serious issue and we need to draw a line. But, I was convinced in all my interaction with Iran that Iran was not determined to make nuclear weapons, but it was important for them that their position and identity be seen and sense of dignity shown, and that proper conversation with Iran was possible, and I still remain hopeful and I think that there was a sense that after the elections Iran would want to give this opportunity a real chance and I hope that it works. I think the United States has made an important gesture. There is a lot of cynicism in the United States about the possibility of a successful conclusion, but the president has made an important gesture – equally, I think Iran has responded in a manner which is to be encouraged and to be welcomed. Let us just hope that the initial signs of what’s being described as a thaw and outreach, signals of positive movement forward, can be taken to a logical conclusion. It’s important for the world that non-proliferation is adhered to, and it’s important for the world, and certainly our region, that not only we will get greater comfort that there will be peace but also that this will contribute to greater and positive effort in other regions, such as Syria and Afghanistan.

SS:Do you believe that the consequences lined up in such a way – Iran playing an important role in the Syrian conflict, America not really willing to go into another war with Iran? Like they said, “We’re going to hit if they have a nuclear weapon”?... It jumped at an opportunity to ameliorate the relationships with the country because it was really the only way and it couldn’t have going on any more sour with Iran?

SK: If I read the small print carefully of what the US have said – they said that about Syria and about Iran, that they are serious about the alternatives, but I think be that as it may, it’s important that they have stopped short of what they call alternatives, that they have looked in a positive way to solutions that are through peaceful dialogue, through the alternative method of outreach. This is something that is important for the world; this is something that we have advocated repeatedly. I think that force is not an answer, and in the 20th and 21st centuries we have umpteen examples of any intended change attempted to be brought about through force not succeeding, and so it’s important that we give peace a chance and peaceful dialogue a chance.

SS: Another huge story this year was, of course, the NSA leaks that actually caused huge uproar in the international community. India, however, didn’t manifest much of a reaction. Are you OK with the Americans spying on you?

SK: I don’t think that any country should spy on any country, least of all between friends and allies. This is something that is nothing to look forward to, and, of course, some countries may have good reason to react [to] it very sharply. We have taken a note of this and we also have [told] people that we have a joint working group that looks at issues of cyber-security and this is an area of cyber-security. I do understand that some of us do look at information and do have systems of surveillance to ensure that our respective societies and our friends remain secure from the kind of attacks that we have known the world to suffer, particularly in terms of terrorism. The terrorism that we have seen in the world can come in different forms, and cyber-security is a very important area that needs to take into account terrorist attacks. Therefore, although that’s a very legitimate exercise, I think there has to be better coordination between friends and between countries, and for that purpose we have a joint working group. I don’t believe that we should jump to any conclusions even if something of this nature is a little bit unsavoury – but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions because most countries have security concerns and they do address them in different ways, but if we can coordinate and be more transparent to each other – there will be no reason for this kind of discomfort.

SS: To Afghanistan now. The US forces will withdraw any day now from the country. What are the security risks for India once the US forces leave Afghanistan?

SK: I think there is, perhaps, a little bit of an exaggerated view that the US is going to desert Afghanistan – that is not our information. I think the United States is in discussion with Afghanistan for a bilateral security agreement, which would mandate and allow for a significant number of the US troops to be retained in six or seven bases that are being prepared for them to use beyond 2014. They would obviously have a very restricted operation mandate but they would still be there for purposes of training and, perhaps, to add some kind of guarantee and ballast to the security forces of Afghanistan itself. So, I think it’s still a matter which is being discussed between the Afghanistan government and the US government. We’ve certainly had an impression that there is a consensual arrangement that’s possible and, perhaps, there’s a view that’s being shared by the leadership here in Russia that it’s important there shouldn’t be a sudden vacuum that unwholesome forces would like to fill, to have things move forward to a transition – political, military, economic transitions that take place at a pace that will allow for a clear stability to be ensured by the political transition, that takes place as well as transition at the military [level, which] is already ongoing.

SS:But just theoretically, just to make sure…do you fear that the political vacuum may be filled with terrorists instead of the US forces?

SK: Our information up to now it that it is not the case. Of course, the Afghan government is reaching out to some sections of the Taliban. We’ve not been very comfortable with the thought of someone working with Taliban but since we have strongly advocated that the future of Afghanistan must be Afghan-driven, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled, therefore we must respect the Afghan point of view to the extent that they believe an outreach to some elements in Taliban is going to be wholesome and useful for stability to their political system in the future.

SS: So, you don’t support the theory, “We don’t talk to terrorists”?

SK: Well, if they talk to them, they might not be what you describe as the terrorists, or, perhaps, their view is that “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” is not the best way for looking at opportunity to find some kind of inclusive solution to a conflict society. I think there are very many ways in which you look at both conflict situations in any societies and the best judges of that must be people of that country rather than some of us outside. No matter how strongly we feel about any issue it’s finally, I think, the attitude and the opinion of the people of the country that counts, and since we have maintained that principle position we would like to continue supporting it.

SS:India has 2 billion dollars’ worth of investments in Afghanistan. Do you feel [this capital is] safe?

SK: Our investment is in the people and the future of Afghanistan, it’s not for the return on the amount or value of the money that we spent there. Ours is a partnership for stability and for growth and development of Afghanistan, we are building their parliament building, where we hope successful parliamentary legislation will take place, we’re building a huge dam for them, the Salma Dam, which we hope will give them electricity for the growth of their industry and the comfort of their citizens. We’re working on electricity grids, we’re working on roads and small projects in every city and in every district, and we’re looking at building up the school infrastructure, and we will continue to do so beyond 2014 as well, because we do have confidence in their future, and we believe that we owe to them as friends, that we must not think of an exit route – so, we’re there to stay. We want to see Afghanistan stabilised, remain important stepping stone for interconnectivity between Central Asia and South Asia and to be a successful sovereign state.

SS:When you say that, you know, it’s very important to hear the Afghan people’s voice, therefore, the Taliban being part of the Afghan people, what would you see assigning them in the future of Afghanistan, like being a part of the government maybe, or something else?

SK: We have been told by President Karzai that he did give a thought and, perhaps, he still is open to that idea that Afghan government should have some representatives of the Afghan Taliban who are, as you know, largely from the southern part of Afghanistan, and largely, if not all, Taliban are Pashtun. But, of course, what is important for Afghanistan is not just inclusion of the Taliban, strengthening the Pashtun element in Afghanistan, but also an integrated future in which all elements, including [those who] were in the past in the northern lands – the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Khazaras and the Pashtuns – all lived together. It’s important that we see Afghanistan grow into an integrated and unified society and that would be the ultimate success of Afghanistan.

SS:Corruption is another topic that’s widely discussed in India and also in other countries who went through a lot of violence during the Arab Spring. Do you fear maybe that if there is another corruption crisis that will [come] up, the Indian people will take to the streets en masse, like they did in those [times]?

SK: You know, we saw – and this we continue to see – what happened in the streets in India as a welcome development. It’s the normal maturing of society, of democracy, where people show greater sense of participation and concern about the pace of development, about issues on which they have a special concern. Obviously, in a pluralistic society where not every element of plurality is a welcome element. Some elements are elements that we must wean out of our system, some elements are such that we must encourage, and applaud, and celebrate, but that’s the very purpose of democracy, that it weans out unwholesome elements, and it encourages and nurtures elements that are wholesome and attractive. And this is what, I believe, we’re going through in India - institutions growing and developing, we have opened up enormous opportunities to citizens by giving them not only development rights, such as right to education, right to food, right to health, right to housing, but also by giving them the opportunity and instruments like right to information, where they can exercise much greater control and pressure on democratic governments to perform. So, democracy must not remain just once in five years when you cast your vote and afterward in for five years you sit there helplessly, but there must be a participatory democracy. Now, all of the participatory democracy cannot be comforting all the time but we must look at the long-term objective which is that we become more sensitive, responsive, transparent and accountable system of governance. Therefore, if there have been failures, there have been shortfalls and shortcomings, we’ll be very happy to remove them by legislation, by educating of people, by developing the right sort of attitude, and ultimately making those who failed accountable.

SS:Finally, Bangladesh is going through a political turbulence with one of the MPs, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, being sentenced to death by hanging – so, what is India’s stance is going to be on that? Are you going to take a hard line?

SK: As far as this issue is concerned, like any other countries Bangladesh has a right, they have their own laws, they have legal system that is like a legal system in all our countries, it’s independent juridically, and it’s independent of the executive. This is a very, very sensitive issue in Bangladesh, because the entire national movement was based on certain principles and aspirations which need closure to the sense of hurt and betrayal that the freedom fighters of Bangladesh had felt. Therefore, after all these years and several rounds of tragedy in Bangladesh, an attempt to find closure through the judiciary and through open public trials is something that they are attempting to do. It’s for their own people really to judge, to accept, or to moderate it, or modify it. I think it really would not be fair on our part to comment on how they bring closure to a very sad and very painful past. We were part of it, we did fight along with their freedom fighters for the freedom of Bangladesh, but beyond that it’s really for the people, the government, the elected parliament of Bangladesh to make a call. We just hope and pray that they get closure, that this does not lead to further [divisions] in their society and that they can together find the solution that would bring them lasting peace.

SS: Salman Khurshid, India’s foreign minister, thank you very much for this interview.

SK: Thank you very much.