The Pentagon was forced to clarify the views of the new defense secretary on the United States-India relationship after a Free Beacon report detailing controversial 2011 remarks by Chuck Hagel sparked an international protest.
"India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan" in Afghanistan, Hagel said during a 2011 address on Afghanistan at Oklahoma’s Cameron University.
The remarks caused an uproar in New Delhi where government officials and numerous political observers panned Hagel’s comments.
Pentagon spokesperson George Little told the Free Beacon late Wednesday that Hagel will work to strengthen ties to India.
"Secretary Hagel is strongly committed to the U.S. strategic partnership with India and to fostering an even closer defense relationship with India that builds upon the work of Secretary [Leon] Panetta, Deputy Secretary [Ashton] Carter, and their Indian counterparts," Little told the Free Beacon.
"Secretary Hagel looks forward to working closely with Indian national security and defense officials," Little responded when pressed to elaborate on the situation.
The U.S. Embassy in India has reportedly distanced itself from Hagel’s controversial stance.
"The United States strongly supports the positive role India continues to play in Afghanistan," IBN reported the U.S. embassy in India as saying. "We continue to support India's bilateral assistance program with Afghanistan, its leadership on private sector investment there, and promoting regional economic integration and linkages."
A spokesperson for the Embassy of India told the Free Beacon earlier this week that Hagel’s 2011 remarks were not grounded in "reality."
"Such comments attributed to Sen. Hagel, who has been a long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-U.S. relations, are contrary to the reality of India’s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people," the spokesperson said in an email.
"India’s commitment to a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan is unwavering, and this is reflected in our significant assistance to Afghanistan in developing its economy, infrastructure, and institutional capacities," the spokesperson said. "Our opposition to terrorism and its safe havens in our neighborhood is firm and unshakeable."
Hagel’s comments appeared to run afoul of the official U.S. policy regarding India and Afghanistan, the embassy spokesperson said.
"India’s development assistance has been deeply appreciated by the people and the government of Afghanistan, and by our friends around the world, including the United States," the embassy statement said. "We do not view our engagement with Afghanistan as a zero sum game."
The report of Hagel’s remarks appears to have sparked an international incident.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday, "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, told the Post. "The situation requires immediate retraction of Hagel’s statement to avoid damage to India-U.S. relations, particularly defense cooperation."
The Post went on to quote a senior U.S. official who said that Hagel’s remarks had created "discomfort."
"It has obviously caused us discomfort because U.S. officials keep telling us, ‘We want more of India in Afghanistan, not less,’ " the official was quoted as saying. "There is certainly a dissonance here.
Additionally, "‘Will Chuck Hagel clarify?’ was the title of the prime time television debate on the Indian news channel Times Now on Tuesday night," according to the Post.