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January 25, 2021

Pak-origin Salman Ahmed part of foreign team: How’d Biden treat Pakistan?

Top Story

January 25, 2021

LAHORE: Following the swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the US Vice President, numerous media houses of India are euphoric over the appointment of at least 20 Indian-Americans, outnumbering the Americans of Pak origin, to key positions in President Joe Biden's administration.

However, Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense, General (retired) Lloyd Austin, have so far aired positive, yet carefully-worded, statements about Pakistan, India and the ever-worsening situation in Held Kashmir.

These statements, before and after Biden's election to Oval Office, should thus make many neutral political pundits believe a faint wind of optimism has perhaps started blowing for the good, besides giving bleeding Kashmiris a glimmer of hope that they might now be heard better by more receptive and sympathetic ears in Washington, DC.

Here follows an archival research of how the key Biden administration pillars feel, or have been thinking, about Pakistan, India and the disturbing state of affairs in held Kashmir.

Just before the 2020 American Presidential elections, the "Quartz India," the regional edition of an American business-focused international news organization, had written: "Biden's Presidential campaign has been outspoken about the Kashmir issue. In “Joe Biden’s Agenda for Muslim Americans,” the campaign lists atrocities against the Muslim community across the world, and clubs together what is happening in Kashmir with the persecution of Rohingyas in Bangladesh and the Uyghurs in western China. "In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir. Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy,” it noted.

On August 2, 2020, the-then US presidential candidate, Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Adviser, Antony Blinken, had said if chosen by the American electorate college, the Biden administration would raise the issue of Kashmir with India and also convey its concerns on a recent Indian law that discriminates against Muslims.

Participating in a dialogue on American foreign policy at the Washington DC-based Hudson Institute, Blinken had viewed: "We obviously have challenges now and real concerns, for example, about some of the actions the Indian government has taken, particularly in cracking down on freedom of movement and freedom of speech in Kashmir, and about some of the laws on citizenship. This would be the Biden administration’s approach while discussing Kashmir and other issues with India because “we have seen evidence that it works."

In July 2020, Blinken had told the Hudson Institute that while they had “real concerns” over issues like India “cracking down on freedom of movement and freedom of speech in Kashmir, some of the laws on citizenship," their approach would be to “speak frankly and directly” in a way that would strengthen the relationship. (References: The Indian NDTV, the Times of India, the "Mint" newspaper published by the Hindustan Times Media and the "Wire," an Indian news and opinion website)

On July 11, 2020, Antony Blinken, had asserted: "The Biden administration, if elected, will raise the issue of Kashmir with India and would also convey its concerns on a recent Indian law that discriminates against Muslims.”

It may be recalled that Biden had expressed disapproval of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, and his vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris’s words on the abrogation of Article 370, was also something that India should not forget.

Kamala had opined: "“We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands."

However, on August 15, 2020, the "Hindustan Times" had claimed that Joe Biden had offered full-throated support to India against China.

The "Zee News" had held: "In 2008, Pakistan had conferred Biden with the second highest civilian honour ‘Hilal-e-Pakistan.' Joe Biden and Senator Richard Lugar were behind the proposal to bring $1.5 billion non-military aid to Pakistan. Lugar too was awarded the ‘Hilal-e-Pakistan.' Former president Asif Ali Zardari had thanked the two for consistently supporting Pakistan. As Biden inches closer to become the new president of the US, many Indians believe that another term for Trump would have been better for India."

Meanwhile, General (retired) Lloyd Austin, President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Pentagon, believes that US relationships with the Pakistani military would provide openings for both the country to cooperate on key issues, as he acknowledges that Islamabad “will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan."

The American Secretary of Defense, who was recently confirmed by his country's Senate by a 93-2 vote, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee last Tuesday that Pakistan was ‘an essential partner’ in the Afghan peace process. He promised to deter regional actors from spoiling the peace of the region if he was confirmed as the secretary of defence.

Austin, who retired from the military four years ago after serving for more than 40 years, told the US Senate committee that the Biden administration believes that “continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues."

He was also quoted by a section of Indian Press as saying: "I understand Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Muhammed,” he said, adding however that “although this progress is incomplete."

General Austin noted that “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama attack."

He contended that he would focus on shared interests between Washington and Islamabad “which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds," though emphasizing that he “will press Pakistan” to prevent its territory from being used by militants or other violent organizations.”

We all know that Joe Biden has recently inducted two Held Kashmir-born female experts (Sameera Fazili and Aisha Shah) in his team, making a few leading Indian media outlets admit and apprehend that the appointments have triggered a speculation regarding a likely a boost to international human rights groups’ activism related to the troubled Valley, which is facing New Delhi's brutalities for over seven decades, with no real Saviour in sight to end their plight and reduce their agony.

In August 2020, various Democratic Party senators had recorded critical observations against India in the matter.

On October 22, 2019, for example, when a US congressional panel had met to assess human rights concerns in South Asia, the situation in Occupied Kashmir dominated its discourse. Several Congressmen strongly criticized New Delhi’s actions in the picturesque Valley and its decision to lock it down on August 5, 2019, after the incumbent Narendra Modi government had unilaterally abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

On January 15, 2021, an India media house "Frontline" had opined: "From calling the situation in Kashmir a “humanitarian crisis” to questioning the spate of detentions, including that of minors and the political leadership of Kashmir, to linking the government’s decision to its majoritarian agenda, there was a no-holds-barred discussion over Kashmir. Among those most critical of India was Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somalia-born Democrat from Minnesota, who issued a thorough condemnation of the “Hindu nationalist project” of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Referring to some of the recent exercises of the BJP government such as those relating to Article 370 and the National Register of Citizens in Assam.”

Ther magazine had gone on to write: "Ilhan Omar wondered how there could a partnership between India and the U.S. based on shared values: “At what point do we no longer share values with India? Are we waiting for the Muslims in Assam to be put in those camps?” There has been much speculation in New Delhi and Srinagar’s power corridors that under a Democratic Party government, there could be a boost to international human rights groups’ activism on Kashmir. The appointment of two Kashmiri-born experts in Biden’s core team is being seen as an indicator of the same."

The 2.757 million Americans of Indian descent are absolutely gleeful over this development, hoping the current Indo-US trade volume of $70.9 billion would help surge with the induction of the 56-year-old Kamala, whose mother Shyamala Gopalan (a biomedical scientist) had arrived in the US from Tamil Nadu in 1958 as a 19-year-old graduate student.

They are also pinning their hopes on the recent appointments of numerous 'like-minded sympathizers,' whose ancestry originates from India, anticipating that these scions of Indian immigrants would also play a role in further tilting the views of the world's most powerful country in New Delhi's favour.

It is imperative to note that on August 15, 2020, on the occasion of India's Independence Day, President Joe Biden had virtually addressed the Indian-Americans, contending: "As President, I'll also continue to rely on Indian-American diaspora, that keeps our two nations together, as I have throughout my career."

During the course of this address, he had held that his constituents in Delaware, his staff in the Senate and the Obama Biden administration had more Indian Americans than any other administration in the history of the US.

Biden had announced that his dear friend (Kamala Harris) would be the first Indian American Vice President in the history of the US.

Biden thus kept his August 15, 2020 promise to the sheer delight of the Indian Press, as the Indian-Americans have outnumbered the Pakistani-Americans with a very large margin in his team.

On January 18, just two days before Biden's inauguration, the Press Trust of India (PTI) had claimed that the new American head of state had either nominated or named at least 20 Indian Americans, including 13 women, to key positions in his administration.

According to this largest Indian news agency, headquartered in New Delhi, it was a new record in itself for a small ethnic community that constituted only one per cent of the country's population.

Having about 400 journalists and 500 part time correspondents on its payroll, the 73-year old PTI states: "As many as 17 of them would be part of the powerful White House complex. It is also for the first time ever that so many Indian-Americans have been roped into a presidential administration ever before the inauguration. Biden is still quite far away from filling all the positions in his administration."

The PTI, with annual revenues of over US$24 million a couple of years ago, and "The Times of India," the oldest English-language newspaper in India, had then followed up with names of the Indian-American appointees in the Biden administration.

The list includes: Neera Tanden (appointed as Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Dr Vivek Murthy (US Surgeon General), Vanita Gupta (Associate Attorney General Department of Justice), Uzra Zeya (Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights), Mala Adiga (Policy Director to the future First Lady Dr Jill Biden), Garima Verma (Digital Director of the Office of the First Lady), Sabrina Singh (Deputy Press Secretary), Aisha Shah (Partnership Manager at the White House Office of Digital Strategy), Sameera Fazili (Deputy Director at the US National Economic Council in the White House), Gautam Raghavan (who served at the White House in the Barack Obama Administration has returned to the White House as Deputy Director in Office of Presidential Personnel), Vinay Reddy (Director Speechwriting), Vedant Patel (Assistant Press Secretary to the President), Sonia Aggarwal (Senior Adviser for Climate Policy and Innovation in the Office of the Domestic Climate Policy at the White House) and Vidur Sharma (Policy Adviser for Testing for the White House COVID-19 Response Team), Neha Gupta (Associate Counsel at White House) and Reema Shah (Deputy Associate Counsel at White House).

Moreover, three Indian-Americans have made their way to the National Security Council of the White House.

These include Tarun Chhabra (Senior Director for Technology and National Security), Sumona Guha (Senior Director for South Asia) and Shanthi Kalathil (Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights).

It is certainly noteworthy that for the first time ever, families of two Indian-American women appointees (Aisha Shah and Sameera Fazili) hail from Held Kashmir.

While Aisha Shah was born in Occupied Kasmir, Sameera Fazili's parents had migrated from the suppressed territory to the US.

However, the list has excluded some Indian-Americans Sonal Shah and Amit Jani, who had worked on the Biden campaign, allegedly due to their Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) links.

According to a report in "The Tribune," an Indian English-language daily newspaper published from Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Bathinda, Chandigarh and New Delhi, Sonal Shah’s father, who has served on Biden’s unity task force, was the president of Overseas Friends of BJP-USA, and is the founder of RSS-run Ekal Vidyalaya.

Similarly, Jani was the ‘Muslim Outreach’ coordinator of ‘Name Biden’ campaign. His family reportedly has ties with PM Modi and other BJP leaders.

According to the report, those with RSS-BJP links have not found a place in Biden’s team because secular Indian-American organizations have urged his transition team to keep such individuals on the sidelines.

As far as the entrance of Pakistani-Americans in the Biden administration is concerned, the number is way too small as compared to Indian-American appointees.

To the utter dismay of over 508,200 American residents of Pakistani descent, who were desirous of a rapid increase in the Pak-US trade volume of just $5.98 billion with the change in faces at the White House, only two gentlemen — tracing their roots in Pakistan — have so far been selected to represent President Biden's core team.

On January 17, 2021, American President Joe Biden had inducted a second Pakistani American, Salman Ahmed, into his Foreign Policy team.

According to the "Washington Post," he would be serving the Biden administration as Director Policy Planning in the US State Department.

Salman, who had previously served as head of strategic planning in the Obama National Security Council, was chief of staff of the US Mission to the United Nations.

Before joining the Department of State in 2009, he had served as a visiting professor and research scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His association with the United Nations is around 15 years.

Salman Ahmed had also directly supported the-then US Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations with Russia on Syria between 2013 and 2016. He was the co-chair of the International Ceasefire Task Force in Geneva.

Earlier, on December 18, 2020, another Pakistani American, Ali Zaidi, was chosen as Deputy National Climate Adviser. He had played a key role in drafting and implementing the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and helped negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement.

Zaidi will be working directly under former Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been appointed US President's Special Envoy for Climate.

It is noteworthy that while a Sri Lankan American, Rohini Kosoglu, has been chosen as Domestic Policy Adviser to the Vice President, a Bangladeshi-American, Zayn Siddique, would be discharging duties as Senior Adviser to the White House Deputy Chief of Staff.