by Marsha B. Cohen

No sooner had it been announced that the Senate was preparing to vote for cloture on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense than the Washington Free Beacon‘s Adam Kredo unleashed yet another attack on the former Nebraska senator. After spending two and a half months battering Hagel with specious accusations that he was “anti-Israel” and harbored negative views about Jews, Kredo’s new credo is that Hagel has “an Indian problem.”

According to Kredo’s latest anti-Hagel screed:

The U.S. has long viewed India as a key ally in its fight against terrorism in the porous border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tensions have arisen between India and Pakistan over the latter’s failure to stymie terrorist activities.

Hagel appears to accuse India of fueling tensions with Pakistan, claiming it is using Afghanistan “as a second front” against Pakistan.

“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 says in the speech. “And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being [that] the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many, many years.”

The controversial comments mark a departure from established United States policy in the region and could increase tensions between the Obama administration and India should the Senate confirm Hagel on Tuesday, according to experts.

Well, actually just one “expert”, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Dhume uses his AEI perch to bemoan that two thirds of the nearly three million Indian-Americans who vote Democrat (84% voted for Barak Obama in 2008) and the fact that only one in five identifies with the Republican party, which they should regard as their “natural home.” Dhume claims that the view Hagel expressed (at least as presented to him by Kredo) is “both over-the-top and a sharp departure from a U.S. position that has seen democratic India as a stabilizing influence in Afghanistan and Asia more broadly.”

As with nearly all of the Free Beacon’s “revelations,” there is more to the story, and far less cause for outrage…

For one thing, the setting for Hagel’s talk from which the quote about India was ripped was a triennial Academic Festival at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, “a dynamic, privately funded, year-long symposium which explores a topic worthy of in-depth study.”  The topic of the 2011-2012 Academic Festival was “Afghanistan: Its Complexities and Relevance.” Guest speakers, campus-wide activities, seminars, special events and cross-curricular events during the academic year were strategically planned to support the study of the Festival’s topic, and to provide “numerous opportunities for Cameron students and the public to gain an understanding of this central Asian country” at no charge. Hagel was one of five guest speakers who came to Cameron’s campus between August 2011 and March 2012.

Hagel is a Distinguished Professor of National Governance at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service as well as a Distinguished Centennial Visiting Professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s College of Public Affairs and Community Service. He is the author of “America: Our Next Chapter: Tough Questions, Straight Answers” in which he examines foreign policy problems, including China’s growing economy, India and Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, and Iran’s aggressive political, ideological and nuclear stances. During his two terms in the U.S. Senate, Hagel was a member of the Committee for Foreign Relations and the Select Committee on Intelligence, among other appointments.

The other guest speakers during the Academic Festival were Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner; Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize winner and the president of the New America Foundation; journalist and foreign policy analyst Robin Wright; and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the chief of staff of military operations in Afghanistan 2002 who assumed command of all international forces in Afghanistan in June 2009.

Hagel’s main focus during his talk was Afghanistan, not India. It follows that his comments were intended to explain how the involvement of various regional state and nonstate actors in Afghanistan complicates the situation there. Pakistan’s involvement is well known to American viewers of the nightly news, India’s much less so.

A 2008 report by the Council on Foreign Relations – which the Free Beacon‘s Bill Gertz points to as “one of the most elite foreign policy organizations in the United States with a membership of some 4,700 officials, former officials, journalists, and others” — makes it quite clear that claims about Indian involvement in Afghanistan are neither new nor unfounded:

India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), has long faced allegations of meddling in its neighbors’ affairs. Founded in 1968, primarily to counter China’s influence, over time it has shifted its focus to India’s other traditional rival, Pakistan. RAW and Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have been engaged in covert operations against one other for over three decades. The ongoing dispute in Kashmir continues to fuel these clashes, but experts say Afghanistan may be emerging as the new battleground.

Citing a former RAW official by the name of B. Raman, the CFR report, written by Jayshree Bajoria, also notes that Indian concern about Pakistan was a key aspect of this involvement:

Since its inception in 1968, RAW has had a close liaison relationship with KHAD, the Afghan intelligence agency, due to the intelligence it has provided RAW on Pakistan. This relationship was further strengthened in the early 1980s when the foundation was laid for a trilateral cooperation involving the RAW, KHAD, and the Soviet KGB. Raman says RAW valued KHAD’s cooperation for monitoring the activities of Sikh militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab were demanding an independent state of Khalistan. According to Raman, Pakistan’s ISI set up clandestine camps for training and arming Khalistani recruits in Pakistan’s Punjab Province and North West Frontier Province. During this time, the ISI received large sums from Saudi Arabia and the CIA for arming the Afghan mujahadeen against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. “The ISI diverted part of these funds and arms and ammunition to the Khalistani terrorists,” alleges Raman.

In retaliation, in the mid-1980s, RAW set up two covert groups of its own, Counter Intelligence Team-X (CIT-X) and Counter Intelligence Team-J (CIT-J), the first targeting Pakistan in general and the second directed at Khalistani groups. The two groups were responsible for carrying out terrorist operations inside Pakistan (Newsline), writes Pakistani military expert Ayesha Siddiqa. Indian journalist and associate editor of Frontline magazine, Praveen Swami, writes that a “low-grade but steady campaign of bombings in major Pakistani cities, notably Karachi and Lahore” was carried out. This forced the head of ISI to meet his counterpart in RAW and agree on the rules of engagement as far as Punjab was concerned, writes Siddiqa. The negotiation was brokered by then-Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan bin-Talal, whose wife, Princess Sarvath, is of Pakistani origin. “It was agreed that Pakistan would not carry out activities in the Punjab as long as RAW refrained from creating mayhem and violence inside Pakistan,” Siddiqa writes.

In the past, Pakistan also accused RAW of supporting Sindhi nationalists demanding a separate state, as well as Seraikis calling for a partition of Pakistan’s Punjab to create a separate Seraiki state. India denies these charges. However, experts point out that India has supported insurgents in Pakistan’s Balochistan, as well as anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan. But some experts say India no longer does this. As this Backgrounder explains, Pakistan is suspicious of India’s influence in Afghanistan, which it views as a threat to its own interests in the region. Experts say although it is very likely that India has active intelligence gathering in Afghanistan, it is difficult to say whether it is also involved in covert operations.

Hagel’s analysis in his lecture at Cameron University was substantively supported by the CFR report three years earlier, although he did not take it that far. As the You Tube clip indicates, contrary to Kredo’s claim, Hagel never used the phrase “sponsored terrorist activities”. Furthermore, in posting the 54-second excerpt from Hagel’s speech online, great care was apparently taken to avoid providing the context of Hagel’s India remarks, which no doubt would make them even less “controversial” than they already are.

After being contacted by Kredo for comment, a spokesperson at the Indian Embassy seems to have been rather skeptical of his take on Hagel’s expressed views. “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 reportedly told Kredo in an email. Her statement clearly leaves room for the possibility that the attributed remarks were not quite what Kredo interpreted them as.

Chuck Hagel doesn’t have an Indian problem. The Washington Free Beacon has a Chuck Hagel problem.