But U.S. commander says forces are stationed for counter-terrorism cooperation

The Ministry of External Affairs and the Defence Ministry on Friday denied a top Pentagon general's statement that crack U.S. military troops were based in India besides Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to counter threats from organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Coming up with the denials after U.S. Pacific Command (Pacom) chief Admiral Willard made the claim in a prepared statement at a U.S. Congressional hearing, the MEA said India interacted with the American Special Forces only during joint exercises here and abroad while the Defence Ministry asserted that U.S. special forces teams have never been stationed in India in the past, nor are such teams stationed in the country presently.

“We have currently special forces assist teams — Pacific assist teams is the term — laid down in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, as well as India,” Admiral Willard told lawmakers at a Congressional hearing in response to a question on co-operation with India on counter-terrorism issues.

Both Ministries dismissed his claim as “factually incorrect so far as the reference to India is concerned.''

The statement is likely to make hackles rise in all the five national capitals. Here, the Communist Party of India demanded to know why the presence of U.S. special forces in India had been kept under wraps and Parliament not taken into confidence. In a statement, the party said it was shocking to hear that the U.S. assist teams are stationed in India, along with those from other countries, to fight against terrorism.

The Ministry of External Affairs said both countries occasionally conduct short duration special forces exercises in India and the U.S. while the Defence Ministry asserted that neither has the U.S. sought nor had India approved stationing of U.S. special forces in “any capacity'' in India.

That left the question open whether a component of Pentagon's special forces, who conduct operations of hazardous nature such as snatches, sabotage behind enemy lines or liquidation, were secretly stationed in the embassy or one of the consulates – as they do in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan – to track, kill or assist in killing militants. Officials when asked were not willing to hazard a guess on that.

Testimonies before the U.S. Congressional panels, as is the case with depositions before Standing Committees of Parliament here, are sacrosanct and an official may lie at the peril of his job and liberty. Admiral Willard heads the Pacom whose area of “responsibility'' begins from the eastern edge of Asia and end on India's western borders.

Therefore the Admiral would be in the know of all interactions with the Indian military and is unlikely to mix up short term presence of his troops for joint exercises with deployments. He said the special forces were deployed here to help in the maritime domain — that is, to counter threats such as sneak attacks from the sea. He went on to add that other U.S. government agencies were also operating in India.

While claiming deployment of special forces teams, he said the Pacom also hosted counter terrorist specialists for training exercises and exchanges throughout the U.S. The idea was to make the countries in the sub-region self-sufficient in tackling the challenges of terrorism, piracy, trafficking in narcotics and persons, disputed borders and insurgent movements. Pakistan lies in the domain of the U.S. military's Central Command.

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