India-U.S. military cooperation was excellent in tsunami relief but concerns varied on rebuilding of Palaly airfield

When U.S. troops arrived in Sri Lanka for relief work in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, alarm bells rang in sections of the Indian establishment, media and the strategic community over possible American ‘intrusion' into its backyard. But U.S. diplomatic cables of the time, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, show that the official thinking in the United States favoured utilising its military participation in relief efforts to strengthen “military-to-military” cooperation with other participants in the effort, especially India.

In New Delhi, Political Counselor Geoffrey Pyatt on January 7, 2005 clarified to Ministry of External Affairs Director (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives) Taranjit Singh Sandhu the extent of U.S. military presence in Sri Lanka. On January 10, 2005, Ambassador David Mulford in New Delhi wrote in a cable (25165: confidential): “Sandhu seemed surprised to learn that the widely reported figure of 1,500 US troops in the country was incorrect, and that the USG [United States Government] was going to refocus some military assets on Indonesia because India was doing a very good job of providing assistance to Sri Lanka.” And, Mr. Mulford added in a note in parenthesis: “We have heard from others that the Indian Embassy in Colombo has been a source of some of these alarmist reports about US military plans for Sri Lanka.”

However, India, which dispatched its Navy to render immediate relief and medical aid to Sri Lanka, was actively cooperating with the U.S. troops on the ground. In Colombo, Ambassador Jeffrey J. Lunstead, apparently responding to suggestions that the cooperation be upgraded into joint Indo-U.S. efforts, saw no need to “turn this into some sort of joint (as opposed to cooperative) effort,” which is in a cable sent on January 5, 2005 (24950: confidential).

Reporting that based on a U.S. initiative, a cooperation mechanism was in place for all foreign militaries working in the island nation, and that there was a daily coordination meeting, Mr. Lunstead said: “The Indians enthusiastically participate in this meeting.”

‘Are separate efforts’

The Government of Sri Lanka itself did not want this to be “a possible Indo-US condominium.” The Ambassador had assured that country's Foreign Secretary that the U.S. was cooperating with India, “but these are separate efforts.” Despite the “excellent relationship,” the Indians were also “very careful to assert their independence.” Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Nirupama Rao had made it plain that on the civilian side she was ready to share information, but she did not want any greater level of cooperation or coordination. When a number of bilateral donors formed a coordination group and nominated one member to be their liaison with the GSL, she emphatically stated that “India will not let anyone represent us.”

The U.S. Ambassador added: “We and the Indians are good buddies and share all information. Our mil [military] program is about to get off the ground. Let's not try to fix something that is not broken.”

On third party usage

If these observations were of a piece with the growing convergence of interests between India and the U.S., there were phases in which their military concerns were divergent. For instance, in discussions that preceded India's decision to assist the rebuilding of the Palaly airfield in the Jaffna peninsula, a crucial air and military base for the Sri Lankan security forces in the peninsula through much of the war with the LTTE, it is clear that the Indian help came with a rider that the U.S. thought did not accord with U.S. interests. India wanted to be consulted on all “third party usage of the airfield,” which is in a cable sent on November 17, 2004 (22910: confidential). The U.S. thought such restrictions would be “unfortunate.”

India's Deputy Chief of Mission in Colombo Mohan Kumar, and First Secretary Amandeep Singh Gill told U.S. Embassy officials that the proposed agreement on rehabilitating the Palaly airfield would include a clause requiring that India be “consulted” on all third-party usage. “We are not trying to shackle the Sri Lankan government,” the Ambassador, Mr. Lunstead, quotes Mr. Gill as saying. “But we would naturally expect to be consulted.”

However, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told the U.S. there were no such restrictions on third-party usage. “I personally settled that,” he said.

In his comment, Mr. Lunstead noted the Indians and the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister had “widely differing ideas” about the contents of the proposed agreement, but the U.S. was on record expressing its concern on such restrictions.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)