Washington, Feb 28: As Chuck Hagel took over as Barack Obama's new defence secretary amid a controversy over his comments on India's role in Afghanistan, Pentagon - the US defence department headquarters - said that Hagel will work to strengthen ties to India.
Hagel's strong commitment to fostering a close defence relationship was reported Wednesday by Washington Free Beacon, the rightwing online newspaper that had disclosed a video-recording of a speech Hagel made in 2011 about Indian aid to Afghanistan.
"Secretary Hagel is strongly committed to the US 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," Free Beacon quoted Pentagon spokesperson George Little as saying.
"Secretary Hagel looks forward to working closely with Indian national security and defence officials," Little told the newspaper that had dug out the controversial comments during Hagel's contentious confirmation hearings with his former Republicans attacking him for his positions on Israel and Iran.
In his previously unreleased 2011speech, Hagel had said: "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.
"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 remarks raised a furore in New Delhi. However, in a calibrated response to the Free Beacon, the India Embassy said 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-US relations, are contrary to the reality of India's unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people," the embassy spokesperson said in an email to the newspaper.
"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."
The existence of the video of Hagel's speech at Cameron University in Oklahoma was disclosed by the online newspaper hours before the decorated Vietnam veteran was confirmed by the Senate after weeks of severe criticism from former Republican colleagues.
The former Republican senator from Nebraska, who won two Purple Hearts for his bravery as a soldier during the Vietnam War, was accused of being critical of Israel and weak on Iran's alleged nuclear weapon ambitions.