Washington/New Delhi : US special forces are based in India and four other South Asian countries, a Pentagon commander has said. India quickly denied hosting American troops on its soil.
The US and India are working together to contain Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attack, US Pacific Commander Admiral Robert Willard told a Congressional hearing Thursday.
The teams were deployed to help India in counter-terrorism, in particular in the maritime domain, Willard said.
“We have currently special forces assist teams – Pacific assist teams is the term – laid down in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives as well as India,” Willard said.
“We are working very closely with India with regard to their counter-terrorism capabilities and in particular on the maritime domain but also government to government, not necessarily department of defence but other agencies assisting them in terms of their internal counter-terror and counterinsurgency challenges.”
The Indian government challenged the statement.
The defence ministry said Willard’s claim that US special teams were based in India was “factually incorrect”.
“The report is factually incorrect in so far as the reference to India is concerned,” a defence ministry spokesperson said in New Delhi.
“US special forces teams have never been stationed in India in the past, nor are such teams stationed in the country presently,” he said.
Admiral Willard said Lashkar-e-Taiba was a “very dangerous organisation… so it is a very important threat, and we’re working very closely with the nations in the region to help contain it”.
The group was “responsible for many attacks in India, including the horrific attacks into Mumbai” of November 2008 that left 166 Indians and foreigners dead.
He said the Lashkar-e-Taiba was headquartered in Pakistan, affiliated with Al Qaeda “and contributes to terrorist operations in Afghanistan and aspires to operate against Asia, Europe and North America”.
Responding to Congressman Joe Wilson, Willard said Pacific Command’s Indian Engagement Initiative resourced and hosted Mumbai counter terrorist specialists for training exercises and exchanges throughout the US.
Together with capacity-building activities with South Asian partners this was mainly focused on containing LeT and contributing to counter-terrorism self-sufficiency of the sub-region’s militaries, Willard said.
Anchored by India and containing major sea line of communication for the transport of energy and other commerce to Asia and the America from the Middle East and Europe, South Asia security partnerships were increasingly vital to Pacific Command’s mission, he said.
South Asia is home to a confluence of challenges, including nuclear armed India and Pakistan, numerous transnational groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, piracy, trafficking in narcotics and persons, disputed borders, and insurgent movements that have plagued India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Willard said.