Defence officials briefing reporters on US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's visit to India, said Tuesday he planned to discuss, among other subjects, how India could take a more active role in Afghanistan, including by training Afghan security forces after the US draws down most of its forces by the end of 2014, The Wall Street Journal said in a report from New Delhi.
"We welcome playing a more active role in Afghanistan, a more active political and economic role," a senior US defence official was quoted as saying. "We welcome India's contributions to training the Afghan national army and Afghan national police."
A spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs couldn't be reached immediately for comment, the newspaper said.
Last year, Indian and Afghan officials reached agreement for India to train members of the Afghan national army. The training is to take place inside India.
The WSJ dispatch said, "The US encouragement of India may be designed to weaken Pakistan, or pressure the Pakistani government to take a more conciliatory position on Afghanistan. Islamabad has fiercely resisted attempts by India to forge closer relations with Afghanistan.
"An Afghanistan with close ties to India, many in Islamabad believe, would threaten Pakistan and deprive Pakistan of the 'strategic depth' it wants in central Asia."
US-Pakistani relations have been at a low point for more than a year. Since a November border incident between the US and Pakistan that left 24 Pakistani troops dead, Islamabad has closed the border to Afghanistan to American military shipments. The closure has put pressure on the US and its allies, forcing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to ferry supplies through the more expensive northern route.
Pakistani and US officials have so far been unable to forge an agreement on reopening the border crossings. And support for Pakistani civilian and military aid is eroding in the US Congress, with increasing number of lawmakers voicing skepticism about relations with Pakistan.
The senior defence officials acknowledged the message of encouragement to India on Afghanistan was a shift, but said it was an evolutionary one.
"Over the last 10 years, for a variety of reasons, India has not played a particularly active role in Afghanistan even though it steadily increased its economic investments in Afghanistan," the senior official was quoted as saying.
Another defence official said with Western powers preparing to wind down, Afghanistan was at a pivotal moment, and the US recognised that other countries in the region were going to play a more critical role, according to the WSJ report.
"We really need to engage with India on Afghanistan writ large as we move forward with transition," the official said.
The senior official said that Pakistan's and India's interests were not necessarily in conflict.
"Pakistan has nothing to fear with India playing a more active, constructive role in Afghanistan," the official claimed.
Agencies add: in meetings with the Indian prime minister and national security adviser, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta stressed the importance of a partnership with India both for ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and for the United States’ new focus on security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Panetta arrived in India on Tuesday afternoon after meeting with Vietnamese military leaders in Hanoi. Panetta landed at a military airport and immediately went into meetings with Manmohan and Memon.
“Secretary Panetta underscored the link India plays between East and West Asia and how the United States views India as a net provider of security from the Indian Ocean to Afghanistan and beyond,” acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little said.
After meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon on Tuesday, Panetta will visit with the Indian Defense Minister AK Antony on Wednesday and deliver a policy speech at India’s oldest think tank.
In Tuesday’s meetings, Little said, Panetta discussed the nations’ shared interests, particularly in the Pacific and reiterated the need for increased teamwork with India, “the only country specifically mentioned as a key partner in the Department’s Strategic Guidance issued earlier this year.”
The Pentagon also hopes India and Pakistan will work together more closely on the shared goal of a peaceful, stable Afghanistan.
“There are historical tensions and a lack of trust between India and Pakistan,” the official said, but they have taken steps to repair that relationship and both have legitimate interests in Afghanistan’s future,” the senior defense official said. “Pakistan has nothing to fear with India playing a more constructive role in Afghanistan.”
Ways to strengthen military relations besides the security situation in the region is understood to have come up for discussion as Panetta met Manmohan Singh and Shivshankar Menon.
Panetta explainred to Indian leaders how the US strategic guidance will shift American focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
Panetta discussed US military initiatives to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and the importance the United States places on India, Little said. A senior defense official said the US has excellent military-to-military relations with India and would like to build on the success of the last decade. The leaders also discussed the US-India defence relationship including shared security challenges. US officials say Panetta was very encouraged by the Indian government’s support for resuming the recovery of remains of Americans lost over northeastern India during the World War II.