NEW DELHI (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta encouraged Indian leaders on Tuesday to take a more active role in Afghanistan as international forces leave, saying Washington viewed Pakistan’s long-time rival as a source of regional security.
Panetta, in the first of two days of talks with Indian officials, “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,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
India signed a security agreement with Afghanistan last year and has longstanding ties with Kabul, but the relationship is viewed with suspicion by Pakistan. The Afghan conflict is considered by some to be a proxy war between the two nuclear neighbors.
Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, for example, was suspected of being behind the 2008 suicide bombing that killed 41 people at the Indian Embassy in Kabul, a charge Islamabad denies. India has voiced concern about resurgent Islamic extremism in Afghanistan once international forces withdraw.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the longstanding rivalry between India and Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan but insisted that both countries had an interest in working with the international community to ensure stability in their northern neighbor.
“There is a risk that the tensions and historical mistrust between India and Pakistan could lead them to view their respective roles in Afghanistan as being in conflict,” one official said. “This is not predestined. This does not have to be the case.”
Pakistan wields considerable influence over neighboring Afghanistan, while India is already one of its biggest bilateral donors, having pledged about $2 billion since the 2001 U.S. led-invasion for projects from the construction of highways to the building of the Afghan parliament.
In October, India and Afghanistan signed a wide-ranging agreement to deepen ties, including to help train Afghan security forces, a deal that angered Pakistan.
“India and Pakistan share an interest, the same interest that we have, of peace and stability in Afghanistan,” the U.S. official said. “That makes Pakistan more peaceful and stable and it makes India a lot more stable.”
Panetta flew to India as part of his week-long Asia tour to explain a new U.S. military strategy to allies and partners in the region. The strategy calls for a shift in U.S. focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
Panetta discussed the strategy and India’s security role in the region in meetings with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon.
The new U.S. security strategy singled out U.S. efforts to build a deeper security partnership with India, the only country mentioned by name in that regard.
U.S. officials said that was a mark of the respect with which the United States holds India, even while recognizing that New Delhi has a long history of non-alignment with superpowers and is unlikely to want to enter into a formal treaty alliance.
India’s involvement in Afghanistan so far has been limited in scope. It has trained Afghan army and police over the past decade on a relatively small scale, the U.S. officials said. It has also increasingly helped Afghanistan with its economic reconstruction, the officials said.
“As we look to the future development of peace and stability in Afghanistan ... we know that the regional actors, Afghanistan’s neighbors and extended neighbors like India will play a greater role,” one official said.
“That’s historically been the case in Afghanistan and that’s going to be the case again. And we welcome that.”
The official said the United States would like to see “all of the neighbors, including Pakistan and India, harmonize their approaches because they do share an interest in peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
During Panetta’s talks, the United States and India also agreed to resume efforts to recover the remains of some 400 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for in 90 air crashes in northeastern India during the Second World War, defense officials said.
They also discussed military cooperation, including weapons and training needs.
“We believe that it’s very important, again, to help India modernize its capabilities and develop its military capabilities so it can be a net provider of security in the region and internationally,” the official said.
The United States is keen to get a bigger slice of India’s defense acquisitions, and is negotiating to sell it nearly two dozen Apache helicopters along with other weapons.
Editing by Jon Hemming