June 06, 2012

Panetta calls on India to step up in Afghanistan


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We focus now on changes in American military strategy. One war is over in Iraq and another is winding down in Afghanistan, so the Pentagon is asking where are America's strategic interests now? And its answer is in Asia and the Pacific. That's where Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been traveling all week, outlining plans to place the region at the center of U.S. military strategy.

Today, Secretary Panetta was in India. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports from New Delhi, getting India to buy into the new approach won't be easy.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Secretary Panetta has been nation-hopping across the Asia Pacific explaining why he wants to focus U.S. defense strategy on this part of the world. From Singapore to Vietnam, he told his host the U.S. wants to rebalance its forces to this center of economic growth and military might. Today, Panetta said he wants to include one of the region's biggest players.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Defense cooperation with India is a lynchpin in this strategy.

ABRAMSON: Panetta said India and the U.S. are natural allies, big democracies that want a safer world, so he proposed that the two countries buddy up and grow their defense partnership beyond the more than $8 billion in military sales over the last decade or so.

Speaking to a think tank audience in New Delhi, Panetta said he wants India to take a greater role in the mission in Afghanistan because, he says, both countries have the same stake there.

PANETTA: We both realize how important it is to ultimately have a stable Afghanistan if we are to have peace and prosperity in this region.

ABRAMSON: Panetta said he'd like to see India expand its investments in Afghanistan. India has no troops there, but it does train Afghan security forces. But India may be reluctant to go beyond its current role.

Patrick Cronin of the Center for New American Security says India is already worried about what's going on to its west in Afghanistan as U.S. troops look to end their combat role there over the next couple of years.

PATRICK CRONIN: And they're not happy with having to focus too much of their attention back on the western flank when, increasingly, they have to look to the east and China's rise.

ABRAMSON: Many observers figure this trip is really less about Afghanistan and more about China. After all, Panetta chose to visit two countries - Vietnam and now India - that have come to blows with China over border disputes. Panetta noted that India's military has been working with the U.S. more and more, including some 50 military exercises in the last year alone.

But Patrick Cronin says India is most interested in help on the high seas, where China's military is starting to pose a challenge.

CRONIN: The exercises are largely in the maritime domain and that's the theatre that is least threatening to India and where India most needs us as the People's Liberation Army build the Blue Water Navy and increasingly intrudes upon the Indian Ocean.

ABRAMSON: All week, Secretary Panetta has insisted he is not forming some sort of anti-China bloc. He says he has an approach that will appeal to all nations in the region, including China.

CRONIN: If they believe that the United States is truly interested in developing their capabilities and not just simply going in and telling them what to do or trying to overwhelm them with power, I think they're willing to listen.

ABRAMSON: One thing Secretary Panetta can take home with him - a commitment from India that U.S. teams can search for the remains of around 400 airmen lost in plane crashes on Indian soil during World War II.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, New Delhi.