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In shift, US works toward bigger role for India in Afghanistan war

Inida Ministry of Information & Broadcasting / via Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, left, attends a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Prime Minister's office in New Delhi on Tuesday.

NEW DELHI -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will encourage India to take a more active role in Afghanistan as international forces draw down after a decade of war, U.S. officials said on Tuesday as the Pentagon chief arrived in New Delhi for two days of talks. 

"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," military newspaper Stars and Stripes quoted acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little as saying.

Other officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that this shift could inflame tensions between India and Pakistan given the longstanding rivalry between the countries, 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." 

For years, India has focused on economic aid in Afghanistan, with an investment of about $2 billion, defense officials told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.

Pool / Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is shown in Hanoi on Monday, before arriving in India.

But while The Pentagon welcomes more economic help, and, "doesn't necessarily envision a role of the Indian military in Afghanistan," the Indian military police could provide training for Afghan forces as they move forward, a senior defense official told the newspaper on background.

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. 

But 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. 

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"India and Pakistan share an interest, the same interest that we have, of peace and stability in Afghanistan," the official said. "That makes Pakistan more peaceful and stable and it makes India a lot more stable." 

Their remarks came as 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 announced on Saturday during a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security conference in Singapore, that the U.S. military would rebalance its military assets so that by the year 2020 60 percent of U.S. warships would be in the region, versus 50 percent now. 

The officials said the United States views India as a logical partner to work with on security and stability issues in the Indian Ocean region and that India was singled out for its importance in the new strategy. 

Panetta is expected to elaborate on that theme during his meetings with senior defense and political leaders, as well as in a speech at a think tank on Wednesday. 

India has a long history of involvement in the country and its activities have often been viewed suspiciously by Pakistan, which is concerned about being diplomatically encircled by its longtime enemy. 

India has trained Afghan army and police over the past decade, but 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." 

The two sides will also discuss their 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 about a dozen Apache helicopters along with other weapons. 

Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Vietnam has given U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta the personal letters of a soldier who was killed in the Vietnam war in 1969. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

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