NEW DELHI – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is urging leaders of India to play a more robust role in Afghanistan, as U.S. tensions with Pakistan, India's arch-rival, continue to churn.
India has not been a major military player in the war, largely focusing on economic development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. But U.S. defense officials say Panetta will talk with Indian leaders about possibly helping to train the Afghan army and police.
Such discussions, however, come at a particularly fragile time and risk further roiling U.S. relations with Pakistan.
On Monday, a CIA drone strike targeted a top al-Qaida leader inside Pakistan. Also on Monday, NATO reached an agreement with other Central Asia nations that would bypass Pakistan to move military equipment in and out of Afghanistan.
Washington and Islamabad have been deadlocked over negotiations to re-open ground supply routes into Afghanistan that were shut down late last year after a U.S. airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
It's not clear whether the new NATO accord could be used to pressure Pakistan into reaching an agreement on its ground routes, or whether Panetta's visit to India at this time would help or hinder that effort.
Senior defense officials traveling with Panetta said the U.S. would like India and Pakistan to work in concert to help stabilize Afghanistan, despite their long, historical conflicts and lack of trust. Both countries, they said, would benefit from a more stable and secure Afghanistan.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the meetings, said the U.S. has also talked to Pakistan about its role in the future of Afghanistan, so Islamabad should have nothing to fear.
Pakistan, however, is likely to view any increased Indian role in Afghanistan with suspicion and worry that it may dilute Islamabad's influence on the Afghans' future.
While the defense officials acknowledged the historical tension between India and Pakistan, they said the two countries have taken some steps, particularly this year, to repair the fractures.
Still, Panetta's two-day stop here in New Delhi will gain attention in Islamabad, particularly since in his previous job as CIA chief he directed many of the drone attacks on insurgents in Pakistan that raised the ire of officials there.
Panetta, who has been Pentagon chief for nearly a year, has yet to visit Pakistan, leaving much of the ongoing negotiations to his top military commanders and U.S. diplomats.
India plays a central role in the Pentagon's new defense strategy that puts greater focus on the Asia-Pacific. It was singled out for a mention in the strategy document, in part because of India's strategic location at the crossroads between East and West Asia.
As such, defense officials said India can help promote stability and peace in both the Asia Pacific region, but also more broadly across South and Central Asia.
America's defense ties with India have grown steadily since about 2000, including a substantial increase in arms sales that now total more than $8.5 billion over the last 11 years.
Panetta met Tuesday with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Shiv Shankar Menon, the national security adviser.
During the meetings, the Indian officials agreed to resume efforts to recover the remains of U.S. service members lost in India during World War II.
The Pentagon estimates that there are about 400 personnel unaccounted for from some 90 aircraft crashes in northeastern India. According to the Defense Department, the U.S. has information on 16 known crash sites and is developing information on others.
Panetta will meet with Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony on Wednesday and also give a speech at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, an Indian think tank.