Wednesday, January 25, 2006

U.S. Troops On Front Line Of Expanding India Ties

Post-9/11 Shift Stresses Common Interests
By John Lancaster, Washington Post Foreign Service
Washington Post
January 25, 2006

CHAUBATIA, India -- More than half a century after independence, foreign soldiers have returned to this onetime colonial garrison of tin-roofed bungalows, stone churches and panoramic Himalayan views. But this time, the soldiers' accents are American, not British, and their purpose is not to subdue India but to cultivate it as an ally.

In the latest of a series of such exercises, 120 U.S. combat troops have come here to train with their Indian counterparts in areas such as counterinsurgency and peacekeeping. Besides taking classroom instruction, they are firing Indian weapons, bonding with Indian soldiers over games of soccer and volleyball, and even developing a taste for vegetarian cuisine, albeit with spices toned down for sensitive American palates.

"When you get the armies together, it's like saying, 'Hey, we can work together, we can accomplish this together,' " said U.S. Army Capt. Robert Atienza, 31, of San Diego, who commands the Hawaii-based infantry company that is participating in the 2 1/2 -week exercise that began last week. "It's very broad."

The exercise is an example of the striking improvement in relations between the United States and India following decades of Cold War estrangement and more recent tensions stemming from India's nuclear tests in 1998.

Spurred by the United States, the two governments have signed commercial, scientific and military agreements in the last two years and are negotiating a controversial deal that could permit the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India. The Bush administration is eager to cultivate India as a partner in counterterrorism and, some analysts say, as a strategic counterweight to China.

The warming trend is also reflected in the surge of interest in India among U.S. business leaders such as Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft Corp., who recently announced a $1.7 billion investment in the country, the latest in a string of such commitments by U.S. technology firms eager to cash in on India's booming economy and surplus of inexpensive brainpower.

Other indicators include the parade of U.S. lawmakers through New Delhi in recent months and steadily expanding commercial air links. In addition, a record number of Indian students -- more than 80,000 -- are studying at U.S. universities, according to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

President Bush is scheduled to visit India for the first time in early March at the invitation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a self-effacing economist who met with Bush at the White House last July. In New Delhi on Friday, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said the planned visit is "really reflective of the very significant transformation that has taken place, and is taking place, in India-U.S. relations."

Saran was speaking at a news conference after meetings with Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, who was making his third visit to the Indian capital in the last six months. "India is one of the few countries in the world that has the capability to act globally and has the same basic interests as the United States," Burns said in a telephone interview from New Delhi.

The two countries still have important differences. In particular, India has a long history of warm relations with Iran and is pursuing plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Iran across Pakistan, a move that the Bush administration has warned could trigger sanctions against Indian companies under a U.S. law aimed at isolating Iran's Islamic regime. Indian officials say the project is essential to their country's energy security.

Partly for that reason, India has walked a tightrope in its handling of the standoff between Iran and the United States over allegations that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.

India's reluctance to dance entirely to Washington's tune stems in part from the influence of political parties opposed to the Bush administration's policies on Iraq and free trade.

One of the most important tests of the new relationship centers on the agreement signed by Bush and Singh in Washington last July that would give India access to nuclear fuel and reactors to produce electricity. Under the deal, the United States would lift a ban on the sale of such technology to India, provided that India opens up its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspections and other safeguards.

That cannot happen, however, until the administration and India agree on a plan to separate the country's civilian and military nuclear facilities. The U.S. Congress would then have to vote on the deal, which critics say would weaken efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and create perceptions of a double standard in U.S. dealings with such countries as Iran and North Korea.

"The nonproliferation system is built on rules," said Michael Krepon, a specialist on the issue at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. "They're not always honored, but having them makes it easier to gang up on people who break the rules. The approach the administration is taking is very poisonous to all that."

U.S. officials say the deal would strengthen nonproliferation efforts by opening up India's civilian nuclear facilities to outside inspection for the first time. India, they say, is entitled to special treatment in light of its democratic values and exemplary record of preventing nuclear secrets from falling into the wrong hands.

Burns said in the interview that his discussions last week with Indian officials had not yielded a breakthrough on the separation plan, and he made no prediction about whether a deal would be secured in time for Bush's visit. "It's a possibility but not a certainty," he said.

If the deal does fall apart, "a lot of people would be quite happy to say, 'We told you the United States cannot be trusted,' " said C. Raja Mohan, an analyst and commentator in New Delhi.

Other analysts say the relationship would survive such a setback, citing many common interests. Already, they note, India and the United States are working closely to coordinate policy on regional concerns such as instability in Nepal and Bangladesh. "The relationship is going to stand on its own," Burns said.

The goodwill marks a sharp change from the Cold War, when India was a champion of the Non-Aligned Movement and had close ties to the Soviet Union. Relations began to improve in the early 1990s following the Soviet collapse and India's initial moves to liberalize its economy. But they nosedived when the United States imposed sanctions in response to India's 1998 nuclear tests.

The Bush administration lifted the sanctions after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and has promoted India as a new global partner, citing its vast economic potential and status as the world's largest democracy.

Analysts say the White House drive to court India was also influenced by frustration with traditional allies such as France and Germany and concerns over the rising power of China.

The administration has paid special attention to strengthening India's military capabilities.

Since 2002, India and the United States have held a number of naval, air and ground exercises. The latest is being conducted in Chaubatia, an army base that was established by the British Indian Army in the late 19th century in the forested Himalayan foothills about 90 miles northeast of New Delhi. It is now occupied by the Indian army's Kumaon Regiment and, at least through the end of January, by the men of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, which is part of the 25th Infantry Division out of Scofield Barracks, Hawaii.

Chaubatia is an exotic setting for the exercise, with its striking views of snow-capped peaks, immaculate grounds and road sign alerting drivers that "leopards have right of way."

One morning last week, Atienza, the company commander, lectured Indian soldiers on lessons learned during the battalion's year-long tour of Afghanistan, which ended in March 2004, as an interpreter translated his words into Hindi. In other classes, Indian officers shared their experiences fighting Islamic guerrillas in Kashmir. Later in the day, Indian and American troops converged on a firing range, where they took turns shooting each other's assault rifles at pop-up targets.

In part, the exercise is aimed at bridging cultural gaps between the two militaries. Several American officers, for example, said they had been struck by the relative lack of autonomy vested in Indian soldiers at the platoon level. And an Indian officer, who under Indian army ground rules could not be identified by name, said the U.S. soldiers were "quite relaxed," adding philosophically, "That is their way."

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