As the Taliban assaulted Kabul, Defense Secretary Gates made an important visit to India, the South Asian giant whose partnership is critical to stabilizing the region and checking terrorism trends that jeopardize world security. In an op-ed that ran in today’s Times of India, Gates emphasizes the helpful role Indian economic aid to Afghanistan plays in achieving NATO goals there, while calling the U.S. relationship with India “indispensable.” Following on the heels of the Indian Prime Minister’s successful visit to Washington last November, Gates’ visit will sustain the momentum in U.S.-India ties and prepare the way for a potential visit by President Obama to India this summer.

Gates also will take the temperature on India-Pakistan relations more than one year after the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) terrorist attacks in Mumbai. In a sign that India may be considering seeking a thaw with Pakistan, the Indian Foreign Minister last week telephoned his Pakistani counterpart. However, the slight opening toward Islamabad’s civilian leadership does not appear to signal optimism about the Pakistani military’s willingness to crack down on the LeT. Rather, it may demonstrate that New Delhi seeks to prevent a further deterioration in ties and to avoid appearing unreasonable at a time when Pakistanis themselves suffer almost daily terrorist attacks. New Delhi still holds that the Pakistani military could be doing more to crack down on terrorists that attack India, an assessment shared by many U.S. officials and that appears to have been borne out by the investigation of the David Headley case, which has confirmed links between the Pakistan military and the LeT. The opening toward Islamabad also will not preclude Indian leaders from expressing their disapproval of U.S. military aid to Pakistan on grounds that the equipment is aimed at strengthening Pakistan’s ability to counter India, not terrorists.

While regional security is expected to top the agenda of Gates’ three-day visit, he also will seek to bolster U.S.-India defense trade. Russia still provides 80 percent of India’s military hardware, but the U.S. is beginning to break into the rapidly expanding Indian defense market. Over the last two years, India has purchased over $3 billion in military equipment from the U.S., including eight maritime reconnaissance aircraft and six C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft. The two countries are moving toward completing their largest defense transaction yet (about $2.5 billion) with India’s potential purchase of ten strategic airlift aircraft.
Gates will push for India’s signature on a Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), which are required under U.S. domestic laws to transfer sensitive defense technologies and would pave the way for greater defense trade and cooperation with New Delhi. The signing of one or both of these agreements during the Gates’ visit would represent a major stride forward in cementing the U.S.-India strategic partnership.