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Terror battle likely to top Obama agenda in India

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
A billboard welcoming US President Barack Obama is seen in Mumbai on Thursday.
A billboard welcoming US President Barack Obama is seen in Mumbai on Thursday.
  • Obama to commemorate 2008 Mumbai terror attacks
  • The attacks derailed a fragile peace process between India and Pakistan
  • India suspects the Af-Pak terrain has become a platform for terror outfits
  • Experts: U.S. can help quell entrenched suspicions between neighbors

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's first stop in Asia will be India's financial hub of Mumbai, scene of the deadly terror attacks of November 2008 that left 164 people dead.

His planned commemoration of the terrorist attack during his first event there underlines the importance that the U.S. is placing on boosting collaboration in dealing with terrorism believed to be centered in the region across India's western borders, analysts say.

"Obama's Mumbai visit is symbolic of the perspective India and the United States share on terrorism. It should lead to strengthening of counterterrorism efforts," said V.P. Malik, India's former army chief.

The 2008 terror attacks, blamed on Pakistan-based militants, derailed a fragile peace process between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Under U.S. pressure, the two nuclear-capable states held talks this year in an attempt to resume their fully-fledged dialogue, but progress has been slow.

Apart from their bitter dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, India and Pakistan have also been wary of each other's roles in Afghanistan.

Obama goes to Mumbai

Involved mainly in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, India suspects the Af-Pak terrain has become a platform for terror outfits of different shades to collaborate against New Delhi's interests.

After winning a non-permanent slot at the U.N. Security Council in October, India identified the "troubled neighborhood" to its west as a priority area to work on.

India believes a solution to the Afghan crisis lies in building strong democratic and security capabilities in the war-ravaged country.

"Gains of the last nine years stand to be squandered if this aspect does not receive the attention that it deserves as the international community ponders its next steps regarding Afghanistan," the external affairs minister, S.M. Krishna, said at a conference in Kabul in July.

Analysts see the United States and India diverging over Obama's Afghan policy, especially the administration's transition plans from July 2011.

"India's perspective is different and it's a longer-term perspective," said Malik. "An early exit of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan -- before democratic and military institutions are firmly in place -- would only lead to a new round of instability in that country."

Experts insist the U.S. can help quell entrenched suspicions that India and Pakistan have about each other over Afghanistan.

"Obama can make clear to [Indian Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh that Washington is not going to let Pakistan monopolize Afghanistan and that America wants India to be part of the process of stabilizing Afghanistan," Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a column in the Times of India newspaper.

"At the same time, Washington needs to assure Pakistan that its interests in Afghanistan will be protected and that Afghanistan will not be a base for subversion. The United States can play the role of intermediary between Islamabad, New Delhi and Kabul to ensure a genuinely independent Afghanistan that is no one's satellite or sphere of influence," wrote Riedel, who chaired Obama's policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009.

Obama's three-day visit to Asia's third largest economy and one of the world's few growth markets also includes meeting with Singh and other top leaders, and addressing the nation's parliament.

"The simple truth is that India's rise, and its strength and progress on the global stage, is deeply in the strategic interest of the United States," said William Burns, under-secretary at the U.S. State Department, during a briefing on U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming tour of Mumbai and New Delhi.

Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, said Obama's tour holds the promise of broader cooperation.

"There indeed is such potential to tap, which goes well beyond the tenures of President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh," he said. "The real big-ticket issue which goes beyond the tenures of individual leaders would be India and the U.S. working jointly toward elimination of nuclear weapons and something as tectonic as commercial viability of solar energy."

Obama in India: Serious business

Obama's visit can also help balance regional geo-politics in the face of what is now seen as an increasingly assertive China, Bhaskar said.

The Chinese and Indian prime ministers met in October in a bid to ease growing tensions despite flourishing trade between the two neighbors.

China's support to Pakistan, India's accommodation of the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, and a decades-old border dispute between the two sides, are points of friction as the economic powerhouses jockey for influence in the region.

"Basically, a more enabled India would make the management of China in the regional grid more conducive to both the United States and India. This could be an objective of the upcoming Obama-Singh summit," Bhaskar said.

After India, Obama travels to Indonesia, then onto the G-20 meeting in South Korea and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in Japan.