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Obama in India: counterterrorism cooperation

What will it take for the US-India counterterrorism relationship to change?

Taj Mahal Hotel Mumbai Attacks
Hotel staff line the grand cantilever staircase under the hotel's iconic red dome as the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel reopens in Mumbai on Aug. 12, 2010. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

MUMBAI, India — U.S. President Barack Obama will kick off his three-day trip to India with a speech in Mumbai, where Pakistani gunmen held the city under siege for 60 hours and killed 166 people in November 2008.

He will speak at the Taj Palace hotel, one of the main sites attacked two years ago, a move that highlights the “exponential growth” in counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries over the past year, as a senior U.S. government official put it at a recent press briefing in India.

And yet, despite the glowing rhetoric, the U.S. commitment to forging closer counterterrorism ties generates a sense of suspicion and even distrust in India. Security analysts point to the U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan and question how America can maintain close ties with Islamabad while developing stronger counterterrorism operations with Pakistan’s main rival, India.

“The United States policy toward India is held hostage by the U.S. policy toward Pakistan,” said Thomas Mathew, the former deputy director general of the Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

There is an inherent “conflict of interest” for the United States as those who are orchestrating the terrorist incidents in India such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks are the very people the United States relies on for its Af-Pak strategy, according to Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management. U.S military aid to Pakistan is about $2 billion this year.

“America is not able to distance itself from the support and sponsor of terrorism in Pakistan,” Sahni said. “How am I supposed to take your help and also punish you?”

The United States argues that supplying Pakistan with arms gives the country the capability to fight terrorist activity that could otherwise harm India.

“It’s important for both India and the United States for Pakistan to have the ability to fight terrorism there,” a senior U.S. government official said at the recent press briefing.

Sahni, though, argues that this “conflict of interest” prevents a completely open relationship between the United States and India concerning counterterrorism. Instead, there are incident-related times of cooperation.

The Mumbai attacks, in which 166 people died including six Americans, was the first major case in which the United States played a large role during the attacks, investigation and prosecution. The United States helped India intercept mobile phone calls between the gunmen and their orchestrators in Pakistan, and it helped with forensic lab investigations and the deposition of witnesses.

Mumbai’s Additional Commissioner of Police Deven Bharti called the 2008 attacks a “watershed” moment that spurred closer ties between the United States and India on fighting terrorist activities and intelligence sharing.

“This cooperation has come as a natural fallout of the realization that this epicenter [Pakistan] is really, really dangerous and can inflict terrorism anywhere in the world,” he said.