Obama in India: counterterrorism cooperation

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.

Some security experts agree that while intelligence sharing between the world’s two biggest democracies still needs to be strengthened, it has greatly improved since the Mumbai attacks.

Intelligence sharing began under U.S. President George W. Bush and has improved under the Obama administration as a result of the Mumbai attacks, the president’s nature and the building of trust between the countries over time, said G. Balachandran, a consulting fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

But recently, even the investigation into the Mumbai attacks has caused more suspicion in India of the United States.

Investigations by ProPublica and The New York Times found that U.S. law enforcement authorities were warned twice about David Headley, the Pakistani-American who is a former U.S. informant and has confessed to plotting the 2008 attacks, years earlier and may not have acted on the information.

These findings have led India to question whether the United States withheld crucial information on Headley and his involvement with Pakistan-based militant groups. It also raises concerns that the United States did not pursue evidence against Pakistani officials because of its dependence on Islamabad for its war in Afghanistan.

India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told local media that India only received “general and non-specific” information on Headley before the attacks.

A few days later, Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai said India was “disappointed” the U.S. had not shared information on Headley.

An Indian Express article furthers the accusation that the United States did not share all necessary information. It states that Indian intelligence agencies have found no reference to Headley in the inputs shared by U.S. intelligence with them until his arrest in October 2009.

“While New Delhi understands that intelligence agencies normally do not share trade secrets, it is peeved that Headley was allowed by American agencies to travel to India for conducting reconnaissance on behalf of the Lashkar,” it states.

The U.S. State Department insists that it shared all necessary information with India when it received it.

"Whenever the United States has had any specific information, it has been shared with India,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robert Blake said to reporters during a recent trip to Delhi, according to media reports.

It would be difficult for India to determine if the United States did indeed withhold crucial information on Headley as intelligence-sharing is always a complex matter, said Balachandran. Every country must act in its own self-interest and therefore will never share every bit of information it collects, he said.

Furthermore, there is a likely chance in the Headley instance that the failure came at the level of intelligence analysis rather than sharing, he said. The New York Times report on Headley also asks if the Mumbai attacks represent "another communications breakdown in the fight against terrorism.”

Improving the U.S.-India intelligence relationship will take time as the countries need to develop mutual trust, and agencies need to strengthen their analysis and cooperation, Balachandran said.

Other security experts, who believe a fundamental problem exists when the United States gives arms to Pakistan while trying to boost its counterterrorism efforts with India, say the security ties will not improve until this paradox is addressed.

The U.S.-India counterterrorism relationship will only change, Sahni said, once the war in Afghanistan ends and terrorism in Pakistan is contained or neutralized.