Afghanistan elbows into Obama talk with India's Manmohan Singh

President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in advance of Tuesday night's state dinner at the White House. China loomed over a discussion dominated by Afghanistan.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama greets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India during a State Arrival ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, in Washington.

President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used a White House press conference Tuesday to dispel doubts about the direction of a fledgling strategic partnership between the US and India. The two leaders emphasized growing bilateral cooperation in economic, security, climate, and development affairs.

Saying US-India relations "have never been stronger," Mr. Obama emphasized that "the world's two largest democracies" are "natural allies" not just because of a common interest in fighting terrorism and extremism in South Asia, but because of "a range of shared values and ideals."

In his remarks, Mr. Singh focused on the international challenges requiring cooperation from the two powers, from counterterrorism to climate change. The soft-spoken Singh, prime minister since 2004 and architect of India's free-market economic reforms, said he was "satisfied" with the results of his private conversations with the US president.

That message was no doubt meant for the home audience in India, where criticism of the US – and Singh's close alliance with America – flared after Obama's trip last week to Asia. Obama was seen in India (and by some in Washington, as well) as going too far to accommodate China's interests in South Asia – a region in which India has long insisted on being the dominant player.

Afghanistan is a primary example. The current turmoil in Afghanistan has its origins at least partly in a battle for influence there between India and Pakistan.

At the White House, Singh spoke of the "importance of the international engagement in Afghanistan." India worries that Obama would opt for a small commitment at best to Afghanistan and set in motion a precipitous international withdrawal – an event that would likely result in Pakistan being able to reassert greater authority over Afghanistan.

Moreover, like the US, India fears that failure in Afghanistan would allow terrorist groups now based in Pakistan – including Al Qaeda and the staunchly anti-Indian Lashkar-e-Taiba – more scope and freedom to operate.

"The forces of extremism have to be defeated" in Afghanistan, Singh said.

For his part, Obama said he would announce his decision on Afghanistan troop levels and strategy "to the American people ... shortly."

No doubt mindful that polls show that a majority of Americans now oppose the war, Obama said he is confident that the American people will support his decision once it is explained to them.

Obama is now expected to lay out his decision in a televised address Tuesday night. Reports suggest that Obama will count on the commitment of thousands more allied troops in addition to 30,000-plus additional US troops. A Tuesday announcement would allow Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to explain the US plan to allies at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels at the end of next week.

Obama in his statement did not mention Pakistan, or the growing US commitment there. But in response to the one Indian journalist allowed a question, Obama said Pakistan "has an important role to play in the region's security," adding that the US has "seen some progress" in Pakistan's approach to violent extremism.

Pointing to the Pakistan military's offensives this year into the Swat Valley and South Waziristan, Obama said Pakistanis are beginning to recognize that the extremists on their soil "have an adverse impact on their security internally."

Singh and his wife will return to the White House Tuesday evening for a state dinner, to be held in a white tent accommodating 320 guests on the South Lawn. The executive mansion's State Dining Room, with a capacity of 140, is not big enough for the bash Obama wanted to throw for the Indian leader). Entertainment will be provided by "Dream Girl" Jennifer Hudson.

Singh also announced that he has invited Obama and his family to visit India next year, and Obama said he had accepted the invitation.

See also:

India doubts strength of US ties ahead of Manmohan Singh visit

On India trip, why Clinton won't stop in Pakistan

Roots of Afghan conflict: an India-Pakistan proxy war


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