The top U.S. military officer flew into New Delhi Thursday for talks expected to focus on the growing U.S.-Indian defense relationship, India's relationship with Pakistan and the situation in Afghanistan.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, says he does not expect any major result from his meeting here, such as an agreement on military sales or exercises. Rather, he says, he wants to get to know his new Indian counterpart, Air Chief Marshall Pradeep Vasant Naik, to further advance the recent improvement in Indo-American defense relations.
"They are a very important country, regionally, globally, and our relationship, the military-to-military relationship, with India, has grown dramatically in the last decade or two, which is, from my perspective, a very positive outcome and one that we need to continue to reaffirm," he said.
Admiral Mullen says he is very encouraged by the Indians' willingness to engage in increasingly complex military exercises with the United States. He notes that the United States has expanded its military relationship with the two long-time rivals, India and Pakistan, simultaneously in recent years. He will visit Islamabad later in the week.
"Because we do engage so much with both militaries, we've learned a lot about each of them, about their concerns in our relationship, as well as in the relationship they have with each other," he said. "But it doesn't put us in a position, I don't see us in a position as brokering any outcome here."
But it does put him in the position of trying to help ensure tensions on the subcontinent do not lead to conflict. After the Mumbai attacks in 2008, which India says were carried out by a Pakistan-based terrorist group, Admiral Mullen visited both countries to help ease tensions. It is the type of mission he says must be repeated on a regular basis.
But Professor Sumit Ganguly, director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University, says the United States has many good reasons to expand its relationship with India and should not view that relationship as strategically connected to U.S.-Pakistan relations.
"The trajectories of these two countries are markedly different," said Ganguly. "We cannot meaningfully keep talking about 'India and Pakistan.' From the standpoint of American policy, it makes sense to engage a country that is already wielding considerable influence in a number of global fora, and not treat it, simply because of its proximity to Pakistan, as something that has to be constantly balanced against concerns involving Pakistan."
Still, Walter Andersen, a former head of the State Department's South Asia Division and now associate director of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says India is suspicious of the growing U.S.-Pakistan military relationship.
"They're going to be interested in if the U.S. is going to sort of bear down on Pakistan regarding Pakistan-based terrorist organizations," said Andersen. "They see the U.S. providing all sorts of assistance, military equipment, doing very little to force the Pakistanis to attack North Waziristan or the Haqqani network or their own terrorist groups, in fact maybe even supporting them."
Andersen also says many Indians are concerned about President Barack Obama's plan to begin to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by this time next year. Admiral Mullen will likely seek to reassure them that the drawdown will be very gradual, and American forces will continue to work to provide stability in Afghanistan for many years to come.
The admiral says, although India and Pakistan have many disagreements about Afghanistan policy, they share at least one goal for the war-torn country.
"At the high level, there are shared interests and mutual goals that speak to a stable, secure Afghanistan, on the part of both countries," said Admiral Mullen.
How to achieve that will likely be on Admiral Mullen's agenda this week in both New Delhi and Islamabad.