U.S. Troops on Front Line Of Expanding India Ties

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By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

CHAUBATIA, India -- More than half a century after independence, foreign soldiers have returned to this onetime colonial garrison of tin-roofed bungalows, stone churches and panoramic Himalayan views. But this time, the soldiers' accents are American, not British, and their purpose is not to subdue India but to cultivate it as an ally.

In the latest of a series of such exercises, 120 U.S. combat troops have come here to train with their Indian counterparts in areas such as counterinsurgency and peacekeeping. Besides taking classroom instruction, they are firing Indian weapons, bonding with Indian soldiers over games of soccer and volleyball, and even developing a taste for vegetarian cuisine, albeit with spices toned down for sensitive American palates.

"When you get the armies together, it's like saying, 'Hey, we can work together, we can accomplish this together,' " said U.S. Army Capt. Robert Atienza, 31, of San Diego, who commands the Hawaii-based infantry company that is participating in the 2 1/2 -week exercise that began last week. "It's very broad."

The exercise is an example of the striking improvement in relations between the United States and India following decades of Cold War estrangement and more recent tensions stemming from India's nuclear tests in 1998.

Spurred by the United States, the two governments have signed commercial, scientific and military agreements in the last two years and are negotiating a controversial deal that could permit the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India. The Bush administration is eager to cultivate India as a partner in counterterrorism and, some analysts say, as a strategic counterweight to China.

The warming trend is also reflected in the surge of interest in India among U.S. business leaders such as Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft Corp., who recently announced a $1.7 billion investment in the country, the latest in a string of such commitments by U.S. technology firms eager to cash in on India's booming economy and surplus of inexpensive brainpower.

Other indicators include the parade of U.S. lawmakers through New Delhi in recent months and steadily expanding commercial air links. In addition, a record number of Indian students -- more than 80,000 -- are studying at U.S. universities, according to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

President Bush is scheduled to visit India for the first time in early March at the invitation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a self-effacing economist who met with Bush at the White House last July. In New Delhi on Friday, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said the planned visit is "really reflective of the very significant transformation that has taken place, and is taking place, in India-U.S. relations."

Saran was speaking at a news conference after meetings with Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, who was making his third visit to the Indian capital in the last six months. "India is one of the few countries in the world that has the capability to act globally and has the same basic interests as the United States," Burns said in a telephone interview from New Delhi.

The two countries still have important differences. In particular, India has a long history of warm relations with Iran and is pursuing plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Iran across Pakistan, a move that the Bush administration has warned could trigger sanctions against Indian companies under a U.S. law aimed at isolating Iran's Islamic regime. Indian officials say the project is essential to their country's energy security.

Partly for that reason, India has walked a tightrope in its handling of the standoff between Iran and the United States over allegations that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.

India's reluctance to dance entirely to Washington's tune stems in part from the influence of political parties opposed to the Bush administration's policies on Iraq and free trade.

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