By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; 1:53 PM
NEW DELHI -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates praised India for showing "statesmanlike" behavior by not retaliating against Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks but said the United States was not directly involved in trying to broker peace between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
On a two-day trip to New Delhi, Gates on Tuesday met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other officials to bolster U.S.-Indian military ties and discuss a joint approach to combating al-Qaeda and regional terrorist groups.
Last month, Gates warned U.S. lawmakers that al-Qaeda was providing "targeting information" to Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Kashmir-based terrorist group, in hopes of triggering a war between India and Pakistan. On Tuesday, the defense secretary delivered a similar message in person to Indian officials, describing al-Qaeda as leading a "syndicate" of terrorist groups in the region, including Lashkar and Taliban factions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
India and the United States have accused Lashkar, which means Army of the Pious, of killing 166 people during the Nov. 26, 2008, attacks on luxury hotels and other sites in Mumbai. U.S. and Indian intelligence officials have said there is evidence the group is preparing more strikes in India.
Last week, two Chicago residents were indicted in U.S. federal court on charges that they served as key planners for the Mumbai plot and worked closely with leaders of Lashkar and al-Qaeda. One of the defendants, U.S. citizen David Coleman Headley, is suspected of conducting extensive surveillance missions in Indian cities, both prior to and after the Mumbai attacks.
Indian officials have expressed frustration that the FBI has not allowed them to interrogate Headley, who was arrested in October and whose attorney has indicated he is cooperating with U.S. investigators.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was "pretty confident of our intelligence-sharing relationship" with India on counterterrorism. The official said Gates told Indian leaders that "it's going to take a collective effort to dismantle and defeat" Lashkar, al-Qaeda and the Taliban because the networks operate so closely together in the region.
Speaking to reporters en route to New Delhi, Gates said India had responded to the Mumbai attacks "with a great deal of restraint" even though the suspects had come from Pakistan, and that "the two sides have managed to keep the tensions between them to a manageable level."
Previous terrorist strikes in India by Kashmiri separatist groups, including a December 2001 assault on the Indian parliament, had prompted military buildups along the India-Pakistan border. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the disputed territory since 1948 and have since become nuclear powers.
The two countries had been engaged in talks over Kashmir prior to the Mumbai attacks, but India ended negotiations afterward.
Washington considers Kashmir the key to long-term stability in the region. But Gates said U.S. officials have been careful about not prodding India and Pakistan back to the table. "I think it's clear that both sides prefer to deal with this bilaterally and that others not be involved," he said.
Separately, Gates said that he doubted that a renewed effort by the Afghan government to bargain with the Taliban would persuade senior commanders to defect, but that he held out hope that the approach would work with mid- and low-level fighters.
The Afghan government is preparing a revamped program to offer money, jobs and security to Taliban fighters who agree to change sides, including its reclusive leader, Mohammad Omar.
"I would be very surprised to see a reconciliation with Mullah Omar," Gates told reporters traveling on his plane to India. "It is our view that until the Taliban leadership sees a change in the momentum and begins to see that they are not going to win, that the likelihood of significant reconciliation at senior levels is not terribly great."