In India, Obama faces questions on U.S. relations with Pakistan

The president and the first lady visited India and Indonesia, part of a 10-day trip to Asia, the longest foreign trip of Obama's presidency.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 8:44 PM

MUMBAI - President Obama was challenged Sunday by an Indian university student to explain his administration's unwavering support for Pakistan, exposing in a single question the central challenge to his goal of strengthening the U.S. relationship with India.

During a town hall forum at St. Xavier's College here, a student rose to ask Obama why he does not refer to Pakistan as a "terrorist state," drawing some gasps from the rest of the audience. Obama told the crowd that he had expected the issue to come up, and he answered by challenging the several hundred students present to view a country against whom India has fought three major wars, and was the staging area for a devastating terrorist attack against this city, from a new perspective.

"We want nothing more than a stable, prosperous and peaceful Pakistan," Obama said. "Our feeling has been to be honest and forthright with Pakistan, to say, 'We are your friend, this is a problem and we will help you, but the problem has to be addressed.' "

The question came two years after gunmen trained in Pakistan landed in a fisherman's village on the city's waterfront and killed more than 170 people in a days-long siege. The question highlighted the problem Pakistan presents for Obama as he seeks to strengthen trade, military and cultural ties with one of the world's fastest-growing democratic economies.

Obama commemorated the Nov. 26, 2008, massacre on his arrival Saturday when he laid a white rose at a memorial to the victims and spoke at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Tower, a main target of the attack. But he infuriated many Indians by not mentioning Pakistan in his tribute, reinforcing the impression here that Obama cares less about India's grievances than he does about defending a key partner in the Afghanistan war.

The issue will probably come up again Monday, Obama's final day in India, when he appears with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before the U.S. and Indian media and later addresses the Indian Parliament. Obama could well face questions over his position on Kashmir, a religiously mixed region in the subcontinent's northwest that both India and Pakistan claim.

How he portrays the U.S. interest in Pakistan, whose weak government is defending itself against its own Taliban insurgency, will probably determine whether his visit here succeeds in convincing Indians that he is serious when he says, as he did Sunday, that "the U.S.-India relationship will be indispensable in shaping the 21st century."

"It may be surprising to some of you to hear me say this, but I am absolutely convinced that the country that has the biggest stake in Pakistan's success is India," Obama told the students. "I think that if Pakistan is unstable, that's bad for India. If Pakistan is stable and prosperous, that's good. Because India is on the move."

A sense of neglect

Encounters with young people have become staples of Obama's travels abroad, a nod to his appeal as a symbol of U.S. progress and tolerance. And in few countries will young people make more of a difference in the short term than in India.

More than half of India's 1.2 billion people are under 30 years old, a promising market for U.S. goods and the foundation of a workforce driving the country's technical innovation.

The Indian public's view of the United States rose after Obama took office. But it has fallen back to its pre-election level amid a sense that he has neglected India's interests to win favor with Pakistan and with China, a rival economy.

While interested in U.S. policies that directly affect their region, including the details of Obama's endgame strategy in Afghanistan, some of the high-achieving students he met with Sunday also seemed well aware of his political troubles at home. One asked whether the candidate who made "change" a watchword of his 2008 campaign intends to adopt some himself after the midterm elections.

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