Tries to balance long-term Indian partnership with need for immediate gains from Pakistan

In holding virtually back-to-back meetings with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, U.S. President Barack Obama symbolically underscored the delicate nature of the balancing act his administration is attempting to perform.

The exercise involves doing whatever it takes to keep the strategic partnership with India ticking along – a relationship that is of enormous long-term strategic value to the U.S. – while extracting maximum cooperation on the Afghanistan front from Pakistan and the Pakistani military establishment, a tactical, short-term necessity of the highest order for both the Pentagon and Mr. Obama's Democratic Party as they seek to draw down the Afghan war.

Briefing reporters about the Obama-Manmohan meeting on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao quoted the U.S. president as saying there was no country in the world where the opportunities for a strong, strategic partnership are greater and more important to him personally or to the United States, than that with India.

Taken at face value, these words are a throwback to the George W. Bush era, whose strategic embrace of India from 2004 onwards produced the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement. Indian officials present in the meeting told The Hindu it was reassuring to hear the U.S. President speak directly and warmly about the importance of the bilateral relationship at a time when inter-agency differences on Pakistan and Afghanistan — particularly between the Defence and State departments — have created the impression in New Delhi that Washington no longer considers its partnership with India to be important.

Indian officials said Mr. Obama gave the impression of being aware that the Pakistani military – whose patronage in the past of extremist groups is widely recognised to lie at the root of the present problems of terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – had yet to make a full course correction. A timely reminder of the double-game the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate in Pakistan is still playing was provided on Sunday by the Washington Post, which front-paged allegations sourced to American intelligence officials that the ISI had quietly released two Taliban commanders previously in their custody.

Though the Pentagon has consistently sought to push the argument that India needs to be more accommodating of Pakistani concerns across the Durand Line and the Line of Control in Kashmir, Mr. Obama made it a point to reassure Prime Minister Singh that he welcomed the continuing Indian development assistance to Afghanistan. True, the White House readout on this was brief and to the point, and omitted the reference Mr. Rao made in her briefing to the press about Indian “sacrifices.” But a more public expression of American support for India's interests in a country the Pakistani military considers its backyard would be unrealistic given the business Washington hopes to transact with GHQ in Rawalpindi.

Indian officials have taken heart from the fact that President Obama did not link his stated desire to see a reduction in tension between India and Pakistan with what is happening on the Afghan front. Even his reference to the need for tension to be reduced was understated. “If you weren't paying attention, you'd have missed it,” an Indian official who was in the room said, adding that the President made no reference to talks or dialogue, composite or otherwise.

But Mr. Obama brought up the subject of India-Pakistan relations again in his meeting with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani later in the day. He told the Pakistani leader that Prime Minister Singh favoured greater engagement with Pakistan. Mr. Gilani responded by saying he agreed and that Islamabad had always believed that is the way things should be.

While it is too early to take full stock of the Obama-Manmohan meeting, it would seem as if India and the U.S. have come away with a slightly better understanding of each other's policies and constraints.

Even before the April 11 bilateral, senior Indian officials said it would be wrong to assume the U.S. does not know what it is doing with Pakistan or that it is blindly placating the military establishment in the hope that its war in Afghanistan could be outsourced. Indeed, the official conceded that the U.S. was acting rationally in trying to use parts of the Pakistani system to its advantage, while also developing other options. What India didn't want was for any act of appeasement to undermine its own legitimate interests in Afghanistan. In this context, the meeting between President Obama and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is especially significant with Astana agreeing to participate in the ‘Northern Distribution Network' supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The fact that the U.S. did not press India to resume the composite dialogue with Pakistan despite the Pentagon's strong internal advocacy of such a line suggests the Obama administration is not buying the ‘threat from India' alibi the Pakistani military cites as the reason for holding back on the Afghan front.

The one area where major differences remain is over Iran. As anticipated, President Obama gave Prime Minister Singh a detailed account of meetings the U.S. is holding at the U.N. aimed at imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran. According to Ms. Rao and other Indian officials, Dr. Singh said India did not believe sanctions would be effective, especially since they end up hurting the common man. The Prime Minister also expressed concern over what the drive for sanctions would do to the prospect for dialogue with Iran. In the end, the two leaders agreed to disagree.