Saurabh Das, Associated Press
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, center left, is greeted by Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 6, 2012. Panetta is urging leaders of India to play a more robust role in Afghanistan, as U.S. tensions with Pakistan, India's arch-rival, continue to churn.
NEW DELHI — The U.S. and India must overcome deep differences with Pakistan to bolster peace and security in South Asia, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told an Indian conference.
Panetta met with Indian leaders Tuesday and Wednesday and said he urged them to provide additional support to Afghanistan, including trade, reconstruction and assistance for the Afghan security forces.
His visit here comes as U.S. tensions with Pakistan, India's archrival, continue to fray, strained by persistent CIA drone attacks against insurgents inside Pakistan's borders. His speech struck a conciliatory tone but also acknowledged the rocky relations with Pakistan.
"Pakistan is a complicated relationship, complicated for both of our countries but it is one that we must continue to work to improve," Panetta said. "India and the United States will need to continue to engage Pakistan, overcoming our respective — and often deep — differences with Pakistan to make all of South Asia peaceful and prosperous."
He said he welcomed steps that India and Pakistan have taken to normalize trade relations as key to resolving their differences and a way to help Pakistan counter extremism within its borders.
Pakistan and India — both nuclear-armed nations — have long been bitter enemies. And any increase in India's support for Afghanistan is likely to worry Pakistan, fueling fears that Islamabad's influence on the Afghans' future could diminish.
The U.S. is hoping that India can play a more robust role in the war effort, particularly in the training of Afghan forces, as the number of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan continues to decline over the next year.
In the past, India has cautiously helped the Afghan army, partly to avoid offending Pakistan or being drawn into Afghan security affairs.
India assisted Kabul mostly with economic and development aid and has helped build up the Afghan security forces by training Afghan police officers.
Training for Afghan soldiers extended to individual army officers who attended a multination course at the National Defense College in Delhi. There was no organized training of Afghan national Army soldiers at Indian defense schools, but Afghan army soldiers have been attending courses at Indian military academies over the past few years.
Wrapping up a week of travel across Asia, Panetta said military cooperation with India is the linchpin to America's defense plan to focus more on the region. And he said that the two nations must move beyond individual arms sales and increase both the quality and quantity of their defense trade.
"For this relationship to truly provide security for this region and for the world, we need to deepen our defense and security cooperation," he said.
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Panetta made only a passing reference to Iran in his speech and did not mention ongoing U.S. concerns that India continues to import large amounts of oil from Iran.
Earlier in the day Panetta met with Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony and discussed increased defense trade and plans to conduct military exercises together. America's defense ties with India have grown steadily since about 2000, including a substantial increase in arms sales that now total more than $8.5 billion over the last 11 years.
Associated Press writer Nirmala George contributed to this report.