Mattis seeks Indian role in Afghanistan, vows to fight militant shelters

By Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis held talks with Indian leaders on Tuesday, vowing to jointly stamp out militant sanctuaries and seeking India’s greater involvement in helping to stabilize Afghanistan.

The comments come as President Donald Trump’s administration has stepped up pressure on Pakistan for more action against militant groups operating from its soil that are blamed for attacks in India and neighboring Afghanistan.

Islamabad denies giving material support to the militants and instead accuses its arch-rival of trying to use Afghanistan as a base for anti-Pakistan activities.

But Mattis, the Trump administration’s first cabinet official to visit India, said the two countries would work together to fight terrorism.

“There can be no tolerance of terrorist safe havens,” he said in a statement. “As global leaders, India and the United States resolve to work together to eradicate this scourge.”

Washington welcomed Indian efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan, he added. New Delhi has committed $3 billion in development projects in Afghanistan and trains Afghan officers in India.

But it has not sent soldiers in the international effort to restore peace. “Our engagement in Afghanistan will continue, we shall expand our engagement,” Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, following talks with Mattis.

Defence ties between India and the United States have expanded rapidly, with New Delhi buying U.S. weapons worth $15 billion over the last decade, moving away from traditional supplier Russia.

Military experts say U.S. weapons transfers aim at bolstering Indian capabilities to develop a counterweight against China’s growing assertiveness in recent years.

Indian and U.S. negotiators are now trying to move forward with a deal to supply the Indian navy with 22 Sea Guardian drone aircraft, whose June approval by the U.S. government was the first such clearance to a non-NATO ally.

India wants the unarmed drones to help its navy lengthen the duration of its surveillance in the Indian Ocean, where Chinese naval ships and submarines make regular forays.

Expanding naval cooperation with India was a top priority, Mattis said, adding that three-way exercises involving the United States, India and Japan boosted operational cooperation.

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