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New Delhi: US defence secretary Leon Panetta will encourage India to take a more active role in Afghanistan as international forces draw down after a decade of war, US officials said on Tuesday as the Pentagon chief arrived in New Delhi.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the long-standing rivalry between India and Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan but insisted that both countries had an interest in working with the international community to ensure stability in their northern neighbour.

Improving ties: US defence secretary Leon Panetta (left) with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on Tuesday. AFP

Pakistan wields considerable influence over neighbouring Afghanistan, while India is already one of its biggest bilateral donors, having pledged about $2 billion since the 2001 US-led invasion for projects ranging from the construction of highways to the building of the Afghan parliament.

In October, India and Afghanistan signed a wide-ranging agreement to deepen ties, including to help train Afghan security forces, a deal that angered Pakistan.

“India and Pakistan share an interest, the same interest that we have, of peace and stability in Afghanistan," the official said. “That makes Pakistan more peaceful and stable and it makes India a lot more stable."

Their remarks came as Panetta flew to India as part of his week-long Asia tour to explain a new US military strategy to allies and partners in the region. The strategy calls for a shift in US focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

Panetta announced on Saturday during a speech at the Shangri La dialogue, a security conference in Singapore, that the US military would rebalance its military assets so that by the year 2020, 60% of US warships would be in the region, versus 50% now.

The officials said the US views India as a logical partner to work with on security and stability issues in the Indian Ocean region and that India was singled out for its importance in the new strategy.

Panetta is expected to elaborate on that theme during his meetings with senior defence and political leaders, as well as in a speech at a think tank on Wednesday.

India has a long history of involvement in the country and its activities have often been viewed suspiciously by Pakistan, which is concerned about being diplomatically encircled by its longtime enemy.

India has trained Afghan army and police over the past decade, but on a relatively small scale, the US officials said. It has also increasingly helped Afghanistan with its economic reconstruction, the officials said.

“As we look to the future development of peace and stability in Afghanistan...we know that the regional actors, Afghanistan’s neighbours and extended neighbours like India will play a greater role," one official said.

“That’s historically been the case in Afghanistan and that’s going to be the case again. And we welcome that."

The official said the US would like to see “all of the neighbours, including Pakistan and India, harmonize their approaches because they do share an interest in peace and stability in Afghanistan."

The two sides will also discuss their military cooperation, including weapons and training needs.

“We believe that it’s very important, again, to help India modernize its capabilities and develop its military capabilities so it can be a net provider of security in the region and internationally," the official said.

The US is keen to get a bigger slice of India’s defence acquisitions and is negotiating to sell it about a dozen Apache helicopters along with other weapons.

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