Senior American military commanders have sought to press India to formally disavow an obscure military doctrine that they contend is fueling tensions between India and Pakistan and hindering the American war effort in Afghanistan.
But as President Obama heads to India Friday for a closely watched, three-day visit, administration officials said they did not expect him to broach the subject of the doctrine, known informally as Cold Start. At the most, these officials predicted, Mr. Obama will quietly encourage India’s leaders to do what they can to cool tensions between these nuclear-armed neighbors.
That would be a victory for India, which denies the very existence of Cold Start, a plan to deploy a new force that could strike inside Pakistan quickly in the event of a conflict. India has argued strenuously that the United States, if it wants a wide-ranging partnership of leading democracies, has to stop viewing it through the lens of Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan.
It is also a victory for those in the administration who agree that the United States and India should focus on broader concerns, ranging from commercial ties and military sales to climate change and regional security. However vital the Afghan war effort, officials said, it has lost out in the internal debate to priorities like American jobs and the rising role of China.
“There are people in the administration who want us to engage India positively,” said an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “They don’t care about Afghanistan. Then there are people, like Petraeus, who have wars to fight.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, is among those who have warned internally about the dangers of Cold Start, according to American and Indian officials. He is joined in these fears by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The doctrine calls for India to create fast-moving battle groups that could deliver a contained but sharp retaliatory ground strike inside Pakistan within three days of suffering a terrorist attack by Pakistan-based militants, yet not do enough damage to trigger a nuclear confrontation.
Pakistani officials have repeatedly stressed to the United States, most recently during a visit to Washington by Pakistan’s army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, late last month, that worries about Cold Start are at the root of their refusal to redeploy forces away from the border with India so that they can fight Islamic militants in the frontier region near Afghanistan.
The administration raised the issue of Cold Start last fall when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington, Indian and American officials said. Indian officials told the United States it was not a government or military policy, and that it had no plans to attack Pakistan. Therefore, they add, it should have no place on Mr. Obama’s agenda in India.
For at least his first stop, in the commercial capital of Mumbai, it almost certainly will not. With a huge delegation of 200 business executives, including the chief executives of General Electric and Pepsico, accompanying the president, the emphasis will be on how the United States and India can expand economic ties in a way that benefits both countries.
The two countries are expected to sign a $5.8 billion deal to supply Boeing C17 transport planes to the Indian military — part of a huge multi-year deal to supply India with military hardware. The United States is eager to deepen military ties with India partly to make it a counterweight to China, which is flexing its muscles militarily and economically.
For Mr. Obama, politically wounded by the midterm elections and chronic high unemployment at home, such deals are also important to bolster his argument that the United States-India relationship can create American jobs rather than simply siphoning them away.
“There is a lot of money to be made there,” said Daniel C. Markey, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The big question is whether we have to ability to forge a defense and trade relationship with India that is symbiotic.”
For all the talk of shared interests, India still lies at the nexus of America’s greatest foreign policy crisis. Its archrival, Pakistan, is a crucial but deeply troubled American ally in the war in Afghanistan. The United States has struggled to find a way to mediate between them.
Some administration officials have argued that addressing Cold Start, which was developed in the aftermath of a failed attempt to mobilize troops in response to an attack on the Indian parliament by Pakistani militants, could help break the logjam that has impeded talks between the two countries.
India, however, has mostly declined to discuss the topic. “We don’t know what Cold Start is,” said India’s defense secretary, Pradeep Kumar, in an interview on Thursday. “Our prime minister has said that Pakistan has nothing to fear. Pakistan can move its troops from the eastern border.”
Indian officials and some analysts say Cold Start has taken on nearly mythical status in the minds of Pakistani leaders, whom they suspect of inflating it as an excuse to avoid engaging militants on their own turf.
“The Pakistanis will use everything they can to delay or drag doing a serious reorientation of their military,” said Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution.
India’s response to terrorist attacks has been slow-footed. After Pakistani militants attacked Parliament in 2001, India’s ponderous strike forces, most of them based in the center of the country, took weeks to reach the border. By then Western diplomats had swooped in, and Pakistan made conciliatory statements, deflating Indian hopes of striking a punitive blow against its old foe.
The military began concocting a plan to respond to future attacks. The response would have to be swift to avoid the traffic jam of international diplomacy, but it would also have to be carefully calibrated — shallow enough to be punitive and embarrassing, but not an existential threat that would provoke a nuclear retaliation.
For now, there are no signs that Cold Start is more than a theory, and analysts say there is no significant shift of new troops or equipment to the border.
But American military officials and diplomats worry that even the existence of the strategy in any form could encourage Pakistan to make rapid improvements in its nuclear arsenal.
When Pakistani military officials are asked to justify the huge investment in upgrading that arsenal, some respond that because Pakistan has no conventional means to deter Cold Start, nuclear weapons are its only option.
Still, many analysts are skeptical that Cold Start could be the linchpin for the administration to promote new negotiations between India and Pakistan, which have been stalled since Pakistani militants attacked Mumbai in 2008.
“They are grasping at straws because they have a predicament in the Afghan theater that they cannot fix without Pakistan’s help,” said Ashley J. Tellis, an former diplomat and South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They are looking at India to do something to placate the Pakistanis.”