US heeds India concerns on Taliban talks


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry listens to a question during a news conference with Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshidat (not pictured) at Hyderabad House during Kerry's first visit to India as secretary in New Delhi, India June 24, 2013. Photo - REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

India on Monday gave a cautious blessing to attempts to make peace with Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents as US Secretary of State John Kerry promised to pay heed to the concerns of the regional power.

Kerry, on his first visit to India as the top US diplomat, threw his support behind a greater global role for the world's largest democracy which he said shared a "similar vision" of supporting a peaceful and stable world.

Amid criticism that a relationship once heralded as historic has failed to live up to its potential, Kerry announced that US Vice President Joe Biden would visit India next month to look at further ways to enhance cooperation.

Kerry came to India days after the Taliban opened an office in Qatar for talks on a peace accord. India, a prime target of the former Taliban regime, has repeatedly warned not to distinguish between "good and bad" extremists.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid applauded Kerry for being forthright about New Delhi's worries as the United States, which is pulling out its nearly 70,000 troops from Afghanistan next year, mulls talks with the Taliban.

"They will ensure that none of the concerns of India are overlooked or undermined," Khurshid told a joint news conference with Kerry.

He did not object to the Taliban talks, saying: "I think it's an experiment that is being done in order to find an alternative for sustainable peace in Afghanistan. One cannot disagree with that."

"It's very clear what the objective is. How far that objective is possible, only time will tell," Khurshid said.

Kerry said that James Dobbins, the veteran US diplomat in charge of leading any dialogue with the Taliban, will visit India on Wednesday. Dobbins was spending Monday in Kabul after joining Kerry in Qatar.

"We will consult very closely with India and with others in the region," Kerry said.

Kerry said that the Taliban, as part of any future Afghan settlement, would have to "disassociate themselves from Al-Qaeda and from violence" and respect the constitutional protections for women and minorities.

"That's not going to change," Kerry said, while adding that it was still "better to explore the possibilities of having a peaceful resolution."

Kerry has insisted that the United States will not negotiate with the Taliban simply for the sake of talks.

He has called on the Taliban to address concerns or close their office after it designed its mission in Qatar to resemble a government-in-exile, outraging Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Kerry said the United States would welcome India's assistance in supporting a "transparent, free and fair" election in 2014 to choose Karzai's successor.

But Kerry stayed mum of endorsing a security contribution by India, whose role in Afghanistan is strongly opposed by its historic rival Pakistan which supported the Taliban until the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The United States and India had uneasy relations during the Cold War but began to reconcile in the late 1990s. The new mood was symbolised in 2008 when the countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement, ending India's decades of isolation over its nuclear programme.

But US nuclear companies have still not entered the growing market as India has refused their calls to grant them immunity in an accident. US businesses have grown increasingly disgruntled with New Delhi and urged Washington to consider retaliatory measures.

Kerry met for dinner with business leaders in hopes of easing the rift and said that India and US nuclear leader Westinghouse have set a deadline of September to come to a commercial agreement.

In turn, Indian Internet companies have voiced alarm at efforts in the US Congress to curb the number of visas for high-skilled foreigners.

Khurshid called for the United States and India to "factor in concerns from both sides" and "find something that is a win-win" on the visa row.

Indian companies say that visa curbs would pose severe hurdles in an increasingly interconnected world economy, but some US lawmakers are pushing the firms to hire more Americans.

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