NEW DELHI — U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry assured India and other concerned partners in this volatile region Monday that the United States plans to continue supporting Afghanistan’s military and to keep American forces in the country “under any circumstances” after the scheduled 2014 combat troop withdrawal.
India is particularly worried that the U.S. pullout will leave an ongoing war in Afghanistan between Taliban fighters backed by Pakistan and other forces that have sought aid from India and Central Asian countries to combat any Taliban attempt to regain power.
India also has questioned U.S. plans to conduct peace negotiations with the Taliban in a new political office for the insurgents established last week in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. An inaugural session of the talks was put on hold last week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to the Taliban labeling the office an outpost of “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name under which the Taliban ruled the country until they were ousted by U.S. and Afghan forces in 2001.
James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was scheduled to head the American delegation to the talks, traveled to Kabul on Monday to meet with Karzai and other Afghan officials in an attempt to control damage.
Dobbins described a meeting with Karzai as “quite positive” and said the two countries were waiting to see “whether the Taliban want to talk.”
The envoy said a “combination” of misunderstandings led to the display of a Taliban flag and an “Islamic Emirate” plaque on the wall of the Doha office, in violation of conditions the Afghan government had set for the talks. Dobbins said the insurgents wanted to “score a propaganda advance, and they seem to have overplayed their hand.”
Through Qatari intermediaries, the United States insisted that the flag and plaque be taken down. Although they were removed from sight from outside the walled Doha residence where the office is located, the Taliban said in a statement Monday that it had acted with the acquiescence of the Qatari government in displaying the trappings of a virtual embassy and did not offer to desist.
Dobbins did not say when the talks might be rescheduled. After the initially scheduled meeting was canceled last Tuesday, U.S. officials offered to hold it Sunday. But the Taliban indicated through intermediaries that they needed approval from the group’s political leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, and were still awaiting it. U.S. officials said they remained open to a meeting but would not wait forever.
At a Monday news conference in New Delhi with Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, Kerry appeared to misstate U.S. requirements for negotiations with the Taliban, saying they would not be held until the group met three conditions: a break in ties with al-Qaeda; an end to violence in Afghanistan; and fealty to the Afghan constitution, including respect for the rights of minorities and women.