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.
“Thus far, those conditions have not yet been met, so there is no negotiation at this point,” Kerry said. “If the conditions are met, then there is a negotiation that will take place — not with the United States but with the High Peace Council of Afghanistan.”
Although U.S. policy has long set the three conditions as necessary outcomes of successful negotiations, the Obama administration said last week that its two preconditions for beginning talks — statements by the Taliban eschewing international terrorism and recognizing Afghan democracy — had been met. At the same time, the United States said it was ready to begin talks with the group and then turn them over to the Afghan government.
An administration official said U.S. policy on both the preconditions and the necessary outcomes of negotiations had not changed.
Any final agreement with the Taliban, Kerry said later in the news conference, “will be decided by the Afghan people through this negotiation, or it will be decided at the ballot box in 2014 without the Taliban. . . . The United States will continue, as President Obama has made clear, to support the Afghan government, to support the Afghan military, to continue to equip and train it well beyond 2014, and to continue to have a level of a force on the ground that will continue to conduct anti-terrorism, counterterrorism activity.”
In response to last Tuesday’s dispute over the Taliban office, Karzai also suspended U.S.-Afghan negotiations over the size and mission of the post-2014 force, though U.S. officials said they expected those discussions to resume.
Kerry said India has an important role to play in encouraging Karzai to prepare for presidential elections, scheduled for April, and ensure that they are “accessible, accountable, transparent, free and fair.” He also said that Dobbins would visit India on Wednesday and make a stop in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
During Kerry’s two-day trip here, he and Khurshid praised cooperation and growing economic ties between the United States and India. They said they made progress in resolving outstanding trade and investment matters. On one prickly issue, Khurshid said they “reaffirmed their commitment to full and timely implementation of the civil nuclear deal,” including the proposed sale of Westinghouse power reactors to India. He said he expected the Westinghouse agreement, which has been held up over an Indian liability law, to be completed by September.
The two men said they also had discussed Iran, with which India has close diplomatic and commercial ties. “We completely understand the relationship that India has,” Kerry said. “We are appreciative that India has worked hard to reduce its dependency on Iranian oil, and that has been an important step, and India has been very cooperative in communicating to Iran and in standing up publicly and holding them accountable for nonproliferation requirements.”
India, Kerry said, could “help urge the new Iranian leadership, as well as the old leadership and the supreme leader, to take advantage of this moment” and “urge the Iranians . . . not to miscalculate about American and international commitment” to preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Khurshid, who visited Iran in early May, before Hassan Rouhani’s victory in this month’s presidential election, said he had shared his assessment with Kerry.
Londoño reported from Kabul.