Kerry looks to ease India concerns on Afghanistan

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Secretary of State John Kerry will on Monday try to ease India's concerns about the impending withdrawal of US troops from war-torn Afghanistan as he embraces a greater role for the regional power.

Mr Kerry meets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Indian leaders just days after the United States started a cautious but immediately troubled bid to hold peace talks with Taliban insurgents.

In a speech after he arrived Sunday for the three-day visit, Mr Kerry said that the United States was "very realistic" about the difficulties in Afghanistan and acknowledged that a final settlement "may be long in coming".

"Afghanistan cannot again become a safe haven for international terrorism," Mr Kerry said.

The United States and its partners are preparing to pull out 100,000 troops next year to end the unpopular war. Washington has moved towards dialogue with the Taleban, who last week opened an office in Qatar.

But Mr Kerry, who spoke to Qatari leaders before flying to India, said he may even seek to close the Taleban office in the Gulf Arab monarchy after the group provocatively used symbols of its former government.

India was among countries at the top of the hit-list for the Taleban regime, which provided refuge to Islamic extremists and imposed an austere brand of Islam from 1996 until the US-led war following the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

India - along with Iran and Russia - assisted the Northern Alliance as it battled the Taleban, which was initially allied with Pakistan. India's neighbour and historic rival broke with the Taleban in 2001 but remains deeply suspicious of India's support to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.

Mr Kerry embraced India's role in Afghanistan, saying that the world's largest democracy should assist the country in 2014 elections which will choose Mr Karzai's successor just ahead of the departure of foreign troops.

"India is a global partner in our effort to build stronger democracies throughout South Asia, as well as rules of the road across South-Central and East Asia, and a more peaceful and prosperous continent from the Caucasus to the coast of Japan," Mr Kerry said.

But Mr Kerry - who postponed a visit to Islamabad to focus on the crisis in Syria - also threw his support behind reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

He welcomed calls by Pakistan's newly-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ramp up the growing but still miniscule trade between the South Asian nations.

"This could be beginning of a new era for India-Pakistan relations, built on mutually beneficial trade - and ultimately, trust," he said.

Mr Kerry, a former senator and presidential candidate, has long worked to improve the troubled US relationship with Islamabad and was a driving force behind a multibillion-dollar aid package to boost civilian rule in Pakistan.

His role has contributed to unease in some quarters in India, which resented President Barack Obama's earlier flirtation with bringing US diplomatic weight to the half-century conflict on Kashmir.

In an editorial published ahead of his arrival, The Hindu newspaper said that Kerry would have to battle a feeling in New Delhi that he was too "sympathetic" to the Pakistani military.

"Indian nightmares about a possible return of the Taleban and its allies as the rulers of the country, will doubtless figure high in the talks," it said. "New Delhi will be looking to Mr. Kerry... for reassurances."

Critics say that the US-India relationship has slumped in recent years, with neither side looking seriously at new ways of cooperation after the world's two largest democracies patched up following estrangement in the Cold War.

US businesses, formerly at the forefront of improving ties, have urged Mr Kerry to talk tough about policies including India's rejection of corporations' patent suits against generic medication for poor people.

Mr Kerry voiced the concerns of businesses but said that India was an "extraordinary partner". He called for new areas of cooperation including in the fight against climate change, one of his signature issues.