Kerry tries to ease Indian concerns on Afghanistan

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

Mr Kerry, on his first visit to India as the top US diplomat, opened talks with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid days after the United States started a cautious but immediately troubled bid to hold peace talks with Taleban insurgents.

In a speech after he arrived Sunday, 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," said Mr Kerry, who will later meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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 Taliban, 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 rebels provocatively used symbols of their 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 September 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.