It was telling that the storm over Washington’s attempts to hold open talks with the Taliban in Qatar all but drowned out the maiden Indo-US strategic dialogue of US secretary of state John Kerry. India and the US are now clearly moving apart on the issue of Afghanistan.
The Barack Obama administration is determined to have the US military withdraw from Afghanistan at all costs — including allowing Pakistan to broker a deal that would allow the Taliban to govern in Kabul.
India is strongly opposed to any talk of any future Afghan government that includes the Taliban seeing such a development as a major threat to its security and a fillip for the worst elements in Pakistan. The question is whether the nascent Indo-US strategic partnership can survive differences over Afghanistan — and thus Pakistan.
In a mature strategic relationship, it is not uncommon for partner nations to disagree fundamentally over specific issues while maintaining the larger relationship. France is a treaty ally of the US but has an unusually contentious relationship with the sole superpower.
One should expect India, whose relationship with the US is far more informal and recent, to have its fair share of differences with Washington. The Indo-US relationship is strengthening and deepening in a whole host of other areas.
At the strategic dialogue here, the two largest democracies see eye-to-eye on regions like East Asia and the Indian Ocean and in areas like energy and counterterrorism.
The two countries have dozens of dialogues on every conceivable topic — the kind of interaction that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago.
Yet it is clear that the initial expectations of the Indo-US relationship have not been fulfilled. It would be too much to expect something as large as the Indo-US civil nuclear deal to once again animate relations.
And much of the quiet in areas like defence is because of the bureaucratic hurdles both sides have thrown up against each other. Economic difficulties in both nations have taken the steam out of bilateral trade and investment, leaving only a residue of disputes and protectionist measures.
But what has muddied the waters the most has been the geopolitical uncertainty that has infected both countries. Obama initially flirted with China, went back and forth on Afghanistan, and now makes India wonder about where the US is going with the Persian Gulf.
New Delhi has since been reassured about the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific but believes its worst fears about Afghanistan may be coming true. Until these brushes on the larger canvas are made clearer to the satisfaction of both sides, the Indo-US relationship will struggle to move forwards in the smaller, tactical areas.