Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday the US sympathizes with India's wariness about talks between the US and the Taliban, whose affiliates have been blamed for attacking Indian reconstruction projects in Afghanistan and the Indian embassy in Kabul.
Kerry made his first trip to India as secretary of state where he worked to enhance a US-India relationship that is deeply rooted despite ongoing disagreements about US support of Pakistan, roadblocks to trade, restrictions on American companies doing business in fast-growing India and uncertainty about the future stability of Afghanistan.
At a wide-ranging news conference with external minister Salman Khurshid, Kerry announced that vice president Joe Biden would visit India in late July to underscore the importance of relations. Kerry also said he hoped the two countries could increase trade.
Khurshid said Kerry reassured him that the country's concerns about US talks with the Taliban would not be overlooked or undermined. The Taliban have historic ties with Pakistan.
India is especially concerned about any negotiations with the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, which is blamed for attacking Indian reconstruction projects and the Indian embassy in Kabul.
India also blames Pakistan-based insurgents for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, the worst terror incident in the nation.
The Taliban and US agreed to begin talks last week as a first step toward what is hoped would be talks between the Taliban and Afghan government officials aimed at crafting a political solution in Afghanistan once US and allied troops leave at the end of 2014.
"This is a process - and I think it's an experiment that's being done in order to find an alternative for sustainable peace in Afghanistan. One cannot disagree with that," Khurshid said.
But he didn't express high hopes for successful talks. "I think it's very clear what the objective is. How far the objective is possible, only time will tell."
Kerry said the US was consulting with nations in the region and that James Dobbins, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was in Kabul on Monday, would visit India on Wednesday to brief officials.
But Kerry's comments on the issue added confusion to an already chaotic run-up to prospective negotiations.
Kerry said negotiations would only take place if certain conditions were met. He said the Taliban had to respect the Afghanistan constitution, disassociate itself from al Qaeda and violence, and respect the rights of women and minorities.
However, the actual US position lists these issues as outcomes of successful negotiations, not preconditions to sit down at the negotiating table. State Department officials said Kerry's remarks did not represent a change in US policy.
The push for negotiations got off to a rocky start after the Taliban opened the new office last week with great fanfare on live television, hoisting the flag it used when it ruled Afghanistan and calling the bureau an office of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
That prompted immediate outrage from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said the use of the formal name and flag made the office akin to an embassy rather than a political bureau for peace negotiations.
Both the sign and flag have since been taken down. But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a statement that reports his office had agreed to remove them were "baseless and fabricated."
Shaheen said the Taliban's stance hadn't changed on the use of both, though he did not say whether the group planned on trying to put them back up.
In Kabul, Dobbins told reporters that the US and Afghanistan were still waiting to hear from the Taliban about opening peace talks, but remain willing to go ahead with negotiations.
On Iran, Kerry said the US appreciated how India had worked to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil. Energy-starved India imports large amounts of oil from Iran to satisfy the country of more than 1 billion people.
The US wants India to reduce oil imports from Iran to help put pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program.
"We also believe that hopefully India could help urge the new Iranian leadership, and also the old leadership and the supreme leader to take advantage of this moment," Kerry said of new Iranian President-Elect Hasan Rouhani, elected last week. "We would hope India would help us so the Iranians do not put the world in a position where it is forced to take additional steps with respect to Iran," a reference to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
India and the US have a myriad of shared interests, including fighting Islamic militancy and managing the rise of China, but American businessmen have complained to US lawmakers about Indian trade protectionism.
They contend that tariff and regulatory barriers are shutting out foreign firms despite reforms that were supposed to open markets. They say that among other things, Indian policies favor local producers.
Kerry noted those concerns, albeit briefly.
He said US-India trade had grown fivefold during the Obama administration and nearly topped $100 billion last year.
"It's a good start, but both of us agreed today that we can do more," he said. "We can break down trade barriers."
India is the second stop on Kerry's seven-country trip through Asia and the Mideast. He travels to Saudi Arabia and Jordan on Tuesday after attending an Indian event on higher education.