US to consider India in Afghan pullout

India is 1 of only 3 countries to hold talks with the United States between foreign policy and defence chiefs. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: The United States promised Wednesday to take into account India’s concerns as it looks to pull out of Afghanistan, in high-level talks that agreed on several ways to boost the democracies’ emerging alliance.

The talks in Washington came against the backdrop of major protests in India over a citizenship law that critics say targets Muslims, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was careful not to annoy his guests by speaking forcefully on the issue.

Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, meeting for a day of talks with their Indian counterparts, said they spoke in depth on the renewed US talks with the Taliban aimed at ending America’s longest war.

“We understand the concerns that India has, too – rightful concerns that they have – about terrorism emanating from Pakistan,” Pompeo told a joint news conference.

“We assured them that we would take that into account,” he said.

Pompeo voiced hope that talks with the Taliban, which veteran US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad is leading, will eventually bring a “significant reduction in violence” that will let the United States “reduce its footprint”.

India is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, whose hardline 1996-2001 regime was allied with rival Pakistan and welcomed virulently anti-Indian Islamist extremists.

India has been one of the top backers of Afghanistan’s internationally recognised government, pouring in US$3 billion since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

“Of course we have concerns about the future of Afghanistan,” Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.

“We believe that the reconciliation process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” he said

Esper declined to comment on a report that President Donald Trump, who believes the war is not worth the cost, could announce a pullout of around 4,000 troops, bringing the US contingent down to around 8,600.

Muted criticism on rights

India is one of only three countries to hold such “2+2” talks with the United States between foreign policy and defence chiefs, a sign of Washington’s commitment to boost ties with a largely like-minded nation from which it was estranged during the Cold War.

But the talks came as India faces growing criticism over a sharp turn into Hindu nationalism by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bolstered by a convincing reelection win.

At least six people have died in protests over a law promoted by Modi that fasttracks citizenship only to non-Muslims from neighbouring countries.

Despite unusually vocal rebukes of India in the US Congress and the Trump administration’s stated championing of religious freedom, Pompeo trod lightly when asked about the citizenship bill.

“Yep, we care deeply and always will about protecting minorities, protecting religious rights, everywhere,” he said.

“We honour Indian democracy as they have a robust debate inside of India,” he said.

“The United States will be consistent in the way that we respond to these issues, not only in India, but all across the world.”

Modi says the law is meant to protect persecuted minorities, but critics see it as part of a masterplan to define India as a Hindu nation and move away from its secular foundations.

A senior US official did not confirm even that the citizenship bill came up in talks, saying only that the United States raises the “full range of issues” with India.

Exemption to Iran sanctions

In a sign of the Trump administration’s commitment to India, it has carved out a rare exemption in sweeping sanctions on Iran to let New Delhi jointly develop Iran’s port of Chabahar.

India has historically warm relations with Iran and is eager to find a way to supply Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan.

Jaishankar said India was “grateful” for the US support. A US official confirmed that the administration would extend the exemption so long as Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards do not participate in Chabahar.

“We recognise that Chabahar plays an important role as a lifeline to Afghanistan,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The United States and India also agreed to set up an exchange program for lawmakers, to expand research in physics, to boost military-to-military contacts and to start joint training for peacekeepers from Asia.