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India-US ties have reached a plateau of their own making

Although US Vice President Biden’s visit to India received relatively limited media attention in both India and the US, it has led to another round of questions about the state of US-India relations. The fact that the relationship may enter a period of stagnation after more than a decade of progress should not come as a surprise. However, US vice-presidential visits to India do not happen frequently, and this one was seen to demonstrate signs of a strain between the two countries.

Real difficulties do indeed exist. At their epicentre are the major differences over Afghanistan and, more generally, a lack of steadiness and transparency in US regional policies. New Delhi fears a deal between Islamabad and Washington to ensure a smooth US withdrawal from Afghanistan, potentially through an Islamabad-brokered peace deal with the Taliban. Instead, India would like the US to give Kabul the military means to contain the Taliban.

It is doubtful whether the assurances given by the US vice president have provided any comfort to the Indian decisionmakers. Joe Biden told the Indian government that any agreement would have to include three elements: that the Taliban break with al-Qaeda, that they stop the violence, and that they accept the constitution and guarantee equal treatment for women. The Taliban have so far announced that they will not let Afghan soil be used for an attack against a third party and guaranteed women’s rights under certain conditions. However, they do not recognise the constitution, which is not considered sacrosanct by any of the protagonists in any case. India sees any agreement with the Taliban which is based on trust as folly, given that it feels nobody, the US included, will be able to guarantee adherence to an agreement after the US withdrawal. Afghanistan is therefore likely to remain an irritant between India and the US.

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