Afghanistan and regional heavyweights have agreed to work together to fight terrorism and drug trafficking and pursue economic development — a formidable agenda in a neighborhood fraught with power struggles and rivalries.
On Thursday, the Afghan government played host to 14 other countries in the region, a peculiar role for a nation at war for more than three decades.
The issues they discussed were not new. What is new is that the countries agreed to work as a team to solve common problems. The hope is that regional cooperation will build confidence and erode decades of mistrust and that, in turn, could help foster stability and greater prosperity.
“Afghanistan recognizes out of a grim experience of the past that it is only in stability and harmony and peace in this region that Afghanistan can prosper and be stable,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in his opening remarks.
The conference, held under heavy security in Kabul, was a follow-up to the first “Heart of Asia” meeting held in November last year in Istanbul.
Both sessions took place after the US-led NATO coalition decided to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. While that deadline likely hastened work to foster more regional cooperation, the meetings are more of a recognition that an unstable Afghanistan threatens the entire region.
“Whatever happens in Afghanistan affects us in one way or another,” said Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu, who is also co-chairman of the event.
The 15 nations that participated in the conference were: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. Representatives of 15 other countries, most of them Western, and a dozen regional and international organizations also attended.
Enhanced cooperation could also stall over an inability to find a political resolution to the Afghan war.
The Taliban have been willing to hold discussions with the US, but have rejected talks with the Afghan government — though Karzai insists that Taliban leaders have spoken with his government in private. The Taliban have announced their intent to open an office in Qatar. Karzai has backed that plan, but has also been pushing Saudi Arabia as a venue for any possible talks.
Karzai announced at the conference that Afghan High Peace Council head Salahuddin Rabbani would visit Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the near future. Rabbani is the son of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed in September last year by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
At the Istanbul conference, the nations identified more than 40 steps that could be taken to build confidence in the region.
The conference communique stated that terrorism and violent extremism must be addressed in all their forms, “including the dismantling of terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens, as well as disrupting all financial and tactical support for terrorism.”
This issue is aimed at Iran and Pakistan, which have been accused of not doing enough to counter militancy, or secretly facilitating it.
Iran has denied allegations that it provides financial support to militants.
Pakistan also bristles at allegations that it gives sanctuary to insurgents who attack Afghan and foreign forces across the border.