KABUL - Afghanistan and regional heavyweights have agreed to work together to fight terrorism and drug-trafficking and pursue economic development — a formidable agenda in a neighbourhood 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 these countries agreed to work as a team to solve common problems. The hope is that regional co-operation 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," 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 in Istanbul.
Both sessions took place after the U.S.-led NATO coalition decided to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the close of 2014. While that deadline likely hastened work to foster more regional co-operation, 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 Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister of Turkey and co-chairman of the event.
"In order to build confidence, one needs to commit to working together, to leave past negative memories behind and positively reconstruct future expectations."
The 15 nations that participated in the conference were: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. Representatives of 15 other countries, most of them Western, and a dozen regional and international organizations also attended.
Pakistan and India, for instance, have fought three major wars since the two were carved out of British India in 1947. India and Afghanistan recently signed a strategic partnership agreement, adding to concerns in Islamabad that New Delhi was increasing its influence on Pakistan's western flank. Iran feels threatened by any long-term presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and rivals Saudi Arabia for domination of the Persian Gulf.
Enhanced co-operation 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 United States 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 been pushing Saudi Arabia as a venue for any possible talks.
Karzai announced at the conference that Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of the high peace council, 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 2011 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. On Thursday, they agreed to:
—Improve the exchange of information about commercial opportunities and trade conditions; enhance co-operation among chambers of commerce; and develop a strategy to develop interconnecting infrastructure across the region — with support from international partners.
—Broaden co-operation and exchanges in the fields of education and science.
—Develop joint plans for disaster management.
—Counter the production, trafficking and consumption of opium, other narcotic drugs.
—Work together to fight terrorism.
The conference communique states 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.
"If I believe that my future prosperity is linked with Afghans, then how can someone who is harming Afghanistan not be harming me?" Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar asked reporters, rhetorically, at a news conference after the conference.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi expressed support for regional co-operation, especially on drug-trafficking, but used his speech to criticize the U.S.-led military coalition. He said the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan has worsened security and led to a surge in narcotic drug production and trafficking.
The Iranian said "a particular country" intends to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan in "pursuit of its extra-regional objectives." It was clear that he was referring to the United States, which plans to keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to train Afghan forces and battle terrorism.
In the spirit of co-operation, however, Iran agreed to lead the education initiative — and the United States and Australia signed up to work on that issue too.
Kazakhstan has agreed to host the group's third meeting in the first half of next year in Astana.