Afghanistan conference opens, hopes for peace talks with Taleban slim

Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz (right) and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Khalil Hekmat Karzai talk during the conference.
Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz (right) and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Khalil Hekmat Karzai talk during the conference.PHOTO: EPA

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A conference aimed at shoring up support for war-ravaged Afghanistan opened in the Pakistani capital on Tuesday (Dec 8), with a top Afghan official calling for an urgent, united response to the global menace of militancy.

The "Heart of Asia" meeting, an annual gathering of Asian and other countries, comes months after the first, inconclusive talks between the Afghan government and the Taleban.

"The wave of terrorist activities, including those of Daesh in various parts of the region and the world, once again reminds us of the gravity of this menace confronting today's humanity and the urgency for a united position against this evil phenomenon," Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hikmat Khalil Karzai told the conference.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group is also known as Daesh.

The two-day meeting will focus on energy, infrastructure and investment deals to shore up commitment to Afghanistan but the threat of an intensifying Taleban insurgency will hang over proceedings.

The Afghan Taleban and the government held inaugural talks in Pakistan in July, but the effort to end the 14-year insurgency stalled when after news leaked that Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for two years.

News of Omar's death triggered a violent split in the Taleban, further undermining hopes for the negotiations.

Last week, the new leader of the main Afghan Taleban faction, Omar's deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was reported killed or wounded by rivals. A weekend audio message claiming to be from Mansour refuted the reports, but some Taleban have questioned its authenticity.

The United States hopes Pakistan will help resuscitate the talks, a senior US official said.

"Pakistan has real influence with the Afghan Taleban, and our hope is that it will use that influence to encourage the Taleban to engage in the reconciliation process," US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Reuters in India as he prepared to fly to the conference.

But chances of a resumption of talks soon appeared remote given the turmoil within the Taleban. Pakistan denies being able to influence the militants who are fighting to expel foreign forces and bring down the Western-backed government in Kabul.

"UNDECLARED WAR"

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will attend the second day of the conference on Wednesday.

Cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is seen as essential for improving stability in the region but hopes for warmer ties after Ghani was inaugurated were quickly dashed, largely because of a series of bomb attacks in Kabul in August.

Many Afghans, including Ghani's political opponents, accuse Pakistan of backing the Taleban, restricting Ghani's efforts to improve relations with Pakistan after years of acrimony.

Pakistan denies supporting the militants and says it wants a peaceful neighbour over its western border.

On Monday, Ghani said Afghanistan and Pakistan had been fighting a 14-year-long "undeclared war".

Each nation accuses the other of supporting insurgents across their border as proxy forces.

On a more positive note, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj will attend the Islamabad gathering. The first visit by India's top diplomat to Pakistan in three years raises hopes that relations between the nuclear-armed rivals might improve.

Their national security advisers met on the weekend in Bangkok, three months after cancelling talks.

The two countries have fought three wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Their rivalry has spilled into Afghanistan, where Pakistan is deeply suspicious of increasing Indian influence.

India and many Afghans say Pakistan supports the Afghan insurgency to maintain influence there.