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Istanbul Conference Pledges Support For Afghanistan

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (center), accompanied by his Afghan counterpart Zalmay Rasul (right), shakes hands with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns before the Istanbul Conference on November 2.
ISTANBUL -- All of Afghanistan's neighbors and Western powers were represented at a one-day conference in Turkey, with delegates committing to cooperate and work together to help develop the volatile country.

Heavy on good intentions but light on detail, the agreement was intended to be show of unity for Afghanistan as its security forces take on greater responsibility and as international forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul said the so-called "Istanbul Process" was driven by his country's needs and represented an important step for the region.

Rasul described it as "a process that will allow the countries in the heart of the Asian region to implement important confidence-building measures toward a more effective, broader, and deeper regional cooperation that promotes security, stability, and economic development in our region."

Delegations endorsed the pledge to protect Afghanistan's "sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity," and promised cooperation on the dismantling of "terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens."

Countries represented were from Afghanistan's immediate neighborhood, from the greater region, and from the West, including China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the United States. Delegates from as NATO, the EU, and the UN also were in attendance.

Reaching Out To Pakistan

In a speech to the delegates, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns hailed the day's pledges as "the first clear, region-wide statement of support for Afghanistan in this time of transition and reconciliation."

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul
He said regional powers had often acted "in ways that make things worse," instead of cooperating to solve problems.

Burns' comments were at least in part a reference to Pakistan, which both Washington and Kabul have repeatedly accused of providing tacit if not direct support to the Taliban insurgency and undermining Afghan security.

Islamabad rejects those charges.

As the delegates also pledged support for efforts toward a political solution to the war in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai called on Pakistan to help facilitate negotiations with the Taliban.

"The peace process will not succeed unless we are able to get the top leadership of the Taliban based in Pakistan to join us," Karzai said.

"Our hope is that with the help from our brothers in Pakistan, we will manage to wean away the Taliban leadership from some of the long-established networks of support they enjoy outside Afghanistan and integrate them into the peace process."

Alistair Burt, Britain's minister of state for the Middle East and South Asia, also insisted that successful Afghan-Pakistani cooperation is crucial for regional stability.

"They both have a vested interest in dealing with the scourge of terrorism and we believe they both have a vested interest in making sure that those who can abide by the conditions set out by President Karzai for inclusion in political process should come back into that political process," Burt said.

Talking Taliban

The Istanbul conference comes one day after Turkish President Abdullah Gul hosted both Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, during which the leaders attempted to ease tensions following last month's assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Kabul has accused Islamabad of being behind the Taliban suicide bombing that killed Rabbani, a charge Islamabad denies.

The November 1 meeting produced a commitment by Karzai and Zardari to open a joint investigation into the assassination, establishing the air of cooperation that carried over to the conference.

Turkey's Abdullah Gul (center) is all smiles with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari.
Turkey's Abdullah Gul (center) is all smiles with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari.
While Karzai said the door was closed for now on talks with the Taliban, his foreign minister expressed optimism that negotiation would be possible.

"We know that there are people among the Taliban and others that are willing to have peace under the conditions that we have proposed to you," Rasul said. "I am confident and optimistic [that we can] achieve a peace process."

Regional Interconnectivity

The agreement also commits countries in Afghanistan's region not to act against another through a third party -- a point observers say could be a reference to Islamabad's concerns over Kabul turning to its regional rival, India.

In addressing the delegates, Karzai explicitly mentioned the signing last month of a strategic partnership with India, describing it as of historical importance.

The conference also saw commitments made in the areas of in trade, education, and communication.

Afghanistan and its Western backers are attempting to bolster support for the "New Silk Road" initiative, which seeks to establish regional trade and transportation network that would run through Afghanistan.

The hope is that increasing economic ties and prosperity will promote regional cooperation, make the country less dependent on foreign assistance, and counter the pull of extremism.

While the past two days in Istanbul resulted in broad pledges of support and set the stage for further cooperation at an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, next month, observers point to one real measure of success.

That is, whether or not the Turkish meetings will bring about a thaw in what most say is the region's most crucial relationship -- that between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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