KABUL - Afghanistan and regional heavyweights agreed Thursday to work together to fight terrorism and drug trafficking and to pursue economic development - a formidable agenda in an area fraught with power struggles and rivalries.
The Afghan government was host to 14 other countries in the region, a odd role for a nation at war for more than three decades.
The issues they discussed were not new. What is new is that these nations 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,’’ President Hamid Karzai said in his opening remarks.
The conference was a followup to the first “Heart of Asia’’ meeting held in November in Istanbul.
Both sessions took occurred after the US-led NATO coalition decided to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the close of 2014. While the deadline probably hastened work to foster more 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 Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister of Turkey and event cochairman.
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.
Rivalries abound. Pakistan and India, for instance, have fought three major wars since 1947. India and Afghanistan recently signed a strategic partnership pact, raising concerns in Islamabad that New Delhi was increasing its influence in Pakistan’s western flank. Iran feels threatened by any long-term presence of US troops in Afghanistan and rivals Saudi Arabia for Persian Gulf domination.
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 United States but have rejected talks with the Afghan government - though Karzai says Taliban leaders have spoken privately with his government. The Taliban announced their intent to open an office in Qatar. Karzai has backed that plan, but has been pushing Saudi Arabia as a venue for talks.
Karzai announced at the conference that Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of the high peace council, would visit Saudi Arabia and Pakistan soon. Rabbani is the son of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was slain last September 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 cooperation among chambers of commerce; and develop a strategy to develop interconnecting infrastructure across the region - with support from international partners.
■Broaden cooperation and exchanges in the fields of education and science.
■Develop joint plans for disaster management.
■Counter the production, trafficking, and consumption of opium, and other narcotic drugs.
■Work together to fight terrorism.
The conference communiqué 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 targets Iran and Pakistan, which have been accused of not doing enough to counter militancy, or of secretly facilitating it.
Iran has denied charges it provides financial aid 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?’’ said Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi expressed support for regional cooperation, especially on drug-trafficking, but used his speech to criticize the US-led military coalition. .