Afghan backers look to build on US strategy
Afghanistan's international backers, including Iran and the United States, met yesterday to try to boost efforts to combat the Taliban-led insurgency and spread democracy in the shattered nation.
"Only if all the neighbours of Afghanistan have the political will to contribute will there be a chance for Afghanistan," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said as the meeting began in The Hague.
The one-day conference puts Pakistan, a haven for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, at the epicentre of international efforts, but also attempts to draw in other neighbours, like China and Russia.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined representatives from some 90 countries and organisations taking part in the one-day meeting.
Iran will take part in the talks -- hosted by the Netherlands, the United Nations and Afghanistan -- but Clinton said she had no plans for a meeting here with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoondzadeh.
The source of 90 percent of the world's heroin and a breeding ground for militants, Afghanistan poses a thorny problem particularly for Iran, as well as other neighbours, with its opium production and asylum seekers.
"The fact that they accepted the invitation to come suggests that they believe there is a role for them to play and we are looking forward to hearing about that," Clinton said as she arrived in the Netherlands late Monday.
Iran, which has not had diplomatic relations with the United States for nearly three decades, did not attend a previous international conference on Afghanistan in Paris in June when George W. Bush was still US president.
But President Barack Obama has reached out to Iran, sending an unprecedented video appeal on March 20 for the Persian New Year in which he spoke of a "new beginning" between the two countries.
Diplomats were however cautious about reading too much into the attendance of the Islamic republic, which has been accused of supporting various factions -- militant and governmental -- in Afghanistan to try to wield influence.
"There are some things the Iranians could be very helpful with. Counter-narcotics is an obvious example," one European diplomat noted. "But there are also a lot of very unhelpful things."
The gathering is not billed as a donors conference.
It comes just days after the US president unveiled his new Afghan strategy.
It puts Pakistan at the centre of the fight against al-Qaeda as part of a new strategy dispatching 4,000 more troops, in addition to an extra 17,000 already committed, and billions of dollars to the Afghan war.
But public support for the Nato-led military operation in Afghanistan is waning, and nations taking casualties in the south are taking aim at allies not doing their fair share of combat.
As civilian casualties mount, ordinary Afghans are also increasingly resentful of the foreign military presence and of President Karzai's inability to improve the economy and with it their livelihoods.
"The Afghan people are hopeful about this renewed international attention, but many signs on the ground are negative," said Sam Zarifi, director of rights group Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Programme.
"There is also a degree of cynicism by the international community, because we've heard so many declarations like that before," he said.