KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's neighbors and regional heavyweights met in Kabul on Thursday to do something they rarely do — try to tackle common threats and problems together.
With NATO's combat mission ending in 2014, the region's countries are being called on to help stabilize Afghanistan by joining forces to resolve regional problems such as extremism, drug-trafficking, poor coordination on economic issues and, most importantly, terrorism. Any cooperation, however, is bound to share the stage with longtime neighborhood rivalries, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and a fragile effort to reach a peace accord with the Taliban.
In opening the one-day conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the head of the government-appointed peace council will travel soon to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to seek the two nation's continued help in talking peace with the Taliban in hopes of ending decades of war.
Karzai said that successful peace discussions with the Taliban are one of the most important elements in attaining harmony in the region.
The Afghan leader, who has pushed neighboring Pakistan to do more to help further the peace process, thanked Saudi Arabia for the help it has given in trying to find a political resolution to the war.
"We also very much hope that our brothers and sisters in Pakistan will do same," Karzai said. "We are already engaged in a serious, deep dialogue with our neighbors in Pakistan as well."
The Taliban have been willing in the past to hold discussions with the United States, but have rejected talks with the Afghan government, although 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 said 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 who was posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
Karzai also urged the nations participating in the conference to invest in economic projects in Afghanistan and said that during his remaining time in office, he will work to shore up Afghanistan's weak government. Karzai's second five-year term ends in 2014 and the Afghan constitution bars him from seeking a third term.
Afghanistan's allies have harshly criticized the Karzai administration for widespread corruption, saying that graft and bribery undermine the U.S.-led military coalition's efforts to fight the Taliban and gain the allegiance of the Afghan population.
Karzai did not mention the word "corruption." But he said a joint session of the Afghan parliament would convene next Thursday to discuss steps that can be taken to strengthen governance across the country where there is a disconnect between the central government in Kabul and the outlying provinces.
"It is our job for the next two years that I still am in office to undertake a fundamentally stronger activity toward improved, better governance in Afghanistan," he said.
Thursday's gathering in Kabul is the second meeting of the so-called "Heart of Asia" countries. The first was held in November in Istanbul.
The participants include: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. Representatives of 15 mostly Western countries and a dozen regional and international organizations are also attending.