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Taliban Talks Loom Large Over Afghanistan Conference

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul on December 7
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul on December 7

The possible resumption of peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban and improving often tense bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan hang in the balance at a major regional diplomatic conference on Afghanistan.

The two-day Heart of Asia meeting, which opened in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on December 8, is an annual gathering of Kabul's neighbors, regional and global powers, and a host of international organizations.

In addition to energy, infrastructure, and investment deals aimed at boosting the struggling Afghan economy, the conference provides an opportunity for Islamabad to win Kabul's approval for brokering peace talks with the Afghan Taliban.

Relations between the two neighbors have seen a downward spiral since the spring, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's overtures toward Pakistan failed amid this year’s unprecedented Taliban violence.

Kabul often accuses Islamabad of sheltering Afghan Taliban leaders on its soil and covertly supporting their war inside Afghanistan, a position it reiterated at the conference's opening session as a top Afghan official called for an urgent and united response to the global menace of terrorism.

"The wave of terrorist activities, including those of Daesh [the Arabic name for the so-called Islamic State] 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 Hekmat Khalil Karzai told the conference.

Pakistan is trying to answer such demands. Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, emphasized that Pakistan wants durable peace in Afghanistan.

"Our region has become bogged down in the quagmire of security challenges, which substantially complicate its further socio-economic development," Aziz said. "We want lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan; instability in this country is not in our interest."

Major global and regional powers are appearing to encourage Pakistan and Afghanistan to push for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

"Pakistan has real influence with the Afghan Taliban, and our hope is that it will use that influence to encourage the Taliban to engage in the reconciliation process," said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Pakistan brokered the first direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in July. But insurgent violence and a deadly succession struggle between the Taliban derailed the talks after the hard-line movement acknowledged that its founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, died in 2013.

The foreign ministers of China, Iran, and India are also taking part in the fifth Heart of Asia regional conference.

Turkey helped Afghanistan establish the process in 2011. It aims to provide a new agenda for regional cooperation by "engaging the ‘Heart of Asia’ countries in sincere and results‐oriented cooperation for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan."

With reporting by Reuters and ITAR-TASS.

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