March 24, 2009 / 12:57 PM / 11 years ago

Karzai to attend Afghanistan meeting, Ankara talks

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will attend a conference in the Netherlands next week where the United States, the U.N. and Afghanistan’s neighbours, including possibly Iran, are to discuss ways to end the Afghan conflict.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference in Kabul in this March 7, 2009 file photo. Karzai will attend a conference in the Netherlands next week where the United States, the U.N. and Afghanistan's neighbours, including possibly Iran, are to discuss ways to end the Afghan conflict. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/Files

Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will also travel to Ankara for Turkish-sponsored talks in early April, a spokesman for the Afghan president also said on Tuesday, but it was not clear whether the trip would coincide with a visit to Turkey by U.S. President Barack Obama on April 5-7.

“The summit is a Turkish initiative,” said spokesman Humayun Hamidzada. It will be the third such Turkish-sponsored talks aimed at bringing the two feuding U.S. allies closer together to combat the Taliban insurgency that threatens both the neighbours.

“It is a tripartite meeting between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. The United States is not involved in that.”

The flurry of diplomatic activity comes as the United States is due to unveil its new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan that is expected to include a greater emphasis on economic assistance, more troops and a regional diplomatic approach.

Obama has also said the strategic review would contain an exit strategy. Mosts analysts see the only way out of Afghanistan for the West in the long-term is to build up the Afghan army and police to the point where they can take a greater security role.

U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said on Monday there was a consensus within NATO that the Afghan police force in particular needs to be increased from the 80,000 officers it has at present.

Holbrooke vowed “more troops, more resources, more high-level attention”, summing up the new U.S. approach to Afghanistan.

Afghan officials declined to make specific comments on the new U.S. strategy before it is officially announced.

“We have yet to see the strategy so I don’t want to prejudge an outcome that we have not seen,” Hamidzada said.

DIPLOMATIC OFFENSIVE

Afghanistan’s foreign minister travelled to the United States last month to give Kabul’s input into the review of policy since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban for harbouring al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“What were the lessons learned from the past seven years where we actually had success and where were our shortcomings? So it was a process where we had a contribution,” Hamidzada said of the strategy review meeting in Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to also attend the March 31 meeting in the Dutch capital The Hague along with Holbrooke. Iran has said it would be interested in attending, but has not yet confirmed if it will be there.

If the Iranians do attend, Karzai could become a bridge between his main backers, the United States, and Iran which shares close cultural and linguistic links with Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has said it wants to engage Tehran on a range of issues from its nuclear programme to Afghanistan, ending a long-standing U.S. policy of isolating Iran.

Afghanistan is suffering its worst levels of violence since 2001, with Afghan forces and 70,000 international troops engaged in daily firefights with Taliban insurgents mainly in the south and east who have also launched scores of suicide bomb attacks.

Some 5,000 people, including more than 2,100 civilians, were killed last year alone, a 40 percent rise on 2007, the United Nations says. Seventy-four foreign soldiers have been killed so far this year, far higher than any other year in the same period.

Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch and Golnar Motevalli

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