KABUL (Reuters) - Western officials are not setting the bar very high for Afghan diplomats who will meet regional counterparts in Istanbul this week, the first of two conferences that will go a long way to shaping the future of international involvement in Afghanistan.
Attending the meeting will be U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, plus foreign ministers from France, Germany and Poland, and representatives from NATO and the United Nations.
Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul will host a trilateral meeting with Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai on Tuesday.
The Afghan government and its foreign backers are preparing for the end of 2014, the deadline for foreign combat troops to return home, even though some foreign troops will remain as trainers and advisers.
Some Afghans fear their own security forces will be unable to cope with the insurgency when the majority of foreign troops go and that their country may fall into another civil war.
Wednesday’s Turkish session with the Afghan and Pakistani leaders is meant to agree on a framework for regional security and cooperation. This will include Afghan border nations Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, ahead of a wider-ranging meeting in Germany in December.
Participants already have low expectations.
“If they agree on the roadmap leading towards a meaningful regional security dialogue and application of security-building measures on a regional level, that will be a success by itself,” a senior Western official said.
“(There are) low expectations, but if they launch the process, in that respect it will be a success.”
Afghanistan, which argues that militancy and drug trafficking are cross-border problems that need cross-border solutions, wanted legally binding security commitments to be made in Istanbul. Kabul has since had to concede that only a non-binding, watered-down agreement will be possible.
“Regional cooperation is crucial not just for achieving long-desired security, stability and prosperity for the people of Afghanistan ... but also in the wider region,” said Afghan deputy foreign minister Jawed Ludin, addressing diplomats before closed-door talks in the run-up to the Istanbul meeting.
Regional heavyweight Pakistan would be crucial to any cross-border security initiative. It also harbours modest ambitions.
“We envisage this conference as a platform to express the region’s solidarity and support for Afghanistan in its endeavours to establish peace and stability,” Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua said in a weekly briefing.
A fellow Muslim country and a NATO member, Turkey has had strong historical ties with both countries and has sought to encourage confidence-building measures between them.
Whereas Karzai and Zardari have a personal rapport, the Afghan and Pakistani intelligence services have a long history of mistrust. There have been frequent accusations the Pakistan military has backed Taliban militants in the hope of regaining influence in Kabul once Western forces withdraw.
Pakistani generals have long feared India could obtain more influence in Afghanistan, raising the spectre of encirclement.
The Pentagon says insurgents abetted by Pakistan pose the big threat to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, and several high-profile attacks in Kabul were carried out by the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, based in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Such threats were underscored again on Saturday, when a suicide bomber in Kabul killed 13 troops and civilian employees from the NATO-led force, as well as four Afghans — the deadliest single ground attack against the coalition in 10 years.
The often tense relationship between Washington and Islamabad aside, platitudes from Pakistan about Wednesday’s meeting will not change the situation in Afghanistan.
“The Afghans have had to lower their ambitions a bit in the face of some regional objections,” a second senior Western official said.
Rather than aim high and fail, those involved in the talks have settled for modest goals that are easier to reach.
“The idea is to leave a senior level group which would meet in a few months and start applying some of the confidence-building measures,” the first Western official said.
“It’s going to be very difficult because of the very different and conflicting agendas of regional players.”
After Istanbul will come the Bonn conference, a December gathering at which donor countries hope to agree on what their commitments will be beyond the end of 2014.
“It’s going to be a long-term process,” Afghanistan’s Ludin said. “We are not going to achieve the aims we all aspire to in one conference alone.”
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony in Islamabad and Simon Cameron-Moore in Istanbul; Editing by Paul Tait and Sophie Hares