Afghan neighbors seek common ground

8:54am EST

By Simon Cameron-Moore and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s neighbors met in Turkey on Tuesday seeking a “single voice” before a London conference to set a timetable for handing security over to Afghans and find ways to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

Low-level talks with the Taliban have been going on behind the scenes for years, analysts say, but there can be little progress while the insurgents believe they are winning the war.

Underlying the need for peace, a suicide attack in the Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday led to casualties among Afghan civilians and foreign troops, a security source said.

The Taliban have launched hundreds of suicide attacks in the last three years in order to demonstrate to Afghans that their government and its Western backers cannot bring security.

Washington is sending an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to persuade the Taliban that a military victory is not possible and force the hardline Islamists to negotiate in earnest.

The interests of Afghanistan’s neighbors also have to be reckoned with however, especially those of Pakistan which U.S. officials accuse of harboring Afghan Taliban fighters, and Iran which U.S. generals have said helps covertly arm the insurgents.

“The aim of the meeting is to find a single voice in the region to take to the London conference,” said a Western diplomat attending the gathering in Istanbul on Tuesday.

“The aim is to help Afghanistan stand on its own feet in the medium and long-term.”

RECONCILIATION

Among those attending the Istanbul meeting were China’s foreign minister, Iran’s vice-president, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Britain’s foreign minister and the deputy to U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke

Officials from Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, NATO and the European Union were also in Istanbul.

Ministers from some 60 countries are then to meet in London on Thursday to further galvanize support for Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to present the London conference with details of a program to “reach out” to Taliban insurgents as part of a political settlement. The United States and Europe both back his reconciliation efforts, he said on Monday after meeting Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan has long played an important role in Afghan affairs, having nurtured the Afghan Taliban during the 1990s, but Kabul remains suspicious that Islamabad is pursuing its own agenda in the country to the detriment of Afghanistan.

Zardari would not be drawn into the plan to negotiate with the Taliban, but told a news conference alongside Karzai on Monday: “If there are any people who are reconcilable, democracy always welcomes them back.”

U.S. and NATO generals have long recognized the need for negotiations to end a war now into its ninth year. British army chief General Sir David Richards told Reuters negotiations with the Taliban could be considered but must be done from a position of strength. “So it’s a matter of timing, not the principle.”

President Barack Obama hopes to achieve that strength by sending extra troops, but to enable him to also meet his 2011 timetable to start drawing down U.S. troop numbers, Afghan forces need to be bolstered and begin taking over responsibility for security in some areas.

Obama plans to ask Congress for another $14.2 billion to train Afghanistan’s army and police over the next two years, Pentagon budget documents showed, more than double the $6.6 billion already allocated for Afghan security forces this year.

The money aims to increase the numbers of Afghan army and police from some 190,000 now to 305,600 by October 2011.

Obama has also requested $33 billion in emergency funds to support his U.S. troop buildup for the rest of fiscal 2010.

Germany will send 500 additional non-combat troops to Afghanistan, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday, adding to the 4,500 troops its present parliamentary mandate allows.

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