Kabul hosts conference on Afghanistan’s future


Afghanistan on Thursday hosts the latest round of international talks on its future after NATO troops leave in 2014, with the conflict in Syria also likely to feature prominently in ministerial meetings.

Representatives from 29 countries are gathering in Kabul for the one-day conference, which follows a meeting in Istanbul in November aimed at mapping out the future of the war-torn country after the withdrawal of coalition troops.

British Foreign Minister William Hague said he would use talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the conference to press Moscow to use its influence to rein in the Syrian regime.

Monitors say more than 14,100 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Moscow, long an ally of Damascus, has refused to halt arms sales.

A row blew up Wednesday between Washington and Moscow over arming the rivals in the Syrian conflict after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had information that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Assad’s regime.

Lavrov insisted Russia was supplying “anti-air defense systems” to Damascus in a deal that “in no way violates international laws” and accused the United States of supplying arms to the region.

Hague said he would also meet officials from China – which, like Russia, has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions against Syria – and Turkey in a bid to get international agreement on how to implement a peace plan proposed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

Besides foreign ministers, Thursday’s conference will also bring together representatives from international organizations including NATO, the European Union and the United Nations.

Regional strategies to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, tackle natural disasters and strengthen trade and economic relations will be on the agenda.

Afghanistan is also likely to raise pressure on Pakistan over militant safe havens in its territory.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says peace depends on regional cooperation to smash sanctuaries for militant networks waging violence in his country, and has voiced hope that Pakistan can help in this process.

In April, militants staged a spectacular coordinated attack in Kabul which Washington blamed on the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.

And last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added to concerns about worsening violence by describing a June 6 double suicide attack in the southern city of Kandahar as “much more organized than we’ve seen before”.

Islamabad denies any support for Haqqani activities, but the group’s leaders are widely believed to have strongholds in the semi-autonomous Pakistani border district of North Waziristan.

There are about 130,000 NATO troops fighting alongside Afghan government forces against the Taliban insurgency. A U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.

Thursday’s conference comes after France – the fifth largest contributor of troops to the NATO coalition – announced it would withdraw its forces by the end of 2012, a year earlier than Paris initially planned, and two years before NATO allies.

The next round of talks on the future of the war-torn country will be in Tokyo next month and will focus on ways to ensure social progress – governance, economic prospects, health and education – in Afghanistan.