“It’s a step in the right direction,” said a senior State Department official who spoke to reporters on Department-imposed conditions of anonymity. “I wouldn’t say it answers every question, but it answers some questions.”
The United States, which spends more than $10 billion a month in Afghanistan and has nearly 100,000 troops there, attended the conference as a “supporter” rather than a participant, and was not mentioned in the declaration. The gathering included Pakistan, India, Iran and other countries with sharply differing views on Afghanistan’s future.
The Obama administration heavily promoted the meeting as part of a process that it anticipates will set conditions allowing all U.S. and NATO combat troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. A broader international gathering on Afghanistan will be held in Bonn next month, followed by a NATO summit in May in Chicago to assess hoped-for political progress.
“I am especially encouraged to note that every country here has committed to stand behind an Afghan-led process of reconciliation” with insurgents, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns told the gathering. Burns stood in for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who canceled her own trip to Istanbul abruptly Monday night due to the illness of her mother. Dorothy Rodham died early Tuesday.
The other participants at the Turkish-hosted conference were Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The group resolved to meet again next summer to assess progress.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, met together with Turkish President Abdullah Gul for a full day of talks Tuesday. Karzai and Zardari agreed to a joint inquiry into the assassination last month of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was in charge of negotiations with the Taliban as head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council.
Rabbani’s slaying was part of a series of high-profile attacks in recent months that Afghanistan and the United States charge have been carried out by Pakistan-based Afghan insurgents.
While the largely Pashtun Taliban maintains sanctuaries in Pakistan, ethnic groups that are part of the Afghan government, including northern Tajiks that dominate the security forces, have sought support from other governments in the region, including India and the Central Asian republics to the north.
Russia, meanwhile, is seeking to stem a domestic addiction epidemic largely fueled by Afghan heroin. China has economic and security interests, and Iran opposes any longterm U.S. presence under a security agreement being negotiated between Washington and Kabul that would follow the 2014 combat withdrawal.
“Iran strongly believes in the prime and key role of regional countries, especially Afghanistan’s neighbors, to provide security there,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told the conference.
The State Department official said there had been no contact between the United States and Iran at the conference, but said it was “evidence of a good step forward” that Tehran “made a choice to participate, and sign” the joint declaration.
In Kabul, Afghans expressed mixed feelings about the gathering. Shaida Mohammed Abadali, deputy head of Afghanistan’s National Security Council, said he was “fully convinced that the Afghan solution lies in the region, in particular in our neighborhood.”
Others were less optimistic. “These countries who have gathered in Turkey to a large extent follow their own goals in Afghanistan, as do the West and the United States,” taxi driver Mohammad Abas, 43, said. “They are after their own goals and agendas.”
Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.