KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's neighbors and regional heavyweights met in Kabul on Thursday to do something they rarely do — try to tackle common threats and problems together.
With NATO's combat mission ending in 2014, the region's countries are being called on to help stabilize Afghanistan by joining forces to resolve regional problems such as extremism, drug-trafficking, poor coordination on economic issues and, most importantly, terrorism.
Any cooperation, however, is bound to share the stage with longtime neighborhood rivalries, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and a fragile effort to reach a peace accord with the Taliban.
Opening the one-day conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the head of the government-appointed peace council will travel soon to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to seek their continued help in talking peace with the Taliban in hopes of ending decades of war.
Security was tight in the capital for the conference, with roads blocked off and a heavy police presence in the streets.
Attacks Thursday served as a reminder of the daily violence in the country.
Three border police officers were killed when their truck hit a roadside bomb in Nangarhar province, said Idris Mohmand, a spokesman for the provincial border police. Also in the east, an officer with the national intelligence service was killed in a suicide bombing in Kunar province, according to Gul Zaman, the administrative head of Nari district where the blast occurred.
Karzai said that successful peace discussions with the Taliban are one of the most important elements in attaining harmony in the region. The Afghan leader, who has pushed neighboring Pakistan to do more to help further the peace process, thanked Saudi Arabia for its help in trying to find a political resolution to the war.
"We also very much hope that our brothers and sisters in Pakistan will do same," Karzai said.
The Taliban have been willing in the past to hold discussions with the United States but have rejected talks with the Afghan government, although Karzai insists that Taliban leaders have spoken with his government in private. The Taliban have announced their intention to open an office in Qatar. Karzai has backed that plan, but has been pushing Saudi Arabia as a venue for any possible talks.
Karzai said that Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of the high peace council, would visit Saudi Arabia and Pakistan soon. Rabbani is the son of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed in September 2011 by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said Pakistan stood ready to assist with the peace process, but that Afghanistan's various factions need to reach a consensus about a political resolution to the war. Only then can it be supported by Afghanistan's neighbors, she said.
Pakistan has been accused of providing militants sanctuary on its soil and aiding insurgents who attack Afghan and foreign forces in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been pushing Islamabad to help lure Taliban leaders, who are believed to be hiding or under arrest in Pakistan, to the negotiating table.
Pakistan has been under pressure from the United States, too. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a recent visit to Kabul that the U.S. was losing patience with Pakistan and wants it to do more to go after the Taliban, especially the al-Qaida affiliated Haqqani network.
"While there are formidable challenges ahead, we must not be consumed by negativity," Khar said.
She said Pakistan was committed to fighting for peace.
"This is a matter of Pakistan's core national interest," she said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi highlighted Iran's financial contributions to Afghanistan and expressed support for regional cooperation, especially on drug trafficking, but he also used his speech as a chance to take a jab at the U.S.-led military coalition.
"Unfortunately, the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan during the past 10 years has yielded further deterioration of security, growth and entrenchment of terrorist activities, a surge in narcotic drug production and trafficking, increase in organized crime, massacre of civilians and destruction of cities and villages," the top Iranian diplomat said.
He said Iran welcomed the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014 and the decision of some countries to pull out even earlier. He said "a particular country" intends to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan in "pursuit of its extra regional objectives." It was clear he was referring to the United States, which plans to keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to train Afghan forces and battle terrorism.
Thursday's gathering in Kabul was the second meeting of the so-called "Heart of Asia" countries. The first was held in November in Istanbul.
The participants include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. Representatives of 15 other countries, most of them Western, and a dozen regional and international organizations are also attending.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Amir Shah contributed to this report from Kabul.