- Pakistani and Afghan leaders signed a series of agreements aimed at mending relations
- International conferences on Afghanistan are due to culminate next month in Germany
- Turkey's Gul announces the two countries agreed on a 'cooperation mechanism' on intelligence
With the help of Turkish mediation, Pakistani and Afghan leaders signed a series of agreements Tuesday aimed at mending relations which almost collapsed after last September's assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul.
At a joint press conference where he sat flanked by his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, Turkish president Abdullah Gul announced that both Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to open a "cooperation mechanism" between their intelligence agencies to investigate the murder, which Afghan officials initially blamed on Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence.
"There was almost an end of negotiations between us," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said, in reference to the suicide bombing that killed Rabbani. "So on that what happened today in Turkey has been a significant move. I hope the mechanism for pursuing the death of Rabbani will lead us to more fruitful and intense talks."
In public, the three presidents appeared relaxed and friendly when Gul led them down the marble stairs of an Ottoman palace to a waiting Mercedes.
In a departure from standard summit protocol, Gul hopped into the driver's seat. With a rev of the engine and a smile to nearby cameras, the Turkish president then "chauffeured" Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari to a nearby lunch.
But behind closed doors, the opening to some of the discussions were strained and tense, said one Turkish diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Afghan and Pakistani presidents brought their foreign and interior ministers, as well as their top military commanders to Tuesday's meeting, which was held thousands of miles away from the mountainous, blood-soaked border between the two countries.
The Turkish official said the presence of the commander of the politically-dominant Pakistani military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, served as an important confidence-building signal to the Afghans.
Kayani joined his Afghan and Turkish counterparts signing a protocol on Tuesday which called for military exercises between all three countries.
"Very productive, very pragmatic," was the rosy assessment of Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik, on the sidelines of Tuesday's Istanbul talks. "We are all in consensus to have a terrorism free world," Malik said, in a short conversation with CNN.
But the spirit of regional cooperation on the banks of the Bosphorus failed to drown out the constant drumbeat of deadly violence in the mountains and dusty cities of Central Asia. A roadside bomb killed at least two more NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. And on Monday, a coordinated attack by suicide bombers and gunmen resulted in the deaths of at least three employees of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar.
Turkish officials said they were trying to provide the Afghans and the Pakistanis a "neutral ground" for frank discussions.
Tuesday's meeting, the sixth such gathering hosted by Turkey in recent years, is part of a new season of international conferences focused on Afghanistan which is set to culminate in the German city of Bonn next month. After a U.S.-led aerial bombing campaign successfully routed the Taliban in Afghanistan nearly a decade ago, foreign powers and Afghan exiles gathered in Bonn in December 2001 to appoint a new Afghan interim government.
When asked why multiple rounds of meetings had failed to reduce the violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan's President Zardari laid the blame on "interest groups" and "non-state actors."
"The NATO armies, the world armies have been there for the last ten years. If it was such an easy issue, they would have solved it," Zardari said. "The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan has always been known as the graveyard of empires."
The United States has been trying shore up support from neighboring countries to ensure stability as Washington moves forward with plans to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan.
That initiative seemed to enjoy strong support from America's NATO ally Turkey.
"Without a benign regional order in the region, the problems of Afghanistan cannot be solved," said a high-ranking Turkish official, who briefed journalists on condition of anonymity on the eve of the meeting.
Tuesday's tri-lateral meeting is expected to be followed by a much larger gathering of top diplomats from Afghan neighbors such as China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran, as well as Russia, India, Germany and France.
Dubbed the "New Silk Road," Wednesday's gathering is aimed at promoting new trade links across Central Asia. Late Monday night, however, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled plans to attend the meeting due to the sudden illness of her mother.