West's Afghan resolve tested by economy, Pakistan, Iran

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 04, 2011 8:23 PM
West's Afghan resolve tested by economy, Pakistan, Iran

By Missy Ryan and David Brunnstrom

BONN (Reuters) - The West wants to use an Afghanistan meeting on Monday to signal enduring support for Kabul as allied troops head home, but economic turmoil in Europe and crises with Pakistan and Iran may prompt doubts about Western resolve.

The goal of Afghanistan's international partners is to leave behind a government strong enough to escape the fate of its Soviet-era predecessor, which collapsed in 1992 in a civil war, and whose president was eventually captured and executed by the Taliban when they overran Kabul in 1996.

Hosts Germany sought to signal Western staying power on the eve of the gathering of dozens of foreign ministers in the German city of Bonn, promising it will continue to give support even after most foreign combat troops leave in 2014.

"We must not repeat the mistakes of history," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told delegates.

"This will not be the end of the international presence in Afghanistan. We will not forget Afghanistan after 2014. Our engagement will last."

Ten years after a similar conference held to rebuild Afghanistan following the West's 2001 invasion after the September 11 attacks, there is no shortage of worries on the horizon, in particular about the Afghan government's ability to provide security for its own people.

But addressing matters such as how to share out the funding of the still-fledgling Afghan police and army, and whether or not to pursue apparently stillborn peace efforts with the Taliban, may have to compete for attention with brewing confrontations pitting Washington against Pakistan and Iran, two of Afghanistan's most influential neighbors.

A RETURN TO CIVIL WAR?

Pakistan, an insecure but powerful neighbor and perhaps the single most critical player in efforts to end Afghan violence, is boycotting the meeting after NATO aircraft killed 24 of its soldiers in a weekend attack the alliance called a "tragic ... accident".

Many in the West hope Pakistan will use its influence to deliver the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership Washington says is based in Pakistan, to peace talks.

Many worry that an array of militants, in the absence of enough foreign troops and an adequate improvement in local security forces, will plunge Afghanistan back into civil war. Renewed strife might also stir more violence over the border in Pakistan, embroiled in its own anti-government Islamist insurgency.

"There is potentially a perfect storm of problems lying ahead for Afghanistan," said Sajjan Gohel, international security director at the Asia Pacific Foundation think tank in London.

"Afghanistan's security is intrinsically tied to Pakistan. If the problems inside Pakistan worsen that will have a detrimental impact on Afghanistan. The continuing freefall in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan makes the situation even more precarious.

"If relations between the West and Iran also worsen that may be utilized by the clerical regime (in Tehran) to cause problems in Afghanistan."

TALIBAN DECRIES "FLAMES OF OCCUPATION"

Iran moved nearer centre stage in Bonn after Tehran said it shot down a U.S. spy drone in its airspace and threatened to respond outside of its borders to the alleged incursion.

International forces in Kabul said the drone may have been one lost last week while flying over western Afghanistan.

Iranian television quoted a military source as saying Tehran had shot down the drone in eastern Iran.

"The Iranian military's response to the American spy drone's violation of our airspace will not be limited to Iran's borders," the military source said, without elaborating.

Iran has been accused in the past of providing low-level backing to the Taliban insurgency, and diplomats and analysts have suggested Tehran could ratchet up this support if it wanted to put serious pressure on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

For their part the Taliban, in a November 30 statement, reiterated a demand for an end to what it called foreign occupation of the country.

The conference was "seeking to further ensnare Afghanistan into the flames of occupation and to turn it into a battleground and perpetual nightmare for the neighboring countries".

(Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Myra MacDonald)