U.S., Afghans, Pakistanis plan regular 3-way talks

WASHINGTON Thu Feb 26, 2009 4:36pm EST

U.S. soldiers with Alpha Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment walk in a line during a patrol at Mullagora village, close to the border with Pakistan in Kunar Province, February 24, 2009. REUTERS/Oleg Popov

U.S. soldiers with Alpha Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment walk in a line during a patrol at Mullagora village, close to the border with Pakistan in Kunar Province, February 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Oleg Popov

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to hold regular three-nation talks on strategy in their war in South Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday.

Clinton had hosted high-level delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan for a rare trilateral meeting of allies in the seven-year-old Afghan war, part of the Obama administration's review of U.S. policy toward the volatile region.

"Our three nations have a common goal, a common threat and a common task, and my government commits itself to our friends and to the success of this common endeavor," said Clinton, flanked by her Afghan and Pakistani counterparts. She said the next meeting was tentatively to be held in April or May.

The meetings in Washington were held amid increasingly open shows of strain between the Obama administration and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the Taliban insurgency steadily gains ground. U.S.-led forces toppled the hard-line Islamist Taliban government in 2001.

Ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been marked by bickering over incursions by Taliban and al Qaeda militants across their shared border and by the widespread belief that some Pakistani intelligence agents fuel conflict by backing the Taliban. Islamabad denies this.

But Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta emerged from talks in Washington on Tuesday declaring they had reached a new environment of trust and confidence.

Spanta earlier said his call for more support to build Afghan security forces and to forge a broader war strategy met with a "very, very positive response" from his U.S. hosts.

He cited the appointment of veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as a special U.S. envoy to the region as recognition of the need for a broader approach to a war theater where a resurgent Taliban has gained ground and al Qaeda militants remain active in Pakistan's tribal areas.

"My thesis is that the main threat center of instability in the war is not Iraq; it is not Afghanistan. It is much more Pakistan," he said of Afghanistan's nuclear-armed neighbor, where a fledgling civilian government is grappling with militant attacks and a deep economic crisis.

CLINTON ASSURES AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan's defense minister, also visiting Washington, expressed optimism about the future of the war but cautioned that recent U.S. statements about pursuing more modest goals in Afghanistan unsettled the Afghan people.

"The debate in some policy circles seems to be focused on redefining success, not the practical problem of actually succeeding," Abdul Rahim Wardak said.

"Also, comments like 'lowering expectations' and 'achieving clear and attainable objectives' create worry in the minds of the Afghans, based on the experience of the '90s," he said in a speech to the Center for a New American Security think tank.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that the United States largely turned its back on Afghanistan in the 1990s after helping Mujahideen resistance fighters end Soviet occupation.

Clinton assured Spanta the United States was committed to Afghanistan, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

"We're going to do what we can to support them economically (and) politically. We're going to work together with them to try to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda," he told reporters

In Afghanistan the U.S.-led coalition war effort needed to invest in building up the Afghan army, police and other local security agencies, Spanta said in a speech to the Center for American Progress think tank.

"That will be a condition of the Afghanization of the security sector in Afghanistan. This is cheaper, acceptable for you, for your taxpayers, for your public opinion and, of course, for the Afghans to take more responsibility," he said.

President Barack Obama last week decided to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing U.S. forces there to 55,000 by this summer.

(Reporting by Paul Eckert and Andrew Gray; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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