THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Iran offered help in combating the Afghan drugs trade on Tuesday, in a gesture to a U.S. call for regional support in Afghanistan that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as promising.
Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh told an international meeting on Afghanistan in The Hague that Tehran was ready to help both in fighting the country's huge opium trade and in reconstruction of the impoverished state.
Clinton, in The Hague to seek broad support for a revamped strategy unveiled by President Barack Obama to tackle Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, welcomed the gesture by Tehran that will be closely watched for any follow-up.
"I did think that the Iranian intervention this morning was promising," she told reporters of Akhoundzadeh's speech.
While Clinton did not hold discussions with the Iranian delegation, she said U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke had what she called brief and cordial contacts with Akhoundzadeh on the meeting sidelines.
"It did not focus on anything substantive. It was cordial; it was unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch."
The United States gave a letter to Tehran asking for "humanitarian help" for three Americans who were unable to return to the United States, Clinton said.
Iran however played down the encounter, saying no meeting had taken place.
Nearly eight years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, more than 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops are still there battling a growing insurgency, which is also spreading its influence in Pakistan.
In one of several shifts of emphasis by Obama from the former Bush administration's Afghan policy, Clinton proposed a possible truce with non-violent Taliban.
"They should be offered an honorable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society, if they are willing to abandon violence, break with al Qaeda, and support the constitution," Clinton said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai insisted his government should lead conciliation efforts. But he welcomed Obama's new stress on a regional approach and what he called his "fresh, strong and judicious leadership" of international efforts in Afghanistan.
HELP FROM NEIGHBORS
Clinton had played down any major overtures with Iran at the meeting in The Hague and said beforehand she had no plans for a separate meeting with its deputy foreign minister.
But the joint presence of the U.S. and Iranian delegations was an easing of U.S. policy which has long stuck to a stand-off over Tehran's nuclear program.
Akhoundzadeh nonetheless reaffirmed Iran's opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, which has left it facing a U.S. military presence there and in neighboring Iraq.
But he added: "Iran is fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and the plans in line with developing and reconstructing Afghanistan."
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi welcomed the Iranian presence as a "first step in the right direction."
"They have an interest in a stable, peaceful Afghanistan like we do," he told reporters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also signaled a greater readiness by Moscow to help reconstruct Afghanistan.
"We need to combine the antiterrorist measures with the socio-economic measures to rebuild Afghanistan and in future Russia is quite ready to participate in that effort," he said.
The Pakistani Taliban said on Tuesday they had carried out an attack which killed eight cadets in a police academy in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
It was the second attack in Lahore this month after gunmen targeted the Sri Lankan cricket team, underscoring how far the insurgency is spreading into the heartland of Pakistan.
In Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said Pakistan should prove its commitment to fighting militancy before getting more U.S. aid, and said the United States should not rely on Pakistan for help in the Afghan war.
"I don't have a lot of confidence that the Pakistani government has the will or the capability to take on the violence," the Democrat told reporters.
Since taking office in January, Obama has ordered 17,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan to tackle violence ahead of elections, and a further 4,000 to help train the army.
The new U.S. administration has said it will end the megaphone diplomacy used by Washington in the Bush years to cajole more troops out of often reluctant allies, but is urging them to commit more aid and civilian support.
However the Dutch hosts had always played down prospects of major new troop or aid offers at the hastily-convened conference, stressing the aim was more to brainstorm on policy.
The final statement issued after the meeting echoed the thrust of the new Obama policy, referring to the need to step up training of Afghan security forces and "eliminate sanctuaries for al Qaeda and other terrorist networks in the region."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country came under most pressure to step up its contribution to the counter-insurgency effort, reaffirmed a German offer of 600 troops to help secure Afghan elections in August.
"President Obama has introduced a new focus, one that we welcome very much," he told reporters.