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Foreign ministers and officials of 30 nations, mainly from Central Asia, as well as major international organizations have converged on Kabul for a conference on Afghanistan's future once NATO troops leave in 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai began the "Heart of Asia" conference in Kabul by arguing that war-weary Afghanistan needed a "more cooperative environment" aimed at civilian and economic progress to defuse insurgency and drug trafficking.
Attending the talks, the second in a set of three conferences co-hosted by Turkey, are representatives of other regional players such as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia, China, and India, plus the United Nations, NATO and the European Union.
The first regional strategy meeting took place in Istanbul last November. A third is to follow in Tokyo in July to look further at civilian reconstruction.
As German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle flew into Kabul, a Foreign Office spokesman in Berlin said Germany, where possible, would continue to assist Afghanistan. It currently has 4,000 NATO troops stationed in northern Afghanistan.
In Kabul, Westerwelle said Afghanistan's security situation depended decisively on the emergence of positive economic development.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi of Iran, Afghanistan's western neighbor, said that if a recent Kabul-Washington pact left foreign military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014 this would run counter to peace efforts and turn Afghanistan "again into (a) scene of security rivalries."
Focus on Pakistan
At the conference, Pakistan is likely to come under pressure over militants allegedly operating from Pakistani border regions. Islamabad has denied tolerating safe havens in locations such as its semi-autonomous North Waziristan region.
#link#Last week, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described coordinated attacks in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and in Kabul last April as an insurgency that had become "much more organized than we've seen before."
On Wednesday, Panetta disclosed during a Senate budget hearing in Washington that Islamabad's closure of NATO supply routes via Pakistan since November was costing the United States $100 million (80 million euros) a month.
That forced NATO to use longer, more costly routes north of Afghanistan, for example, via Uzbekistan and Russia.
"It's very expensive because we're using the northern transit route in order to be able to draw down our forces and also supply our forces," Panetta told the Senate.
Pakistan shut down NATO routes to Afghanistan across its territory to protest against a cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistan soldiers. That incident in November compounded Pakistan anger over covert CIA drone strikes and last year's killing in Pakistan of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by US commandos.
On Monday, the US said it was withdrawing its negotiating team from Pakistan without securing a deal to re-open the routes.
ipj/pfd (Reuters, dpa, AFP)