US, Afghans, Pakistan see 'common threat'
Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States vowed on Thursday to fight a common threat of terrorism, pledging to chart out a new strategy despite sharp differences simmering below the surface.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the three countries would hold a regular dialogue after she met in Washington with the South Asian neighbors' foreign ministers for talks she called "valuable and unprecedented."
"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," Clinton told reporters.
She said the next trilateral talks were set tentatively for late April or early May.
President Barack Obama has vowed a new focus on fighting a resurgent Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the region and is sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan as his administration winds down the US involvement in Iraq.
Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Rahim Wardak, who came to Washington for the talks, welcomed the fresh deployments and hoped they would help rid the country of remnants of the Taliban regime, which was ousted in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
"We can expect 2009 to be a critical year and we should be prepared for the challenges and yet we are optimistic to turn the tide in our favor," Wardak told a Washington think tank.
"We still lack sufficient forces and equipment to hold our gains and to facilitate good governance and development.
"The requirements of our national security forces are urgent and undeniable," he added.
The three-way meeting comes as relations sharply improve between Kabul and Islamabad after civilian Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari took over last year from former army chief Pervez Musharraf.
But Zardari's government has remained under pressure from both Kabul and Washington, which are concerned that insurgents fleeing Afghanistan enjoy a virtual safe haven in Pakistan's lawless border areas.
Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to the region, has voiced dismay after Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire with pro-Taliban militants in Pakistan's Swat Valley in a deal that includes the imposition of Islamic sharia law.
Holbrooke took part in the three-way talks along with General David Petraeus, who commands US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Holbrooke worried the Swat Valley deal amounts to a surrender after a bloody two-year campaign by militants who have attacked girls' schools and entertainment in the onetime ski resort.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi defended the deal, saying it neutralized the threat of extremists by meeting local concerns.
His Afghan counterpart, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, said that while he strongly supported the new Zardari government, nuclear-armed Pakistan remained a top worry for Afghanistan as it fights militants.
"My thesis is that the main threat center for instability in the world is not Iraq, it is not Afghanistan, it is much more Pakistan," Spanta said.
"If Pakistan becomes a failed state, it is a serious threat for you, for us and for the entire region."
But Pakistan has concerns of its own that it wants addressed.
Qureshi said Pakistan wanted the United States to consider ending US drone attacks inside the country that have killed militants but also civilians, inflaming local opinion.
He said after the talks that he felt optimistic about dealing with the Obama, whose predecessor George W Bush was closely allied with military ruler Musharraf.
"We get the sense from this administration that they are really willing to listen to us," Qureshi said.