ISTANBUL // The presidents of Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan met in Istanbul yesterday to improve relations between Kabul and Islamabad and to discuss a planned initiative to offer money to Taliban fighters who lay down their arms.
"Afghanistan's problems cannot be overcome by military means alone," Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, said during a news conference after talks with his counterparts from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hamid Karzai and Arif Ali Zardari, in a former sultan's palace on the shores of the Bosphorus. Hearts and minds had to be won as well, Mr Gul said. Mr Karzai said the West was in favour of his plan to try to get some Taliban to leave the armed struggle and rejoin civilian life. "I think we will receive support at the London conference."
He also said he would ask for the removal of Taliban members from a UN sanctions list at the meeting in London, adding that resistance against that idea in the past had been replaced by a greater willingness to discuss it. It was the fourth trilateral summit of Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan since Ankara organised the first such meeting in 2007. Military and intelligence officials also took part. Mr Gul said more had to be done to isolate militant groups in Afghanistan. "If there is a role for Turkey to play in this respect, we will of course always participate." The president compared the situation in Afghanistan with that in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003, when Turkey tried to ensure that "all Iraqi groups take part in the political process".
The plan to provide some Taliban members with money and jobs if they stop fighting is expected to be discussed at the London conference on Thursday. Efforts to turn to non-military ways to end the conflict in Afghanistan received a further boost when Gen Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato troops there, was quoted as saying in yesterday's Financial Times newspaper that "there's been enough fighting".
Gen McChrystal said he wanted to use the additional 30,000 US troops to be deployed in Afghanistan this year to weaken the Taliban to an extent that their leaders will accept a political settlement. "I believe that a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome," the general said. Before they sat down with Mr Gul, Mr Karzai and Mr Zardari met for bilateral talks, but there was no official statement about what was discussed. Relations between their countries have been strained for years, as Afghan officials say Islamabad is not doing enough to stop insurgents in north-western Pakistan from planning attacks on Afghan soil. Western officials also say Pakistan is reluctant to take action against the Afghan Taliban, calculating that the Taliban may one day be important allies in tensions with Pakistan's traditional rival, India.
Turkey, a rising regional power and the only Muslim member nation of Nato, is trying to ease tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Ankara enjoys the trust of both countries. As the presidents met for their summit, officials from the three countries held a separate meeting devoted to the strengthening of economic ties. Turkey hosts a conference of countries neighbouring Afghanistan today. Turkey is in an exceptional position within Nato because it enjoys more credibility in Afghanistan than other countries of the International Security Assistance Force, or Isaf, observers say. "We all trust Turkey," Masood Halili, Afghanistan's ambassador in Ankara, told the Turkish Anatolia news agency before the summit.
Despite sending 1,750 soldiers to Afghanistan within the Isaf framework, Ankara has refused to deploy Turkish troops in combat zones. Turkish officials have said a participation of soldiers from a Muslim nation such as Turkey in the fight against radical Islamist groups would hurt Isaf's image more than it would help. As a consequence, Turkey has not been associated with Isaf actions such as the bombing of civilian targets.
"Other countries have made some mistakes, for example, with the killing of civilians," Esedullah Oguz, a Turkish journalist and former adviser to the German military in Afghanistan, said yesterday. "But Turkey has concentrated on reconstruction." Oguz said that judging from the conversation he has had with Taliban representatives, the insurgents view the Turks in a positive light. Last year, Turkish military officers said Isaf troops from other countries had used Turkish flags on duty in Afghanistan because they felt safer. "Afghans say 'Turkey is the only country that understands us very well'," Oguz said. But there are limits to Turkey's influence. The Turks have concentrated on contacts with Uzbek and Turkmen groups in the country and were less close to the Pashtuns, who form the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, Oguz said. As a result, Turkey's possible role in Afghanistan only goes "up to a certain point", he added.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, met Mr Karzai and Mr Zardari separately before the summit and pledged to step up Turkish efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. In his meeting with Mr Karzai, Mr Erdogan said the state-run Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency would build 68 schools around Afghanistan. Mr Erdogan is to travel there in the spring for the opening ceremonies of some of the schools, Turkish newspapers reported yesterday. The prime minister also said Turkish instructors would help train Afghan policemen and soldiers.