Afghan President Travels to Pakistan to Shore Up Support

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on December 7. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is set to open a two-day conference in Pakistan on Tuesday aimed at shoring up support for his war-ravaged nation, but diplomats played down the possibility that stalled Afghan peace talks might restart soon.

The "Heart of Asia" meeting, an annual gathering of Asian and other countries to support Afghanistan, will focus on energy deals, infrastructure and investment, said Simbal Khan, a security analyst specializing in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.

"It's mostly a show of commitment to Afghanistan," she said.

Inaugural peace talks between the Afghan government and the militant Afghan Taliban movement were held in Pakistan in July, but the process has stalled as the 14-year insurgency gathered pace and became more deadly.

Last week, the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was reported killed or wounded, further undermining already slim hopes that a negotiated settlement might be attempted.

A weekend audio message claiming to be from Mansour refuted the reports, but some Taliban have questioned its authenticity.

A planned second round of talks following the July breakthrough was derailed after news leaked that Mullah Omar, the reclusive founder of the Afghan Taliban, had been dead for two years.

Mansour, his deputy, took over, prompting a split with dissident Taliban commanders and leaders who were angry that Mansour had concealed Omar's death.

Despite Ghani's attendance at the conference, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have cooled, most notably after a series of bomb attacks struck Kabul in August.

Many Afghans, including Ghani's political opponents, blamed the attacks on Pakistani-backed insurgents, curtailing Ghani's efforts to improve relations with Pakistan after years of acrimony.

On Monday, Ghani said a 14-year-long "undeclared war" had existed between the neighbors.

The mutual suspicion is a major stumbling block to tackling the Taliban insurgency; each nation accuses the other of supporting insurgents across their shared border as a proxy force. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are separate but allied.

On a more positive note, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj will attend the gathering, the first visit by India's top diplomat to rival Pakistan in three years, raising hopes that relations between the nuclear-armed rivals are slowly thawing.

The national security advisers of both countries held a weekend meeting in Bangkok, three months after cancelling a similar meeting over disagreements regarding the agenda.

The two nations have fought three wars since becoming separate nations in 1947.

Their rivalry has spilled over into Afghanistan, where Pakistan is deeply suspicious of increasing Indian influence.

India, and some Afghans, say Pakistan has long supported the Afghan insurgency to maintain influence there.