BEIJING: Afghanistan’s president invited on Friday the Taliban to join a peace process backed by international community, in an unusual direct reference to the militants.

Speaking at a conference on Afghan peace and reconstruction in Beijing, Ashraf Ghani made no specific proposals and indicated government forces wouldn’t back away from the fight against militants.

However, his mention of the Taliban by name marked a departure from his usual public references to them as “political opponents”. “Peace is our highest priority. We invite the political opposition, particularly the Taliban, to join and enter Afghan dialogue, and ask all of our international partners to support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process,” he remarked.

“We must not and will not permit groups pursuing grand illusions to use our country as the battleground or launching-pad against the international system,” he added.

It wasn’t immediately clear if there was any particular significance in Mr Ghani’s reference to the Taliban by name, beyond the fact he was speaking to an international audience on his first state visit abroad.

Mr Ghani’s attitude towards the Taliban has been a departure from that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who habitually referred to the militants as his “brothers” and castigated the United States for its military presence in Afghanistan.

In response, the Taliban have intensified suicide bombings, roadside bombings and rocket attacks in Kabul to give the impression that Mr Ghani’s government can’t protect the capital.

In his address to the gathering, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said China had faith in Afghanistan’s ability to solve its own problems, but that its neighbours should help create a peaceful environment without interfering in its internal affairs.

“The International community should respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, not interfere with its internal affairs and support Afghanistan’s efforts to realise security and stability,” Mr Li said. Following the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the grouping had agreed to launch 64 programmes in areas including trade, investment, infrastructure, disaster management and education.

Pakistan has agreed to host next year’s forum. China’s hosting of the annual conference highlighted its growing role in Afghanistan as most US and international troops prepare to leave by the end of the year.

China said on Wednesday it would provide $330 million in grants to Afghanistan along with professional training and scholarships for 3,500 Afghans over the next five years.

Beijing is eager to help develop Afghanistan’s estimated $3 trillion in mineral wealth and wants a strong, stable government in Kabul. It is concerned that unrest could spill over into its restive north-western region of Xinjiang, where radicals among the native Uighur population have launched a series of attacks in recent months.

China said earlier it had received a pledge from Mr Ghani to help combat a radical anti-China group known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which it blames for masterminding attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere. It’s unclear, however, whether the organisation has a presence in Afghanistan.

While China and the US are rivals for influence in the Asia-Pacific, Washington has welcomed Beijing’s increased in­volve­­ment in Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, November 1st , 2014

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