Afghan leaders head to Washington ahead of fighting season

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah travel this weekend to Washington where they are expected to focus on reconciliation with the Taliban as the annual "fighting season" begins.

Kabul: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah travel this weekend to Washington where they are expected to focus on reconciliation with the Taliban as the annual "fighting season" begins.

Diplomatic efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table have gained pace recently, even as security forces have launched offensives against the insurgent group without NATO assistance for the first time since 2002.

Ghani and Abdullah leave Saturday for an official four-day trip to Washington, where the president will address a joint session of Congress. Both men will then visit Camp David and New York.

Besides the US, Ghani also visited Saudi Arabia this week, while Abdullah was in India to try to obtain a "regional consensus" on reconciliation with the Taliban, according to Afghan officials.

The Afghan leaders will also be seeking renewed support from Washington over the issue, a source close to the government said.

"One of the factors which is motivating President Ghani to act now could be trying to make as much progress as possible before the fighting season begins, but it`s not the only factor," said a Western diplomat.

The visit will also include an economic component, with planned discussions on the future of cooperation between the two countries.

A senior Afghan official who requested anonymity told AFP: "The meetings in the US will focus on another key point: the financial support to Afghanistan, which has been secured until 2017, but needs to be confirmed for the following five years.

"This support will be crucial, because it will take some years for our economy to stand on its feet alone, organise a proper tax collection," he continued.

The trip is also seen as an important step toward mending relations between the US and Afghanistan, which deteriorated towards the end of former President Hamid Karzai`s ten-year rule.

"The first goal to achieve is the rehabilitation of the relationship with the USA. US-Afghanistan relations were tough during the past government," Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Abdullah told AFP. Since coming to power in September, Ghani has focused on improving relations with neighbouring Pakistan, a key partner in the peace process, which his predecessor had refused to do.

Pakistan has often been accused in the past of covertly supporting the Taliban to counter the influence of its rival India in Afghanistan. But Islamabad has insisted that is no longer the case, and that both countries have shared goals.

"President Ghani is trying to establish a peace process, trying to begin talks... He recognises that in order for that to happen it will be important to have a new relationship with Pakistan and to build closer ties with China, Saudi Arabia, and to some extent the United Arab Emirates," said the Western diplomatic source.

"We have addressed Pakistani concerns by leading operations in eastern Afghanistan that disrupted the Pakistani Taliban," added the senior Afghan official.

"In return, we are expecting Islamabad to hold on its promises to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table with our government. We are hopeful -- and more now than in recent years because Pakistan has signalled a stronger interest in committing to peace in the region -- but are still waiting to see concrete progress on this issue."

According to a Pakistani official who asked not to be named, representatives of the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban have recently met in Pakistan.

The two sides agreed to "form committees that will meet to discuss the way forward", the source said.

Officially, however, Kabul continues to deny that dialogue has formally begun.

"So far we have been able to pave the ground for peace, we are at the very initial stages, we hope we will start negotiations in the future, but till this moment the negotiations have not began," Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani told parliament Wednesday.

He also assured lawmakers his government "will not compromise the achievements of the last 13 years for peace", especially over the issue of women`s rights.

The growing role of China in the peace process has also added a new dimension.

"We welcome the support of China," spokesman Faisal told AFP, without confirming whether Beijing had met with Taliban leaders, rumours that have been reported by local media.

For their part, the Taliban continue to impose their own tough conditions, including the absence of any foreign troops on Afghan soil, as a precondition to negotiations.

In addition to the peace talks, the issue of revising the US troop withdrawal schedule is also set to be discussed.

The United States was due to reduce its 10,000 troops to 5,500 by December, but that number is expected to be reassessed.

Growing concern over the influence of the Islamic State group will also be on the agenda. The Middle East-based group has not formally confirmed it is operating out of Afghanistan, though Pakistani and Afghan commanders have pledged their allegiance to the outfit in recent months.

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