Brussels: Regional powers have agreed to try to revive Afghanistan`s stalled peace process after almost 40 years of conflict, the EU`s foreign policy chief said on Wednesday, as the West sought to raise some USD 13 billion to fund the country through 2020.
Facing a resurgent Taliban 15 years after US forces helped drive the militant group from Kabul, more than 70 governments in Brussels promised more financial support, in tandem with NATO`s ongoing military backing.
While a multi-billion-dollar annual donor pledge looked beyond doubt, diplomats said, the European Union took on the more complex challenge of seeking a negotiated peace, bringing together the United States, China, India, and Pakistan at a dinner on Tuesday night.
Federica Mogherini, who coordinates EU foreign policy, said there was an understanding "to work on a common basis for regional political support for the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan."
"Yesterday night we found common ground to support this process with a regional perspective and the European Union will try to facilitate this," Mogherini said.
There have been several attempts in recent years to broker a settlement between the Western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban, but all have failed. Without the militants at the table, experts say it is hard to envisage a meaningful solution.
Two people briefed on the dinner, attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-moon among others, told Reuters that Chinese and Indian officials were willing to consider peace talks.
"There are several countries that actually can help come together, and I urge Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Iran to think about the special role that they could play in this region in order to make a major difference ... in reaching peace with the Taliban," Kerry told the donor conference on Wednesday.
WOULD TALIBAN TAKE PART?
But there remain divisions about if, or when, to include Taliban militants. Even if they were invited, it is unclear whether the movement would take part.
Hope was briefly raised in 2015 when Taliban officials met the Afghan government in neighbouring Pakistan, but that process was shortlived, and the Taliban, under their second new leader in just over a year, insist that foreign forces must leave Afghanistan before peace talks can begin.
They are also on the offensive, and battlefield successes have exposed the defensive limits of Afghanistan`s NATO-trained armed forces which are supposed to number 350,000 personnel but which have been heavily depleted by casualties and desertion.
Militants briefly penetrated the centre of the northern city of Kunduz on Monday, and they are also testing the defences of two other provincial capitals in the south of the country.
U.S. and EU officials have been encouraged by a smaller peace agreement last month between the Afghan government and a local warlord.
But Pakistan continues to harbour Afghan Taliban, according to the United States and India.
Traditionally tense relations between Pakistan and India are also a factor, and one Indian diplomat said New Delhi was not yet convinced the Taliban had changed since 2001, judging by the way they ruled the 10 percent of Afghan territory under their control.
Iran and Russia, two power brokers on the opposing sides of Syria`s civil war, must also be involved, diplomats said.
"We are not running away from peace talks, but what evidence is there that the Taliban have abandoned their violent ways?" said the Indian diplomat. "We need a peace deal that doesn`t run away from reality."