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US to Attend Shanghai Group Meeting on Afghanistan


The State Department confirmed Thursday it is sending a senior diplomat to a Moscow conference on Afghanistan next week of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran will also attend the meeting and U.S. officials do not rule out interaction with Iranian officials.  

The Shanghai group, made up of Russia, China and four Central Asian states, was founded in 2001 and has been widely viewed as a vehicle aimed at countering U.S. influence in the region.

Thus the invitation for the United States to attend the Moscow gathering next week, among several other non-member countries, is being seen as a conciliatory gesture toward the new U.S. administration.

At a news briefing, State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood said the United States will be represented at the March 27 meeting by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon.

Wood said the United States welcomes the opportunity to join Shanghai group members in a conversation about how to stabilize the Afghan situation.

"The reason why we think it is important to go to this conference is because it is about Afghanistan and how the international community can try to better the situation on the ground, to better coordinate our activities, see what types of things we can do together to make things better for the people of Afghanistan," said Robert Wood. "So we view it as important, even though we are not a member, we are not an observer, we were invited and look forward to attending and hopefully we can get something constructive out of this."

In addition to Russia and China, the Shanghai group includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  Iran has permanent observer status along with India, Pakistan and Mongolia.  Afghanistan will attend as part of a contact group with the organization.

In 2005, the United States sought, but was denied observer status in the Shanghai group, which has been critical of U.S. military operations in Central Asia.

The Wall Street Journal, which reported on U.S. plans to take part in the Moscow meeting, said it would set the stage for the first direct encounter between U.S. and Iranian officials under the Obama administration, which says it wants dialogue with Tehran.

Spokesman Wood said there were no plans for a specific meeting but said U.S.-Iranian interaction could nonetheless occur:

"There are no plans for any substantive meetings with Iran," he said. "It is not unusual for U.S. and Iranian officials to cross paths during a multi-lateral meeting.  So I am not going to rule anything in, or anything out. It is a conference about Afghanistan and its neighbors.  Iran is certainly a neighbor of Afghanistan.  And so we will see.  But as I said there are no planned substantive meetings with the Iranians."

The Moscow meeting is a prelude to a U.N.-organized international conference on Afghanistan, co-hosted by the Afghan government and the Netherlands, at the Hague March 31.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend that meeting and there is also expected to be high-level Iranian participation.

US Preparing Possible 'Surge' in Afghanistan

By Barry Newhouse, VOA, Islamabad

U.S. officials are considering several new strategies to try to reduce violence in Afghanistan and strengthen the country's government. plans include more diplomatic outreach as well as proposals for further expanding military strikes into Pakistan.  

While Iran regularly holds talks with Pakistani and Afghan leaders, it has not participated in discussions with the United States on the war in Afghanistan.

That could change on March 31, if Tehran accepts an invitation to join an international summit at The Hague.

Iran's Ambassador to Pakistan, Mashallah Shakiri, told reporters in Islamabad that his country is committed to being part of the solution in Afghanistan.  

"So far, at this date and time, I have no information if we have received any formal invitation from the organizers of that Hague summit," he said. "But if we receive that formal invitation, we would consider that positively."

Afghan officials have welcomed the idea of including Iran in the talks as well as U.S. proposals to speak with willing Taliban factions. But there is also strong interest in attacking Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. 

"As we always have said Afghanistan is a victim of terrorism, but the sources of the terrorists and their sanctuaries are on the other side of the border," said Sultan Ahmad Bahen, a spokesman for the Afghan foreign ministry.

For more than eight years, U.S. drone aircraft have fired missiles at scores of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan's volatile tribal region.

All of the strikes have occurred in areas where Pakistan's military exerts little, if any control. And while the attacks have sparked public outrage and denunciations from officials, they are widely believed to have the consent of the Pakistani government.

There is also evidence they have grown more accurate in recent years. The New York T'mes
reports U.S. officials say they have killed nine of al-Qaida's 20 top leaders.

"It sends a very strong message to the local population that if you have dangerous guests, be prepared for very bad consequences," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political analyst and professor at Lahore University. "That is also the reason that some of these al-Qaida functionaries may have been kicked out of that region to other areas of Pakistan."

The New York Times reports some Taliban and al-Qaida leaders have fled south from the tribal regions to Baluchistan - Pakistan's largest and least populated province.  

Some of them are believed to have moved to the provincial capital Quetta, where Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his top deputies are thought to have lived since fleeing Afghanistan.  

Pakistani officials have reacted cautiously to suggestions the United States may expand drone attacks to Baluchistan. 

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters he continues to believe the disadvantages of the strikes outweigh the advantages.

"We have to convince them on the disadvantages. How it can be counterproductive," he said. "And at the same time improve our capacity for dealing with the insurgency and militancy."

Professor Rais says if Taliban and al-Qaida militants have relocated to Baluchistan, it could be a sign of desperation. He says the region's Baluch people have important ethnic and cultural differences from Pashtuns in the tribal belt that make them less willing to harbor militants. 

Professor Rais says expanding missile strikes also holds great risks for the already shaky Pakistani government, further weakened by this week's political battle over the judiciary.

... Payvand News - 03/20/09 ... --

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