KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani confirmed on Monday that he would travel to Pakistan for a regional conference on Afghanistan, in a sign of fresh efforts to reduce tension between the two neighboring countries.
The Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad, previously held in Turkey, Kazakhstan and China, is seen as a chance to lay the basis for a resumption of an Afghan peace process broken off in July, although Afghan officials caution that obstacles remain.
“This is not Pakistan’s conference, this is Afghanistan’s conference,” Ghani, who had not previously confirmed his attendance, told reporters at a news conference in Kabul.
Referring to recent reports that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour had died in a gunfight with other Taliban commanders, a development likely to further complicate any fresh peace talks, Ghani said there was no evidence to prove he had been killed.
Afghanistan has long harbored deep suspicion of Pakistan, accusing it of sponsoring the Taliban insurgency in what Ghani has referred to as a 14-year long “undeclared war” between the two countries.
Under pressure from his ally the United States, Ghani has stepped up efforts to improve relations, although they received a setback when peace talks with the Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan, broke down in July.
“Peace must be made between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The relations of two states are not relations between two youngsters - to be friends for an hour and then don’t talk to each the next hour,” Ghani said.
Speaking in Kabul on Sunday, newly appointed U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson, urged the two countries to work together.
“We appreciate the outreach that President Ghani has undertaken since becoming president to improve relations with Pakistan,” he said.
“We have always encouraged the best possible relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially in the context of an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led reconciliation process.”
Pakistan is suspicious of the influence of its old rival India in Afghanistan. Afghan officials suspect Pakistan sees the Taliban as a tool for keeping Afghanistan in turmoil and preventing India from consolidating a presence there.
Pakistan, battling home-grown militants, denies backing the Taliban and says it wants to see a stable Afghanistan.
An Indian government representative is also due to attend the talks in Islamabad.
Reporting by James Mackenzie and Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Robert Birsel