G8 focus on stabilising Afghanistan, Pakistan

TRIESTE: The Group of Eight leading powers turned their attention Saturday to stabilising Afghanistan and Pakistan in talks aimed at shoring up faltering efforts with some 30 regional players.

With two months to go before presidential elections, Afghanistan is battling a Taliban insurgency and has been flooded with massive waves of Pakistani refugees fleeing an army offensive in the Swat valley.

G8 foreign ministers said in a joint statement that they were "firmly committed" to supporting Afghanistan and Pakistan as "they confront grave security, humanitarian, counter-narcotics, terrorism and economic challenges."

The foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan joined their counterparts from Central Asia, officials from aid organisations and the G8, but key player Iran decided to stay away amid turmoil at home over its contested election.

Talks focussed on countering drug trafficking by strengthening border security in Afghanistan, which produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, most of it grown in the troubled southern Helmand province.

Most of the opium is converted into heroin inside the country before being trafficked mainly to Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

The US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who was taking part in the talks, said earlier this week that the United States was winding down efforts to destroy poppy crops.

"Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars we've spent on crop eradication has not done any damage to the Taliban. On the contrary, it's helped them recruit," Holbrooke said in Washington.

During a separate meeting with the G8 on Friday, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan acknowledged that drug trafficking "remains a significant financial source for extremists" and called for more cooperation to combat the illicit trade.

"Insurgency and terrorist activities, narcotics trafficking, corruption, human rights violations and limited economic opportunities need to be tackled with resolve wherever they appear," they said in a statement.

Turning to the August 20 elections that are expected to hand victory to President Hamid Karzai, the Afghanistan-Pakistan international support group called for measures to ensure that state resources were not used in the campaign.

"The Group emphasized the importance of credible, inclusive and secure elections that reflect the will of the Afghan people," said a statement from the group of 20 countries and organisations.

The United States and European allies have pledged thousands of extra troops to ensure security on polling day and are providing funds for the vote, the second-ever presidential ballot in the country ruined by decades of war.

G8 members Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Germany and the United States all have troops serving in Afghanistan where the Taliban insurency rages on, nearly eight years after the Islamic militia was ousted from Kabul.

Taliban militants stormed a police checkpoint overnight and killed eight policemen in Helmand province where a large continent of the 90,000-strong international force is mobilised.