KABUL: President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday accused Pakistan of waging an ‘undeclared war of aggression’ against Afghanistan as he launched a so-called Kabul Process aiming to set the stage for peace talks and clinch an international pact to end ‘cross-border terrorism’.
Ghani also issued an ultimatum to the Taliban, warning them to ‘embrace peace’ or ‘face consequences’ as a suspected bomb outside a historic mosque in Herat killed at least seven people and wounded 15, the latest casualties in a particularly bloody week in Afghanistan.
Officials in the western city believe explosives were hidden in a motorcycle left in a parking area outside the Jama Masjid, a large mosque dating from the 12th century, known for its intricate blue tiles.
Abdul Ahad Walizada, spokesman for Herat police, said at least seven people were killed and 15 wounded as they made their way to the mosque for prayers.
A spokesman for the Taliban denied involvement in the attack which came after a spate of violence in the capital Kabul where on Wednesday more than 150 people were killed and hundreds wounded in a suicide truck-bomb attack.
Kabul to host peace summit after week of deadly violence
Several protesters were killed in clashes with police on Friday at the bomb site, and at least a dozen people were killed when suicide bombers attacked the funeral for one of the dead protesters on Saturday.
Afghan leaders, meanwhile, met officials from 23 nations as well as the European Union, the United Nations and Nato, as part of the Kabul Process.
After a week of violence that included the deadliest ever attack on the capital city, President Ashraf Ghani said the meeting would be more than a ceremonial effort.
But with domestic tension high, international plans in flux, and the insurgency as powerful as ever, starting any peace process may be an uphill battle.
Underscoring the volatile situation, at least one rocket struck an Indian diplomatic compound in Kabul, as the delegations met a few blocks away.
Speaking to the diplomats, Ghani said the attacks in Afghanistan were part of the violence that had struck foreign cities around the world, most recently London, where three militants drove a van into pedestrians on Saturday before attacking people with knives.
Kabul’s accusatory approach unhelpful for peace: FO
Afghanistan is on the front line of a global war against such violence, he said.
"We're fighting 20 transnational terrorist groups on your behalf," said Ghani. "What we need is an agreement on regional security."
Since the international military mission declared an end to its combat mission in 2014, the Taliban have made steady gains. As of late last year, the Taliban contested or controlled about 40 per cent of the country, according to US government estimates, leading some observers to doubt the group would be willing to negotiate any time soon.
Ghani said if the Taliban did not soon begin negotiations, he would seek new sanctions against the group as a sponsor of terrorism. "This is the last chance, take it or face the consequences," he said.
In the same breath, he said Afghanistan is suffering an “undeclared war of aggression from Pakistan”, asking, “What will it take to convince Pakistan that a stable Afghanistan helps them and helps our region?”
According to Tolo news agency, he added: “Our problem, our challenge, is that we cannot figure out what it is that Pakistan wants.”
Despite strained bilateral relations, Pakistan is participating in the conference, having sent a two-member Pakistani delegation headed by Additional Secretary UN and Economic Cooperation Tasneem Aslam.
Meanwhile, Kabul has been on edge since the massive truck bomb last Wednesday ripped through the city's highly fortified diplomatic quarter, home to the presidential palace and a host of foreign embassies.
The death toll has jumped to more than 150 people, while over 300 wounded were brought to hospitals, many with burns and amputations, Ghani told the conference.
"We are a nation of survivors. Terrorists can shed our blood but they cannot break our will," he said.
Officials had previously placed the death toll from the attack at 90. Ghani did not explain the dramatic jump but Afghan authorities have played down casualty figures in the past.
Ghani offered the Taliban the opportunity to open a representative office, adding that he was flexible about the location of future talks.
More US troops?
Ghani said Afghanistan had provided its preconditions for negotiations to the Taliban, but it remains unclear whether the group's leaders represented all factions.
A spokesman for the Taliban said he was not prepared to make immediate comment on the conference.
The militants have said no talks are possible until all foreign troops leave.
The last significant peace effort foundered in 2015 when news broke that long-time Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died.
The push for a new peace process comes as US President Donald Trump has yet to announce his plans for the region, with at least 8,400 American troops training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations. Another 6,000 foreign troops contribute to the advising mission.
US military commanders have proposed sending 3,000 to 5,000 more advisers to Afghanistan in a bid to break the ‘stalemate’.
US Charge d'Affaires Hugo Llorens, who is overseeing the American embassy as no new ambassador has been nominated by Trump, said the conference was a chance to send the message that "the enemies of Afghanistan cannot win".
"The conference will be a visible reminder to all those who seek to harm Afghanistan that the Afghan people are never alone, especially in the wake of last week's attack," Llorens said in a statement.
But some analysts were sceptical that the Kabul Process meetings would lead to peace talks.
"Signing mutual non-interference or anti-terror support agreements won't change anything," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, noting that similar accords had been signed in the past.