The issue is Afghanistan's future -- and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has clear ideas about who should lend a hand in its reconstruction. Shortly before arriving at a regional conference in Kabul on Thursday morning, Westerwelle called for greater Russian and Chinese involvement in the Hindu Kush.
Westerwelle will join the foreign ministers of about 15 neighboring states as well as other partner nations at the international meeting. There, they will discuss support for Afghanistan, both now and after the planned withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014.
For the first time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is also at the table, as is a deputy Chinese foreign minister. Neighboring Pakistan and Iran are also represented, and Saudi Arabia has sent an official delegate.
For some time now, Westerwelle has been trying to get China, in particular, to assume a greater role in rebuilding Afghanistan and financially supporting its military after the NATO withdrawal for a period of time.
"It's good that China and Russia will be there," Westerwelle told SPIEGEL ONLINE on the flight to Kabul.
Westerwelle believes both countries have an interest in Afghanistan's stability and that they "should also assume some responsibility for that." In Kabul, he also hopes to meet privately with his Russian counterpart, Lavrov.
Westerwelle left Berlin Wednesday evening shortly after Germany's soccer team defeated the Netherlands 2:1 in their group-stage match of the 2012 European Football Championship. From neighboring Uzbekistan, he then took a military plane to Kabul, where he arrived Thursday morning. For security reasons, Westerwelle's trip and attendance at the conference had been kept secret in advance.
Westerwelle will be joined at the meeting by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. For the German government, strengthening regional collaboration is key to stability in Afghanistan and the entire region, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said before arriving in Kabul.
Still, cooperation among Afghanistan's neighbors is not easy. Pakistan and Iran usually pursue only their own interests, and Afghanistan has been the historical stomping ground for their power struggles and proxy wars. Likewise, it is considered an open secret that Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency has continued to support the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to safeguard Pakistani claims to power in the country -- the so-called "strategic depth" -- after the NATO withdrawal. It is equally clear that senior insurgency leaders continue to operate relatively undisturbed in Quetta and other parts of Pakistan.
Focus on China and Russia
The calls on Russia and China provide evidence of a certain degree of frustration among NATO countries. For several years now, the Chinese have been doing excellent business in Afghanistan, whether with their major road-building projects or mining for raw materials, such as copper and so-called rare earths. However, Beijing has continued to show little interest in helping Western nations rebuild Afghanistan or train local security forces.
At the NATO summit held in Chicago in May, there were calls for China -- as a beneficiary of the gradually stabilizing situation in Afghanistan -- to contribute to a fund to pay the local army and police for some time after 2014.
The conference in Kabul, which is taking place under heavy security, is not expected to produce any concrete results on these or other issues. Instead, the foreign ministers and delegates are more focused on agreeing to so-called confidence-building measures between Afghanistan and its neighbors and regional partners, such as the establishment of bilateral chambers of commerce. For its part, Iran -- which the West views as one of Afghanistan's most difficult neighbors -- wants to launch an education project in the country. But it's unlike that the conference will produce more than declarations of intent.
In the Shadow of Syria
The meeting will be overshadowed by the escalating conflict in Syria. Westerwelle and his Western colleagues want to use the opportunity in Kabul to appeal to their Russian counterpart, Lavrov. He has reportedly eased his strong opposition to further sanctions against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Lavrov also recently proposed holding a conference on Syria in Moscow, and he might offer the first details about it during the meeting in Kabul.
Westerwelle also wants to discuss the situation in Syria with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, as Iran is considered one of the last remaining supporters of the beleaguered Assad regime.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH