NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers walk with Afghan villagers in Baghlan province
Iran on Thursday warned a key international conference that a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan would fan regional insecurity and could plunge the war-torn country back into further chaos.
Representatives from 29 countries gathered in Kabul for the conference, weeks after NATO agreed at a summit in Chicago to stick to plans to withdraw the bulk of 130,000 foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The Taliban militia leading a 10-year insurgency against President Hamid Karzai's government has begun the annual fighting season with a series of attacks which saw US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admit that violence was rising.
Karzai sought to reassure neighbours that strategic partnership deals signed by Kabul with several Western powers -- particularly the United States -- to govern relations beyond 2014, would not damage ties.
But the foreign minister of Iran, an enemy of the United States that welcomes NATO's departure from its eastern border, alluded to the Kabul-Washington pact by saying it added to security concerns among Afghanistan's neighbours.
"A particular country intends to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan in pursuit of its extra regional objectives. This certainly adds to the security concerns of Afghanistan's neighbouring countries," said Ali Akbar Salehi.
The strategic partnership deal and efforts to establish foreign military bases in Afghanistan ran against regional and international moves to achieve peace, and "could turn this country once again into scene of security rivalries" he said.
Afghanistan has long been a focus of imperial rivalry and scene of foreign intervention, most recently since the 2001 US-led invasion but also in the 1980s uprising against Russian troops that ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union.
Washington denies it is seeking to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan, but American military sources say they envisage around 15,000 forces remaining in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal.
Last month, Karzai warned that tough talks with Washington lay ahead over a security pact that would address the US presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, including the crucial issue of the legal status of foreign troops.
At the one-day conference, he asked neighbouring and international powers to invest in economic growth and peace in his impoverished country.
He also called on Pakistan, one of the historic sponsors of the Taliban, directly to support nascent efforts to end the 10-year war in Afghanistan.
"Support from these global powers and our neighbours is very important to Afghanistan and to the continued progress of Afghanistan towards stability and economic development," Karzai told delegates.
Karzai is keen to broker a peace deal with the Taliban, but the militants publicly refuse to talk to his government. Earlier this year, it also announced that it had pulled the plug on nascent contacts with the Americans in Qatar.
Karzai said the head of the Afghan High Peace Council would soon visit Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but gave no dates, and urged Islamabad to support peace efforts.
Afghanistan's relations with Pakistan have been clouded by mutual blame for Islamist violence plaguing both countries.
Karzai has consistently called on Pakistan to demolish terror sanctuaries in its semi-autonomous tribal belt.
Last week, Panetta also warned that the United States was running out of patience with Pakistan for not eliminating safe-havens of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network and other militants who attack US troops.
Islamabad denies any support for Haqqani activities and says it is doing everything possible to fight terrorism, saying no country has suffered more.
British Foreign Minister William Hague said he would use talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the conference to press Moscow to use its influence to rein in the Syrian regime.
Monitors say more than 14,100 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Moscow, long an ally of Damascus, has refused to halt weapons sales.
The next talks on Afghanistan will be in Tokyo next month and will focus on ways to ensure social progress -- governance, economic prospects, health and education.