Pakistan, Afghanistan seek to overcome strains as peace drive continues
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan called on Thursday for stronger trade relations with Afghanistan and more cooperation on regional security as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Islamabad, pledging renewed effort to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.
The visit comes amid a series of meetings among regional countries and talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban on a withdrawal of foreign troops and a political settlement between the Kabul government and the insurgent movement.
Ghani was welcomed by a 21-gun salute, but relations between the two countries have long been strained. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of supporting the Taliban, a charge Pakistan denies, saying it has suffered heavily from the fighting.
The United States has also pressed Islamabad to do more to curb militant groups based in its territory, most recently on Wednesday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Pakistan could not support "cross-border terror".
Pakistan insists it wants to help the Afghan peace process, and last week it hosted a meeting of senior Afghan politicians and members of the Taliban as part of an intra-Afghan dialogue.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a statement Pakistan wanted a "qualitative transformation in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations" and repeated Pakistan's support for an "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process".
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Ghani his visit should prompt a a new chapter in bilateral relations, saying: "Let this visit of yours be a watershed."
Similar declarations have been made repeatedly over the years, then followed by renewed episodes of mistrust, but both countries are aware their struggling economies cannot afford permanent hostility.
As well as the peace process, the two have joined moves to increase transport and energy connectivity projects, including the Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission line and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.
"The two leaders agreed that enduring peace in Afghanistan would bring rich economic dividends to both the countries," Khan's office said in a statement.
Ghani's visit came shortly before talks are expected to resume between U.S. officials and the Taliban in Doha. The talks are aimed at agreeing a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops and guarantees that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant groups.
However, the Kabul government has so far been shut out of the peace process by the Taliban's refusal to talk to what it considers an illegitimate "puppet" regime appointed by foreign powers.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie, editing by Larry King)