BRUSSELS - NATO foreign ministers were set Tuesday to discuss the way ahead in Afghanistan after international combat troops withdraw in 2014, with hopes high that tensions with neighbouring Pakistan may be smoothed over during a special meeting.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was expected in Brussels to take part in the meeting on Wednesday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and top Pakistani officials, including army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Karzai and other Afghan officials have become increasingly aggressive in criticizing Pakistan, repeatedly accusing it of trying to scuttle a possible peace process. The two sides have also traded accusations over the actions of Taliban insurgents.
Tensions were further fuelled last week because of a new Pakistani gate on the eastern border of Afghanistan.
A "positive engagement" by Pakistan and other neighbours is crucial "to ensure long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen noted Tuesday. He said he hopes that the trilateral talks will "facilitate such engagement."
"We're going to ... try to talk about how we can advance this process in the simplest, most cooperative, most cogent way so that we wind up with both Pakistan's and Afghanistan's interests being satisfied," Kerry said at a Brussels event on Monday evening.
"This is the year of transition. This is the critical year in Afghanistan," he added.
The NATO ministers were due to focus on the planning for the alliance's successor training mission in the country, codenamed Resolute Support.
"I expect we will endorse efforts to develop appropriate, coherent and effective funding for the Afghan forces after 2014," Rasmussen noted. "This will send a clear message of our commitment."
But "more detailed decisions" are expected only later in the year, he noted. The mission is for instance conditional on a status-of-forces agreement being agreed with Afghan authorities.
"For us, it is important not to abandon Afghanistan in the years after the combat troops have withdrawn," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. "If we leave a vacuum in Afghanistan, the danger is big that a safe haven, a refuge for terrorism will grow."
Also on the ministers' agenda are NATO plans for a European missile defence shield, which have caused tensions with Russia. The country's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was set to join the talks.
It will be his first encounter with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who took up his post in February.
Shortly after, the US announced that it would drop the last phase of the NATO missile defence project in Europe to help finance the deployment of new missiles in Alaska to guard against the growing North Korean threat.
Some observers had hoped that this would mollify Moscow, which has steadfastly opposed the plans for the shield over concerns that it could also be used to shoot down Russian missiles.
But Rasmussen said he doesn't expect "a breakthrough."
The issue of North Korea is also expected to be raised during the meeting with Lavrov. Westerwelle underlined the need for a joint de-escalation call by the international community - "not just the West, but explicitly also from Russia, and from China too."
Tensions have steadily mounted between North Korea and neighbouring South Korea since the pariah state conducted a third nuclear test in February, leading the UN to impose tougher sanctions.
North Korea's "provocative actions and threatening statements ... remain a serious challenge for regional and international stability and security," Rasmussen said.