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Afghanistan Conference Agrees On Exit Timetable, Backs Karzai's Taliban Plan

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LONDON — Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned Thursday that foreign troops must stay in his country for another decade, as world powers agreed on an exit map including a plan to persuade Taliban fighters to disarm in exchange for jobs and homes.

Divisions emerged between the U.S. and its partners over Kabul's willingness to offer peace to Taliban leaders who once harbored al-Qaida, instead of the more limited deal for lower-ranking fighters emphasized by the Americans.

All agree that reconciliation means bringing on board what Mark Sedwill, NATO's newly appointed civilian chief in Afghanistan, called "some pretty unsavory characters."

The conference was called to help the U.S. and its allies find a way out of the grinding Afghan war amid rising U.S. and NATO casualties and falling public support. NATO has agreed to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces and gradually transfer more combat responsibility to them.

"With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years will be enough," Karzai told the BBC. "With regard to sustaining them until Afghanistan is financially able to provide for our forces, the time will be extended to 10 to 15 years."

The 70 nations and international organizations backed Karzai's plan to reintegrate Taliban willing to "cut ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and pursue their political goals peacefully."

Karzai said neighboring Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – which worked together to facilitate the rise of the radical Islamic movement in the 1990s – would play a key role in the reintegration process.

The Afghan leader will convene a peace jirga – or conference – within weeks to involve Afghan leaders, members of civil society groups and clerics, Afghanistan's outgoing foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said.

"The starting premise is you don't make peace with your friends," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency."

But U.S. officials balk at talk of a future Afghan government that includes allies of Mullah Mohammed Omar – the Afghan Taliban leader who refused to hand over Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. His refusal led to the Afghan war.

U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke said the peace plan should focus on low-ranking Taliban fighters motivated by money, not ideology – rather than on the leadership. "That is not on the agenda here. There is nothing happening on it involving the United States," Holbrooke told reporters.

Holbrooke said the Taliban's renunciation of al-Qaida was a "red line" for the United States.

"We are in Afghanistan because of Sept. 11, 2001," he told reporters before the conference. "We cannot stop until we have dismantled their network."

However, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Associated Press in an interview that he could eventually see members of the Taliban serving in Karzai's government, provided they accept the rule of law. "If they do, I don't see any obstacle to their integration in Afghan society and Afghan democracy," he said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner agreed. "If there's a coalition, maybe there'll be a minister" from the Taliban, he said. "It's not for us to decide."

International allies Thursday pledged $140 million toward the first year's work of Karzai's reconciliation program, though the final figure is expected to be much higher, officials said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the money pool – dubbed the "Taliban Trust Fund" by some – is likely to top $500 million over three years.

However, skeptics believe desperately poor Afghanistan will struggle to find homes and jobs for thousands of former fighters in an economy driven by international aid and opium poppy cultivation.

"It's especially challenging because the country's been at war for so long and historically has not known a powerful or effective state," said Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's not a matter of rebuilding, it's a matter of building from scratch."

Taliban fighters have been taking over wider swathes of the country and attacked the capital, Kabul.

The United States and its NATO allies are sending 37,000 more troops in a bid to blunt the Taliban's military momentum, but President Barack Obama has said he plans to start withdrawing some U.S. troops by July 2011.

The Taliban dismissed Karzai's reconciliation plan, saying in a statement posted to their Web site Wednesday that their fighters wouldn't be swayed by financial incentives and will continue fighting until foreign troops leave.

In a final communique, the conference said handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces in more peaceful provinces would begin "by late 2010/early 2011."

Under the plans, the Afghan National Army would take responsibility of half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces within three years and assume control of the entire country within five years.

In return for its support, the conference laid out a series of demands to combat corruption, which has undercut support for Karzai among the Afghan people.

An independent audit panel will investigate corrupt officials, while Afghan and foreign experts will join an anti-corruption monitoring team.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Raphael G. Satter and Chelsea Arnold in London, and John Heilprin in New York contributed to this report.

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