Afghanistan conference agrees on exit timetable

LONDON — World leaders meeting today in London agreed on a timetable for the handover of security duties in Afghan provinces starting in late 2010 or early 2011.

In their final communique, the leaders also pledged funds for a plan aimed at persuading Taliban fighters to renounce violence — but offered no specific figures.

The meeting backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plan to reintegrate Taliban willing to “cut ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and pursue their political goals peacefully.”

It said handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces in the country’s more peaceful provinces would begin “by late 2010/early 2011,” with the Afghan National Army “conducting the majority of operations in the insecure areas of Afghanistan within three years.”

The conference was called to help world powers chart a roadmap out of Afghanistan amid rising U.S. and NATO casualties and falling public support.

The 70 nations welcomed Karzai’s promise to crack down on corruption and said a summit in Kabul later this year would offer specific plans to bolster his faltering government.

The text said discussions marked a “decisive step towards greater Afghan leadership to secure, stabilize and develop Afghanistan.”

Karzai warned, however, he expected foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan for years to come.

“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.”

International allies have said they will pledge at least $500 million for the reconciliation fund — officially known as the Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund, and dubbed the “Taliban Trust Fund” by some.

Today’s summit encouraged more contributions but gave no firm figure. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would back it if insurgents pledge to eschew violence, renounce ties to al-Qaida and embrace democracy after more than eight years of combat.

Clinton said the “U.S. military has been authorized to use substantial funds to support the effort.”

Taliban fighters have been taking over wider swathes of the country and successfully attacked the center of Kabul, power base of the feeble central government led by Karzai. Al-Qaida leaders have regrouped near the Pakistan-Afghan border.

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.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown opened the one-day talks at a grand Georgian town house in central London by saying they would endorse plans for Afghanistan to increase its military to 171,600 by October 2011, and boost police numbers to 134,000 by the same date.

“By the middle of next year, we have to turn the tide,” Brown said.

In return for its support, the conference laid out a series of anti-corruption moves by Karzai, who is tainted by a fraud-marred election victory and a failure to expand his government’s power much beyond the capital.

Measures include an independent office “to investigate and sanction corrupt officials,” to be set up within a month.

Afghan and foreign experts will join an anti-corruption monitoring team that will make its first visit within three months.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the international community still backed Karzai — but also wanted him to deliver on his promises.

“We have expectations for him,” she told The Associated Press. “But we also have high hopes for him.”

The Taliban have dismissed his reconciliation plan, saying in a statement posted to their Web site Wednesday that their fighters wouldn’t be swayed by financial incentives.

Karzai said the plan needed particular support from Afghanistan’s neighbors — especially Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which worked together to facilitate the rise of the radical Islamic movement in the 1990s. They, along with the United Arab Emirates, were the only countries to recognize Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

“We hope that his majesty (Saudi) King Adbullah will kindly take a prominent role to guide and assist the peace process,” Karzai said.

The Afghan chief said he would convene a peace jirga — or conference — to discuss the proposals and would reach out to low-level Taliban and “our disenchanted brothers who are not part of al-Qaida or other terrorist networks.”

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