World leaders agree on Afghan timetable and funding

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EUObserver: World leaders meeting in London on Thursday agreed to start handing over security duties to Afghan forces in early 2011 and finish the process within five years, while also pledging funds to persuade Taliban groups to renounce violence.

The London conference was a “decisive step towards greater Afghan leadership to secure, stabilise and develop Afghanistan,” leaders from 70 countries participating in the event said in their final communique.

The conference was called to help Nato allies chart a roadmap out of Afghanistan amid rising casualties and falling public support in what is now the alliance’s flagship mission. The military intervention in Afghanistan started in 2002, in response to the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. It succeeded in ousting the Taliban from power, but not the insurgency, which has now spilled over to Pakistan and has seen growing attacks on Kabul and in areas which had been secure in the past.

Washington plans to start withdrawing American troops next July in case the current “surge” of 30,000 soldiers does not prove successful. By August, the total number of Western troops will have reached more than 100,000.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, warned against a hasty withdrawal and said his country still needed financial support for its army for another 10-15 years.

He outlined plans to re-integrate Taliban willing to “cut ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and pursue their political goals peacefully.”

His promises to crack down on corruption were welcomed, but his credibility is still dented by cronyism and nepotism charges surrounding his own circle of power.

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

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the international community still backed Mr Karzai but wanted him to deliver on his promises. “He knows what we have in terms of expectations and we have to make sure we deliver for him,” she told In The News.

International allies have said they will pledge at least €350 million for the reconciliation fund. The London meeting encouraged contributions to the fund, which has so far gathered below €80 million, but gave no firm figure.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said Washington would back it if insurgents pledged to renounce violence and embrace democracy. “The US military has been authorized to use substantial funds to support the effort,” she said.

Meanwhile, news broke that the United Nations had held exploratory peace talks with Taliban commanders three weeks ago, bolstering the reconciliation track set out by Mr Karzai.

“The solution to a war is always to talk to your enemies, unless one party triumphs. That is not the case here,” said French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, as quoted by the Guardian.

Encouraging signs emerged when Taliban regional commanders asked UN special envoy Kai Eide to give safety guarantees if they laid down their arms. But Mr Eide was cautious in sounding too optimistic.

“The re-integration process is important, but it has to be accompanied by political reconciliation” the UN envoy said at the end of the London conference.