'Big tent' Afghan meet looks to build on new US strategy

30th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

The "big tent" meeting in The Hague coincides with a new US strategy to overcome the Taliban.

Brussels -- Senior officials and organisations from around the world will seek Tuesday to add new momentum to efforts to combat the insurgency in Afghanistan as attempts to spread democracy and rebuild falter.

The "big tent" meeting in The Hague coincides with a new US strategy to overcome the Taliban, more than seven years after they were ousted from power for harbouring Osama bin Laden and members of his Al-Qaeda network.

Unveiling the plan Friday, President Barack Obama warned Al-Qaeda was a "cancer" that could devour nuclear-armed Pakistan, as he unveiled a sweeping new strategy for the "increasingly perilous" Afghan war.

The conference, to be opened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and hosted by the Netherlands, the United Nations and Afghanistan, aims to build on the US plan which has Pakistan -- a new haven for Al-Qaeda -- at its epicentre.

In a diplomatic coup, Iran will take part along with representatives of almost 90 nations, groups and observers but no meeting is announced with the US delegation, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The source of 90 percent of the world's heroin and a breeding ground for militants, Afghanistan poses a thorny problem particularly for Iran, as well as other neighbours, with its opium production and asylum seekers.

While the United States has urged nations unable to provide more troops to send civilian experts -- in the farm, health and education sectors -- police trainers and aid, the gathering is not aimed at collecting funds.

"This meeting will not be a pledging conference," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said in an invitation letter, although EU officials say they may announce funding for pivotal Afghan elections in August.

"Rather, it should be a political manifestation of support, providing an all-inclusive platform for a review of the current state of affairs and future prospects."

The conference comes as public support for the NATO-led military operation in Afghanistan wanes, and as nations taking casualties in the south take aim at allies not doing their fair share of combat.

Indeed a Dutch official said it was aimed at fighting "Afghanistan fatigue".

As civilian casualties mount, ordinary Afghans are increasingly resentful of the foreign military presence and of President Hamid Karzai's inability to improve the economy and with it their livelihoods.

In recent weeks, world leaders have tried to impress upon their citizens why stability in Afghanistan remains vital.

Afghanistan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday, "was the base for the attacks of September 11, 2001. This was possible because there was no functioning state, and that was the reason for our engagement."

"It threatened our security, the members of NATO," said the leader of Germany, which has around 3,500 troops stationed in Afghanistan even as 58 percent of people want them brought home, according to a recent survey.

Obama's plan includes plunging in 4,000 more US troops and tripling US aid to Pakistan to 7.5 billion dollars over five years while sifting moderate Taliban from hard-core fighters and leading a global "civilian surge".

He has also set benchmarks for the United States, its allies and Pakistan.

In five years at the helm of NATO, Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has seen plans for beating the Taliban and their backers come and go, yet the insurgents have become stronger even as more foreign troops are sent in.

"I support all these ideas. They make sense. But we will have to ensure that we deliver on what we agree, which means coordinated action and more resources," he warned ahead of the meeting, and a NATO summit starting Friday.

Lorne Cook/AFP/Expatica

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