Bonn conference pledges long-term help for Afghanistan
A major conference on Afghanistan's future after NATO combat troops leave in 2014 pledged sustained support for another decade Monday, after a plea by President Hamid Karzai for his war-ravaged country.
Participants including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon vowed to stand by Afghanistan as it struggles to establish security and stability.
Karzai told around 1,000 delegates gathered in the western German city of Bonn for the one-day meeting that his government would battle corruption and work toward national reconciliation but it needed firm international backing.
"We will need your steadfast support for at least another decade" after the troops pull out, he said.
The meeting came 10 years after another conference here put an interim Afghan government under Karzai in place after US-led troops ousted the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
However, Pakistan and the Taliban -- both seen as pivotal to any end to the bloody strife in Afghanistan a decade on -- decided to stay away from Bonn, dampening already modest hopes for real progress.
Some 140,000 international troops are in Afghanistan, and all NATO-led combat forces are due to leave by the end of 2014, when Kabul will assume responsibility for the country's security.
The event's host, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, insisted there would be no rush to the exit.
"We send a clear message to the people of Afghanistan: we will not leave you alone, you will not be abandoned," he said, pledging help in comments echoed by Merkel in a brief address.
Clinton announced the United States was ending a freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars in development funds due to financial reforms by Kabul.
Officials said Washington took its cue from the International Monetary Fund's decision last month to approve a new loan for Afghanistan after a year of difficult talks stalled by the massive Kabul Bank scandal.
Rage over an air strike late last month by NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers led Islamabad to snub the gathering.
US President Barack Obama called Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari Sunday to express his regrets over the "tragic loss", saying the casualties were not intentional, but Islamabad remained unmoved.
Clinton lamented the boycott in her speech to the conference.
"The entire region has a stake in Afghanistan's future and much to lose if the country again becomes a source of terrorism and instability -- and that is why we would of course have benefited from Pakistan's contribution to this conference," she said.
"We continue to believe that Pakistan has a crucial role to play," she told reporters later, adding that she was encouraged by remarks by a Pakistani government official that it will continue cooperation, including in the fight against terrorism.
The Taliban, leaders of the country's brutal, decade-long insurgency, have also stayed away, saying the meeting will "further ensnare Afghanistan into the flames of occupation".
National reconciliation, along with the transition to Afghan sovereignty and international engagement after 2014, had originally topped the conference's agenda.
But such hopes soured after tentative contacts collapsed and the September assassination of Karzai's peace envoy, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, which was blamed on the Taliban, derailed any prospects of progress.
Karzai insisted he remained open to talks.
"The political process will continue to be inclusive, open to Taliban and other militants who denounce violence, break ties with international terrorism, accept the Afghan constitution and defend peaceful life," he said.
The delegations spent the afternoon thrashing out the conference's written conclusions, which are expected to map out "mutual credible commitments" by Afghanistan and the international community after 2014.
Diplomats say Western countries in particular seek to allay Kabul's fears that a looming global recession will distract them from the enormous challenges facing the strife-wracked nation, in return for commitments on fighting corruption and good governance.
Suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices and other attacks already kill hundreds of civilians every year, and many Afghans worry that security will worsen after 2014, or even that civil war could reignite.
Meanwhile daily Bild reported citing German intelligence documents that Karzai was seeking constitutional changes to remain in power after his second and by law final term ends in 2014.
© 2011 AFP