Muted hopes for major Afghanistan conference

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A major international conference here Monday will seek a way forward for Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO combat troops in 2014 but the boycott of two crucial players has dampened hopes of success.

The one-day gathering brings around 100 national delegations and aid organisations to the former German capital Bonn, 10 years after another meeting here put an interim Afghan government in place after the Taliban's ouster.

"We will not forget Afghanistan after 2014," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said at a dinner on the eve of the conference with guests including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"Our engagement will last. But it will be different, it will focus more on reconstruction and development."

Other high-profile participants will include US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul and his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi.

There are currently around 140,000 international troops 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.

However Pakistan and the Taliban -- two sides seen as pivotal to any end to the bloody strife in Afghanistan -- have both bowed out of Bonn.

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 on Sunday to express his regrets over the "tragic loss", saying the casualties were not intentional, but Islamabad remained unmoved.

Germany calls Pakistan's pull-out a "setback" for the meticulously planned conference. But organisers say they are confident Islamabad will also see itself as committed to the principles laid out in the meeting's final declarations.

Meanwhile 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, who is chairing the conference, accused Pakistan in a German interview of undermining overtures to the Taliban.

"Up until now, they have sadly refused to back efforts for negotiations with the Taliban," he told Monday's issue of news weekly Der Spiegel, as he called on the West to commit to helping Afghanistan for another decade.

Officials from the primary delegations spent much of the weekend thrashing out the conference's written conclusions, which are expected to map out "mutual binding commitments" by Afghanistan and the international community after 2014.

Sources said they would neither include specific aid nor troop pledges but rather outline what role the country's allies can play as it seeks to steer toward stability.

Germany has already said it will leave some forces in the country to help train Afghan troops.

Diplomats say Western countries will 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 and prompt a rush for the exit.

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.

Twenty-year-old Shamim Assir from Logar, south of Kabul, told AFP last week he was ready to turn his back on his country.

"The security situation is worsening day after day, there is no work for us, we cannot even roam around freely, there is no future," he said.


© 2011 AFP

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