Karzai vows Afghan security handover by 2014

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought Tuesday to convince an international conference in Kabul that his government could assume security responsibility by 2014 and demanded greater control of aid money.

Karzai is under massive Western pressure to crack down on corruption and take the lead in facing down a nine-year Taliban insurgency now killing record numbers of foreign soldiers and swallowing billion of dollars of money.

The Taliban, ousted from power by the 2001 US-led invasion, control large swathes of the south and have put up stiff resistance to a US-led surge deploying 150,000 troops under a last-ditch counter-insurgency strategy.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led representatives from 70 organisations and countries who used the conference to urge Kabul to work harder to meet its goals and clean up corruption.

"I remain determined that our Afghan national security forces will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country by 2014," said Karzai in his opening address.

Thousands of Afghan troops, backed by NATO forces, put Kabul under a security lockdown to prevent any possible Taliban attack on the conference at the heavily protected foreign ministry.

Although the meeting began without incident, NATO said several insurgents were killed in a shootout and two others arrested near the capital overnight to thwart the "final stages" of a Taliban attack.

Suspected militants also fired several rockets into Kabul near the airport overnight, but there were no casualties, the interior ministry said.

Karzai said the international community had committed enough money to see Afghanistan through the next three years and called for greater control of the multi-billion-dollar aid budget for his impoverished country.

"We all agree that steady transition to Afghan leadership and ownership is the key to sustainability," he said.

He called on foreign allies to invest in major infrastructure projects that can transform the lives of Afghans instead of isolated projects that have minimal impact, do not win widespread public favour or support good governance.

Since 2001, only 20 percent of the total 40 billion dollars of pledged international aid had been channelled through the Afghan budget, leading to serious corruption among the rest.

The West is under increasing pressure at home to justify their commitments to Afghanistan, where the war has killed 381 foreign soldiers so far this year -- including a NATO soldier who died in a bomb attack in the south on Tuesday.

Ban, who joined Karzai in chairing the conference and has called for concrete steps to improve governance and promote national reconciliation, called on Afghans to take greater responsibility for all their challenges.

"Let us also be clear -- just as Afghans are taking greater responsibility for governance and development, so must they take greater responsibility for security as well," he said.

Clinton said transition to Afghan leadership could not be put off indefinitely but said much more work faced the Afghan government -- a refrain that was echoed by other foreign ministers in their speeches.

"The Afghan government is stepping forward to deal with a multitude of difficult challenges. We're encouraged by much of what we see, particularly their work to improve governance," Clinton told the conference.

"These steps are important. But much more work remains," she said.

William Hague, the foreign minister of Britain -- which after the United States is the biggest supplier of foreign troops to Afghanistan -- called for improved financial management to ensure that money was being best spent.

"We will always need to see that the government is making the best possible use of our, and its own money.

"This means continuing on a path of improved financial management and budget execution, as well as tackling corruption at all times," he said.

Karzai last month won endorsement from Afghan leaders to start peace talks with insurgent leaders and called on the international community to back his efforts -- despite at least initial scepticism from the United States.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen emphasised that the alliance would remain in Afghanistan even after Afghans take over responsibility for security, when foreign troops would "move into a supporting role".

© 2010 AFP

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