THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered an olive branch Tuesday to Taliban fighters who reject Al Qaeda and pressed an international conference for help in strengthening Afghanistan's security forces.
More than 80 of Afghanistan's neighboring states or military and financial donors were attending a one-day conference in The Hague to brainstorm about how to stabilize Afghanistan seven years after the expulsion of the Taliban government.
Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Medhi Akhundzadeh was among the delegates — the first time the U.S. and Iran have met at a conference table since President Barack Obama offered better relations with the Islamic republic. There was no indication that any U.S. envoy would meet privately with the Iranians, and the two countries were separated on opposite ends of the table alphabetically.
Sitting around a horseshoe-shaped table, Clinton said most of the Taliban fighters have allied with anti-government forces "out of desperation" rather than commitment, in a country that has barely made inroads against poverty and lack of development.
Karzai and Clinton said Afghanistan would welcome Taliban fighters who embrace peace and pledge to abide by the Afghan constitution.
"They should be offered an honorable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society, if they are willing to abandon violence, break with Al Qaeda, and support the constitution," Clinton said.
Karzai said success against the insurgents "depends on a strategy that is shared, comprehensive and workable." He applauded Obama's announcement last week that the United States would send in more troops, security trainers and civilian advisers.
The United States is starting cautiously down a path in Afghanistan that proved helpful in Iraq, where former insurgents joined forces with U.S. troops and a U.S.-backed government.
Although the conference was devoted to Afghanistan, Clinton said it should also focus attention on the lawless border regions of Pakistan that provide a safe haven for the insurgents.
"Our partnership with democratic Pakistan is crucial. Together, we must give Pakistan the tools it needs to fight these extremists," Clinton said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, however, warned against interfering in his country.
A regional approach to Afghanistan must include "respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and noninterference," he said.
Iran's Akhundzadeh, too, cautioned against losing sight of the conference's objectives of providing security and reconstruction for Afghanistan, "and refrain from any kind of deviation from this motto or from giving priority to political and military matters."
Seeking greater support for his armed forces, Karzai told the conference that the "buildup of Afghanistan's security capacity is the surest and least costly way" to overcome terrorism.
Clinton did not mention Iran, which shares a nearly 600-mile border with Afghanistan.
Any increase in military action against the insurgents must avoid further civilian casualties, Karzai said. In the past, he has been strongly critical of the lack of care for civilians, especially by U.S. air attacks.
Sensitive to international criticism, Karzai pledged to heighten the campaign against the endemic corruption that riddles the Afghan bureaucracy, and against the narcotics trade that finances Al Qaeda operations.
The Obama administration is less enthusiastic about Karzai than the Bush White House, and during her public remarks Clinton skipped what used to be a ritual praising of his courage and leadership. The two were meeting privately later.
"Corruption is a cancer, as dangerous to long-term success as the Taliban or Al Qaeda," Clinton said in clear reference to charges of rampant graft and cronyism in Karzai's government. "A government that cannot deliver accountable services for its people is a terrorist's best recruiting tool."
Karzai also promised a free and fair vote when he stands for re-election later this year. Clinton pledged $40 million dollars and the European Union promised $79 million to run and monitor the election, in all about half the sum the United Nations has said is needed to run an effective ballot.
Karzai took pains to point out his government's achievements since he assumed the presidency following the Taliban's ouster: more than doubling per capita income, the extension of health services through much of the country, the highest school attendance in history and the presence of women in universities "which was unthinkable a few years ago."