KABUL – Major world powers opened talks Thursday seeking an end to the grinding conflict in Afghanistan, drafting plans to hand over security responsibilities to local forces and quell the insurgency with an offer of jobs and housing to lure Taliban fighters to renounce violence.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeted delegates from about 70 nations and institutions in London, seeking to win new international support after more than eight years of combat which is threatening to exhaust public good will in the West.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also joined talks aimed at setting targets to transfer security control of several Afghan provinces to the local police and military by the end of 2010.
"This is a decisive time for the international cooperation that is helping the Afghan people secure and govern their own country," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, opening the one-day talks. "This conference marks the beginning of the transition process."
Brown said the conference would set a target for Afghanistan to increase its military to 171,600 by Oct. 2011, and boost police numbers to 134,00 by the same date. "By the middle of next year we have to turn the tide," he said.
Karzai envisages Afghanistan's government taking control of security in all 34 provinces by 2015, but said he expects foreign troops to stay in his country for up to a decade.
"With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years will be enough," Karzai said in a joint BBC interview with Brown, broadcast Thursday. "With regard to sustaining them until Afghanistan is financially able to provide for our forces, the time will be extended to 10 to 15 years."
In return for their continued backing, Afghanistan's allies will demand strict foreign monitoring of efforts to root out government corruption following the country's fraud-marred elections last year.
International allies will pledge at least $500 million for Karzai's program to lure Taliban soldiers back into mainstream society. Western diplomats said the plans would not involve cash inducements, but instead fund jobs in the country's police and army, or in agriculture — and pay for housing.
U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke said many low- and midlevel Taliban fighters were motivated by financial need, rather than ideological support for the Taliban or Al Qaeda. He said negotiations with higher ranking insurgents are unlikely, although other Western officials said that, over the longer term, the program may eventually target leadership figures.
"Every war will finish some time, and we are targeting those people who are tired and sick of fighting," Zalmay Rasoul, the incoming Afghan foreign minister, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Officials suspect Karzai hopes to eventually bring some Pakistan-based leaders of the Afghan Taliban into the political process — if they agree to renounce violence.
"Some pretty unsavory characters are going to have to be brought within the system," Mark Sedwill, NATO's newly appointed civilian chief — and the ex-British ambassador in Kabul — told a meeting Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the eastern Afghan Shinwari tribe, which dominate five districts of about 600,000 people in Nangarhar province, said it had signed a pact to oust the Taliban. Elders pledged to burn down houses of those who shelter insurgents and force them to pay fines high as $20,000. It followed a pledge of $1 million for a tribal fund and $200,000 in jobs programs.
The Taliban dismissed Karzai's plan, saying in a statement posted to their Web site Wednesday that their fighters wouldn't be swayed by financial incentives.
"For those insurgents who refuse to accept the conditions of reintegration, we have no choice but to pursue them militarily," Brown said. He pledged to root out terrorists "in any and every country where you seek refuge."
The talks — at a grand Georgian town house in central London — have been called in hope of plotting an eventual exit from Afghanistan for Western nations amid rising military casualties and growing public disquiet. Organizers hope to produce a civilian strategy to compliment the military surge which will see the U.S. and its NATO allies deploy 37,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.
Iran's London embassy said Thursday Tehran would not send any representative to the talks. Spokesman Hossein Mahmoudi said Iran believed the conference was too heavily focused on military intervention.
A spokesman for Britain's Downing Street said it was "deeply disappointing," that Iran had chosen not to attend, but urged Tehran to make a constructive contribution to discussions on its neighbor's future.