KABUL — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday vowed the United States and its allies will stand by Afghanistan even as fears are growing about the course of the nearly 9-year-old war and the Obama administration plans to begin withdrawing American troops from the country next year.
Clinton acknowledged deepening opposition to international involvement in the conflict amid the rising death toll of foreign troops in the country. But she told an international conference on Afghanistan's future that the "world is with Afghanistan" and that the planned drawdown of U.S. forces was not a sign of flagging commitment.
"The July 2011 date captures both our sense of urgency and the strength of our resolve," she said of U.S. plans to accelerate the process of turning over security to Afghanistan's police and military. "The transition process is too important to push off indefinitely."
"But this date is the start of a new phase, not the end of our involvement," Clinton told the conference, which is being attended by senior officials from about 70 countries. "We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission of achieving a stable, secure, peaceful Afghanistan."
Mounting concerns about the war and rampant corruption in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government have prompted many in the U.S. and allied countries to raise serious questions about the wisdom of carrying on the fight.
Clinton allowed that "the road ahead will not be easy," particularly given those concerns, which could threaten funding for military operations.
"Citizens of many nations represented here, including my own, wonder whether success is even possible — and if so, whether we all have the commitment to achieve it. We will answer these questions with our actions," she said, pledging to step up U.S. civilian assistance to help rehabilitate and reconstruct the war-shattered nation.
"The world is with Afghanistan, and the world stands in opposition to al-Qaida, the extremist militant Taliban, and to those who are trying to deny Afghanistan the future it deserves," Clinton said.
Government corruption, including the reported payment of protection money to militants by U.S. contractors, has raised eyebrows in Congress, with one U.S. lawmaker putting a hold on nearly $4 billion in assistance.
Clinton said Karzai's pledges of reform and increased efforts to fight graft must be followed through on. "There are no short cuts to fighting corruption and improving governance," she said. As the Afghan government improves its accountability, the U.S. and others will support it, she said.
Another topic of U.S. and international concern is Karzai's plan to reintegrate militants into society, a prospect that had alarmed many Afghan women who fear a return to the days of Taliban rule, when women's rights and issues were severely restricted and ignored.
Clinton warned that reintegration must only be allowed for insurgents "who are ready for peace," willing to renounce violence and al-Qaida, and willing to agree to respect the Afghan constitution and the country's laws, particularly as they apply to women's rights.
Shortly before the conference opened, Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton assured Afghan women they will not be forgotten.
Peace in Afghanistan "can't come at the cost of women and women's lives," Clinton said, promising a group of women's rights activists that the issue is "a personal commitment of mine."
Ashton echoed that sentiment on behalf of the E.U. "We're not going away," she said. "We are going to support you."
Fouzia Kofi, a former Afghan legislator, told Clinton and Ashton that she understood it was difficult to convince Westerners of the importance of the issue, given deepening fears of a "never-ending war."
"They need to realize that peace here with the Taliban, and bringing Taliban on board with a compromise of basic human rights and women's rights, means taking this country back hundreds of years," Kofi said.