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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday proposed an international conference to address challenges in Afghanistan.
updated 3/5/2009 12:45:56 PM ET 2009-03-05T17:45:56

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed on Thursday a high-level international conference on Afghanistan to be sponsored by the United Nations and attended by a wide range of countries including Pakistan and possibly Iran.

Clinton presented the proposal at a NATO foreign ministers meeting where she said the session could be held March 31 and led by the U.N.'s special representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide of Norway, who was appointed to improve coordination of international civilian assistance to Kabul.

She said discussions were under way with the U.N. on possibly having U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon open the conference.

"We hope that this meeting could provide an opportunity to reach a common set of principles, perhaps embodied in a chairman's statement, on a common way forward," she said, according to a prepared text released by her staff.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference that the proposed conference could be seen as a "big tent meeting" that would include a wide range of parties with an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan and preventing it from again serving as a haven for al-Qaida.

Clinton said that Afghanistan and Pakistan should attend the conference, along with NATO allies and those countries that have troops in Afghanistan. Without citing others by name, Clinton also proposed having in attendance "key regional and strategic countries," which appeared to mean Russia, India and possibly others, plus "major financial contributors and relevant international organizations."

Robert Wood, the State Department spokesman traveling with Clinton, said, "I would expect that Iran would be invited." That adds a new dimension to international diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan, which until now have had limited contributions from Iran.

Reaction to her proposal from other NATO foreign ministers was not immediately known.

The war effort in Afghanistan has deteriorated the past two years as the Taliban and extremist insurgency has gained strength and U.S. and allied casualties have increased. President Barack Obama has approved sending an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, but he also has emphasized the need to have a broader, unified international approach to the conflict.

NATO agrees to restore ties with Russia
Earlier Thursday, NATO foreign ministers agreed that the alliance would restore normal relations with Russia, seven months after ties were broken in response to Moscow's invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

After a prolonged debate, the ministers agreed to revive what NATO calls the NATO-Russia Council, a forum for discussion of a wide range of issues. Lithuania had argued that a decision on this should be put off until NATO heads of government meet in early April.

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In regard to Russia, Clinton argued against putting off the decision.

NATO's Scheffer announced at a news conference at NATO headquarters that the matter was resolved, as originally expected.

Clinton's first NATO meeting
Attending her first NATO meeting as U.S. secretary of state, Clinton is at the midpoint of a weeklong trip that began in Egypt and took her to Israel on Tuesday and the West Bank on Wednesday.

After the NATO session she is due to travel to Geneva on Friday to meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and afterward she is to visit Ankara, Turkey.

Ahead of Thursday's announcement, Clinton said the time had come "to explore a fresh start" with Moscow.

"We can and must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest, including helping the people of Afghanistan, arms control and nonproliferation, counter-piracy and counter-narcotics and addressing the threats posed by Iran and North Korea," she said in prepared remarks.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Clinton's presence was widely welcomed.

"We can assume there will be a new breeze going through NATO and a new mood of cooperation," he said. "We will need that because the challenges are not getting any easier."

Some resistance remains
Some NATO member states said they were opposed to a normalization of ties with Moscow. Lithuanian foreign minister Vygaudas Usackas said it was "a bit premature" to reward Russia.

The five-day war between Russia and Georgia erupted when Georgian troops launched an attack to regain control over South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Russian support since the early 1990s. Russian forces intervened, driving Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and surrounding areas.

U.S. missile defenses are another source of tension with Moscow. The Russians are particularly angry about a Bush administration plan — now under review by the Obama administration — to install missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

On Wednesday Clinton said the Russians should understand that the missile shield is not aimed at them.

"I think they are beginning to really believe it — that this is not about Russia," she said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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