The Afghan government and its international partners agreed Wednesday to significantly increase the country's security forces and outlined plans to lure Taliban militants from the fight in a bid to turn the tide of the war.
A joint panel of officials from Afghanistan, the U.N. and troop-contributing nations approved plans to train more than 100,000 more security forces by the end of next year.
The decision comes ahead of a Jan. 28 conference in London, which is aimed at boosting international support for Afghanistan in the face of a resurgent Taliban and complaints about runaway corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government.
The London conference will endorse the decisions and solicit international funding for the programs, U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said.
Britain's ambassador to Kabul, Mark Sedwill, told reporters in London on Wednesday that the conference will likely set out a tentative timetable for handing over security to local forces and also discuss funding for a program to reintegrate Taliban and other militants who agree to lay down their weapons.
Meanwhile the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board agreed to increase the size of the Afghan National Army from the current figure of about 97,000 to 171,600 by the end of next year, officials said. The Afghan National Police will be boosted from about 94,000 today to 134,000.
The board set a long-term goal of expanding the Afghan security force to 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police within five years if conditions require. Officials said that figure may not be necessary if the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban succeeds in crippling the insurgency.
Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said he believed the proposed 400,000-strong security force — including army and police — was "the minimum requirement" for Afghanistan but that the country's international partners were concerned over how to pay for such a large force and sustain it after the U.S. and its allies leave.
In an interview at his office surrounded by 20 foot cement blast walls topped with rolls of barbed wire and defended by a dozen heavily armed men, Wardak said there's a lot of work ahead before his soldiers can take over countrywide security.
Recovering from desertions
The defense ministry is now trying to reduce the desertion rate prompted by low pay and prolonged deployments in the deadliest arenas. Salaries for new army recruits has been increased to $160 from $120, Wardak said. But those fighting in the deeply dangerous south and east of the country receive an additional $2 a day, increasing their monthly salaries pay to $220, he said.
"We're slowly getting over the high desertions," he said. Since the beginning of December, 209 of 15,000 military recruits have deserted — a drop from previous months, he said, although comparative figures weren't immediately available.
The new incentives have also brought 2,038 deserters back to their posts, Wardak said.
Yet NATO spokesman U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said that more still needs to be done to keep the Afghan army soldiers in the fight as well as to combat a troubling drug abuse among the Afghan military.
"What we've got to really reduce are the high levels of attrition, the need for retention and problems with drug abuse," he said.
President Barack Obama's administration believes the key to stability in Afghanistan is a strong national security force that can protect the country and allow U.S. and other foreign troops to go home. Obama has said he plans to begin withdrawing forces in July 2011 if conditions permit.
'Reconciliation is cheaper'
In the meantime, the United States and NATO are sending about 37,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan to try to reverse the rise of the Taliban.
During Wednesday's meeting the panel agreed that reconciliation with Taliban fighters ready to renounce violence would help stabilize Afghanistan. Yet Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has dismissed reconciliation offers. The Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said no Taliban fighter would accept money to switch sides calling the reintegration program "a kind of corruption."
Still the government promised to come up with a plan by the spring when it will seek international financial support.
"Reconciliation is cheaper than fighting," Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal told reporters at a press conference. A draft report presented to the panel also said "key leaders of the Taliban movement" would be offered amnesty without providing names.
Meanwhile, a NATO airstrike killed 15 Taliban militants, including two senior commanders, who were accused of preparing an attack late Tuesday in the northwestern province of Badghis, regional police spokesman Raouf Ahmadi said. NATO confirmed the airstrike but said only that "several insurgents" were killed.
A joint Afghan-international force also killed three militants in clashes during a search of a compound in the northern Kunduz province, according to a statement. Two more militants were killed when NATO helicopters returned fire after coming under attack from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms while flying back to the base, it said.