Afghanistan's president promised Wednesday to lift the defense burden from the U.S. and its allies, as senior officials gathered in London for a conference to bolster flagging support for the international mission there.
President Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan "wants to soon be defending its own territory, its own people, with Afghan means." But he cautioned the country would need prolonged "sustained support" from the international community.
"Afghanistan does not want to be a burden on the shoulder of our allies and friends," Karzai said after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin ahead of Thursday's conference in London.
The conference has been called in hope of offering Western countries a way out of Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO forces have been taking increasing casualties from a resurgent Taliban, and where officials concede total military victory is impossible.
The U.S. and its NATO partners are trying to shift more of the combat burden on the Afghans by accelerating the training of the Afghan army and the paramilitary national police. Last month Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin complained that the U.S. strategy called for more American troops but "with too few Afghan partners alongside them."
Paying the Taliban
The centerpiece of the conference is a $500 million plan to lure Taliban fighters away from the insurgency with jobs and economic incentives — a plan which supporters in Afghanistan acknowledge will take resources and skill from a government with a poor track record for success.
Karzai has said he's willing to talk to Taliban leaders — including the top commander Mullah Mohammed Omar — if they are willing to renounce violence.
Besides reconciliation, the conference will grapple with reconstruction, fighting corruption and drug trafficking and a province-by-province handover of security control from U.S. and NATO troops to Afghan forces beginning as soon as next year.
The Taliban dismissed the reconciliation plan, saying in a statement posted on their Web site Wednesday that their fighters wouldn't be swayed by financial incentives because they were fighting not for "money, property and position" but for Islam and an end to the foreign military presence in their country.
U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke said Karzai would use Thursday's conference to outline a plan to persuade low- and midlevel Taliban fighters to give up their fight.
"The overwhelming majority of these people are not ideological supporters of Mullah Omar and al-Qaida," Holbrooke told reporters in London. "Based on interviews with prisoners, returnees, experts, there must be at least 70 percent of these people who are not fighting for anything to do with those causes."
German chancellor Angela Merkel put the cost of the plan at $500 million, a figure confirmed by a British diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the meeting.
This will not succeed until some important steps have been taken nationally, said Wadir Safi, a political analyst and professor of political science at Kabul University.
Habib Ulah, a 77-year-old from Helmand, the southern province where the Taliban insurgency has been strongest, said Afghan hopes for the conference were high — "peace and reconciliation and also to find jobs for the Taliban and for the Afghans, for the poor people of Helmand."
The United Nations on Wednesday revoked asset-freezing orders and travel bans on five former Taliban officials, something for which Karzai had been pressing as part of his effort to draw them back into the fold. None of the five is believed active in the Taliban.
Western officials said the reintegration plan would not involve cash handouts to insurgents, but be focused on providing jobs — chiefly in the country's growing security forces and agriculture — and housing.
Diplomats insist that while the program will initially target Taliban foot soldiers, it will later work to reintegrate district-level commanders, and eventually could involve major figures in the insurgency.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it was vital to divide those not ideologically committed to extremism from ardent supporters of the Taliban, or al-Qaida.
"Military effort and civilian effort need a political purpose — the construction of a political ring within which all those not affiliated or supportive of al-Qaida can argue out differences," Miliband said.
Those goals represent a climbdown from the aim of making Afghanistan a stable, Western-style democracy touted by world leaders after the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban.