Western forces agree on potential timeline for departure from Afghanistan


KABUL, Afghanistan — A landmark international conference on Tuesday endorsed President Hamid Karzai’s plan for Afghanistan’s
security forces to take over responsibility for safeguarding the
country within four years, setting a potential timeline for foreign
troops’ departure.

The Afghan capital was under virtual lockdown for
the high-level gathering, which passed without any major attack.
However, insurgents fired rockets at Kabul’s international airport overnight, forcing the diversion of a plane carrying U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Bagram air base, north of the capital.

Helicopters thundered overhead as the delegations arrived and departed. Below, the streets of Kabul were nearly deserted except for patrolling police.

“I remain determined that our Afghan national
security forces will be responsible for all military and law
enforcement operations throughout our country by 2014,” Karzai told the
delegates, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and dozens of foreign ministers and other dignitaries.

Conference participants also endorsed plans to channel at least half of the $13 billion
in annual international aid through Afghan government channels.
Currently, only one-fifth of such assistance is funneled through Afghan

In return, Karzai promised to fight corruption
through such means as requiring government officials to declare their
assets, and the strengthening of a task force meant to crack down on

Events elsewhere in Afghanistan
on Tuesday brought a troubling reminder of the profound obstacles to
turning the Afghan military into a professional, dependable fighting
force. An Afghan military trainer at a firing range in northern Afghanistan
turned his weapon on two U.S. civilian counterparts, killing them both
before being shot to death himself, Western military officials said.

A second Afghan soldier was also killed in the
exchange of fire and a Western service member wounded, the NATO force
said, adding that the incident was under investigation.

The endorsement of Karzai’s security timeline by the Kabul
conference was not binding, but it addressed a growing desire on the
part of NATO allies to have some kind of pullback plan in place. All
the major troop-contributing nations in the Afghan conflict were
represented at the meeting.

Karzai had put forth the goal of a security handover
by 2014 last November, as he was inaugurated for a second presidential
term. Since then, though, the sense of urgency surrounding an exit
strategy for the West has increased dramatically.

The Obama administration has already set a target of July 2011 for the start of a drawdown of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, officials have stressed that will depend on conditions on the ground.

Already, doubts have been raised as to whether the
tide can be turned against the Taliban by then. A major military
operation to secure the southern city of Kandahar, which was described by U.S. commanders as a linchpin of the war, has moved ahead much more slowly than planned.

Domestic political support for the Afghan war has
eroded sharply in countries that are the main American partners in the
NATO force, including Britain, Canada and Germany.
Those qualms have been heightened by the rising Western troop casualty
rate, which now stands at its highest level since the Taliban movement
was toppled in 2001.

While the five-hour conference proceeded, the Western military announced another troop fatality, in Afghanistan’s
south. A second Western military death, also in the south, was
announced later. The nationalities of the slain service members were
not immediately disclosed.

Leaders addressing the conference stressed that the
2014 target would be dependent on the Afghan police and army
demonstrating their ability to take the lead on security, on a
province-by-province basis. Despite intensive training by Western
mentors, the Afghan army — and the police even more so — are considered
far from ready to step into that role.

“I welcome the road map agreed on today on transition to an Afghan lead in security,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the gathering. “But transition will be based on conditions, not calendars.”

He added: “We will never allow the Taliban to overthrow the elected government by force.”


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