Major world powers opened talks Thursday seeking an end to the grinding conflict in Afghanistan, drafting plans to hand over security responsibilities to local forces and quell the insurgency with an offer of jobs and housing to lure Taliban fighters to renounce violence.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeted delegates from about 70 nations and institutions in London, seeking to win new international support after more than eight years of combat which is threatening to exhaust public good will in the West.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also joined talks aimed at setting targets to transfer security control of several Afghan provinces to the local police and military by the end of 2010.
"This is a decisive time for the international cooperation that is helping the Afghan people secure and govern their own country," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, opening the one-day talks. "This conference marks the beginning of the transition process."
Brown said the conference would set a target for Afghanistan to increase its military to 171,600 by Oct. 2011, and boost police numbers to 134,00 by the same date. "By the middle of next year we have to turn the tide," he said.
Karzai envisions Afghanistan's government taking control of security in all 34 provinces by 2015, but said he expects foreign troops to stay in his country for up to a decade.
Announcing his plan to lure Taliban soldiers back into mainstream society with offers of jobs and housing, Karzai said Afghanistan was moving "slowly but surely toward the end goals of peace and stability."
Karzai called for support from Afghanistan's neighbors — especially Pakistan and oil-rich, influential Saudi Arabia.
"We hope that his majesty (Saudi) King Abdullah will kindly take a prominent role to guide and assist the peace process," he said. The Afghan chief said he would convene a peace jirga — or conference — to discuss the proposals.
"We must reach out to all our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers who are not part of al-Qaida or other terrorist networks," Karzai told the meeting.
International allies will pledge at least $500 million for Karzai's program, but Western diplomats said the money would not pay for cash inducements. Funding will be used to create jobs in the country's police and army, or in agriculture — and pay for housing, officials said.
U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke said many low- and midlevel Taliban fighters were motivated by financial need, rather than ideological support for the Taliban or al-Qaida.
In a sign of possible tensions over the ambition of the program, Holbrooke said negotiations with higher ranking insurgents are unlikely, while Karzai and other Western officials indicated that, over the longer term, the program may eventually target leadership figures.
Officials in London suspect Karzai hopes to eventually bring some Pakistan-based leaders of the Afghan Taliban into the political process — if they agree to renounce violence.
"Some pretty unsavory characters are going to have to be brought within the system," Mark Sedwill, NATO's newly appointed civilian chief — and the ex-British ambassador in Kabul — told a meeting Wednesday.
The U.N. on Tuesday removed the names of five former Taliban officials — including a former confidant of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar — from a U.N. sanctions list in support of the reconciliation efforts. "We wish for more progress in this regard," Karzai said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Staffan de Mistura, the former U.N. representative in Iraq, will succeed Kai Eide of Norway to become the top United Nations envoy in Afghanistan starting on March 1.
"He has a wealth of experience and wisdom," Ban said Wednesday in an Associated Press interview.
The Taliban dismissed Karzai's reintegration plan, saying in a statement posted to their Web site Wednesday that their fighters wouldn't be swayed by financial incentives.
"For those insurgents who refuse to accept the conditions of reintegration, we have no choice but to pursue them militarily," Brown said. He pledged to root out terrorists "in any and every country where you seek refuge."
In return for their continued backing, Afghanistan's allies will demand strict foreign monitoring of anti-corruption efforts following the country's fraud-marred elections last year.
The talks — at a grand Georgian town house in central London — have been called in hope of plotting an eventual exit from Afghanistan for Western nations amid rising military casualties and growing public disquiet. Organizers hope to produce a civilian strategy to compliment the military surge which will see the U.S. and its NATO allies deploy 37,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.
Iran's London embassy said Thursday Tehran would not send any representative to the talks. Spokesman Hossein Mahmoudi said Iran believed the conference was too heavily focused on military intervention.
A spokesman for Britain's Downing Street said it was "deeply disappointing," that Iran had chosen not to attend, but urged Tehran to make a constructive contribution to discussions on its neighbor's future.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Raphael G. Satter in London, Heidi Vogt in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and John Heilprin, in New York, contributed to his report.
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