West will continue to support to Afghanistan

The international community has 'much to lose if the country again becomes a source of terrorism and instability,' said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (l.) Afghan President Hamid Karzai (c.) and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (r.) confer during an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5. Representatives of more than 90 countries and organizations are gathering to discuss the future of Afghanistan after the eventual withdrawal of foreign military forces.

The United States and other nations vowed Monday to keep supporting Afghanistanafter most foreign forces leave the country in 2014, as the nation faces an enduring Taliban-led insurgency and possible financial collapse.

"The United States is prepared to stand with the Afghan people for the long haul," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a global conference on Afghanistan's future that was overshadowed by the absence of key regional player Pakistan.

The international community has "much to lose if the country again becomes a source of terrorism and instability," she added.

The Bonn conference is focused on the transfer of security responsibilities from international forces to Afghan security forces during the next three years, long-term prospects for international aid and a possible political settlement with the Taliban to ensure the country's viability beyond 2014.

Clinton stressed that in return for continued support the Afghans must live up to their commitments "on taking difficult decisions to embrace reform, lead in their own defense and strengthen an inclusive democracy rooted in the rule of law."

About 100 countries and international organizations were represented among the 1,000 conference delegates, including some 60 foreign ministers.

"Together we have spent blood and treasure in fighting terrorism," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said. "Your continued solidarity, your commitment and support will be crucial so that we can consolidate our gains and continue to address the challenges that remain. We will need your steadfast support for at least another decade."

Afghanistan is economically dependent on foreign aid and spending related to the huge military presence, currently totaling about 130,000 international troops. The country seeks assurance that donor nations will help fill the gap after most forces leave by 2015.

Although donor nations will not commit to specific figures at the one-day session Monday, they will sign up to the principle that economic and other advances in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 should be safeguarded with continued funding.

Afghanistan estimates it will need outside contributions of roughly $10 billion in 2015, or slightly less than half the country's annual gross national product, mostly to pay for its security forces, then slated to number about 350,000.

The conference's final declaration outlines a series of mutual commitments for the decade following the troop withdrawal, strongly conveying that Afghanistan "will not be left alone," a German diplomat said.

"On the other hand, there is a clear Afghan commitment do to its homework in terms of reform, fighting corruption, good governance and strengthening democracy," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the summit conclusion was not yet made public.

The international community also pledges to support the process of reconciliation with the Taliban, "with its basic principles being no to violence, no to terrorism and respect for the Afghan constitution and human rights," he said.

Pakistan is a central player in regional efforts to improve trade and strengthen its weak economies. But its boycott has cast a pall over the session, because it points out that nation's influence in Afghanistan and its ability to play the spoiler.

Pakistan is seen as instrumental to ending the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan because of its links to militant groups and its unwillingness, from the U.S. and NATO perspective, to drive insurgents from safe havens on its soil where they regroup and rearm.

Pakistan canceled its participation to protest last month's NATO air assault, carried out from Afghan territory, that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The deaths fed the popular perspective in Pakistan that the U.S. and NATO, not the Taliban, are Pakistan's principal enemies.

"Nobody (...) is more concerned than the United States is about getting an accurate picture of what occurred in the recent border incident," Clinton said with an edge in her voice.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told The Associated Press in Lahore, Pakistan, that his country remained committed to working with Afghanistan to bring insurgent leaders into talks with the government.

"I think we have evolved some mechanisms, and we are ready to cooperate," he said, referring to meetings with Afghanistan's military and intelligence chiefs on a framework for talks. "We are committed (to reconciliation), despite that we are not attending (the Bonn meeting)," he said.

Pakistan's army accused NATO of a "deliberate act of aggression," an assertion the Pentagon hotly denied. Pakistan has received billions in U.S. aid since 2001, largely in expectation of cooperation against militants.

Afghanistan's western neighbor Iran joined the conference, and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the country stands ready to support Afghanistan and "welcomes the departure of the international military," condemning the idea of any bases remaining after 2014.

The U.S. is currently seeking an agreement with the Afghan government establishing operating rules for the small number of remaining U.S. forces and other issues after international forces withdraw.

"Any international or regional peace initiative to restore peace and security in Afghanistan can only be successful if it discards the presence of foreign military forces," Salehi said.

The U.S. had once hoped to use the Bonn gathering to announce news about the prospect for peace talks with the Taliban, making it a showcase for political reconciliation, but Afghan and U.S. outreach efforts have not borne fruit and no prominent Taliban representatives were attending the conference.

The reconciliation efforts suffered a major setback after the September assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading the Afghan government's effort to broker peace with the insurgents.

Violence in Afghanistan is up sharply this year, and has spread to the once-peaceful north of the country. And widespread corruption is bedeviling attempts to create a viable Afghan government and institutions to take over when the U.S. and NATO leave.

"The road ahead will remain stony and difficult. It will require endurance and tenacity," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

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