LONDON -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his government is ready to begin assuming responsibility for running the country, but will need international support to do so.
Karzai made the comments to officials of some 60 countries and organizations who gathered today in London for a one-day conference on Afghanistan.
"I believe the aspirations and demands of the people of Afghanistan today can be summarized in four simple words: Afghan leadership, Afghan ownership," Karzai said.
But the Afghan leader cautioned the international community against abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan, subtly invoking America's too-hasty withdrawal of support after the defeat of the Soviet Army in 1989.
Afghan leaders still fear a destructive civil war similar to the one in the 1990s, which was partly fueled by Afghanistan's neighbors waging their own proxy conflicts for regional dominance on Afghan soil.
In an interview with RFE/RL on the sidelines of the conference, Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal downplayed the possibility of a rapid Western departure from his country. He said that the conference set in motion momentum for "sustainability" of the Afghan state.
"We do not want the international community to be there for us forever,” Zakhilwal said. “We do not want to take them for granted, and what this London conference is about is putting Afghanistan on that path to self-sustainability, particularly in the important area of security, with time-bound indicators and achievements.... It is not about abandoning Afghanistan. It is giving leadership and ownership to the Afghan government and to the Afghan people."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called this a "decisive time" for Afghanistan and the "beginning of the transition process."
His comments echoed U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on the evening of January 27.
"In Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home,” Obama said in his address. “We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans, men and women alike."
Reconciling With The Taliban
Karzai asked the London conference participants to support his plan to reach out to Taliban insurgents, and said his government is committed to gradually assuming security responsibilities, fighting corruption and the drug trade, and delivering improved services to the Afghan people.
He highlighted the need to reach out to "all of our countrymen, especially to our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks [and] who accept the Afghan Constitution."
Karzai has also resolved to hold a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, within the next few months to kick off a reconciliation process with the Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the conference attendees agreed to establish a peace and reintegration trust fund to support the Afghan government’s efforts to draw disaffected Taliban back into society, on the condition that they “renounce violence, renounce Al-Qaeda, [and] agree to abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan."
"The United States military has been authorized to use substantial funds to support the effort, enabling our commanders on the ground to support Afghan government-led initiatives to take insurgents off the battlefield," Clinton said.
Karzai cautioned that the success of his plans depend on the goodwill of the Saudi monarch and cooperation from neighboring Pakistan, which views the increasing influence of its archrival and neighbor India with great concern.
"We ask all our neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to support our peace and reconciliation endeavors. We're looking forward to the international community supporting this plan of action," Karzai said.
Former Taliban members and regional experts, however, worry that Kabul and its international backers have only a rudimentary understanding of what the various Taliban networks want.
The exception is insurgent leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who, unlike other Taliban leaders, is well positioned to mend fences with Kabul because breakaway factions from his Hezb-e Islami party are already well-represented in the cabinet and parliament.
The London conference will be followed by a similar conference in Kabul early this summer, where Kabul and its international partners are expected to take stock of progress and set concrete goals.Aid Pledges
World powers at today's conference pledged $140 million in support of the Afghan government's plans to lure moderate Taliban fighters to renounce violence.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said the conference delegates agreed on a timetable for the handover of security duties in Afghan provinces starting in late 2010.
"The intention is for some provinces to transition by late 2010, early 2011, on the road to meeting President Karzai's commitment that half of Afghanistan's provinces would have Afghan security leadership within three years and the whole of Afghanistan be within Afghan security leadership within five," Miliband said.
Representatives of 70 nations and international organizations vowed support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plan.
They also backed Karzai's planned crackdown on corruption, and said a summit in Kabul later this year will offer specific plans to bolster his government.
With agency reports