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International Afghan Conference Signals 'New Beginning'


Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi praised the Obama administration's new approach to Afghanistan in remarks to reporters in The Hague.
THE HAGUE (RFE/RL) -- More than 80 countries and organizations at a UN-backed conference in The Hague dedicated to Afghanistan's future emerged with an agreement to boost security, enhance regional cooperation, and promote economic growth.

Delegates, who included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon along with representatives from Iran, Pakistan, NATO, the EU, and World Bank, described the meeting as "a new beginning "and "an important day" for Afghanistan and its people.

Clinton said the broad attendance of representatives from around the world helped create a consensus to support Afghanistan in its fight to take back its country from terrorists.

She also said U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke had had a "brief" and "cordial" exchange with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, in which they had "agreed to stay in touch."

"We emerged from this conference even more committed to the common task of helping Afghanistan prevail against a ruthless enemy and even more united in our efforts to address the broad agenda facing the international community," Clinton said.

A joint statement, issued by the UN and the Dutch and Afghan governments, outlined the priorities this way: "Strengthened security, enhanced regional cooperation, improved economic growth, and stronger institutions."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
UN Representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide described the conference as a strong show of support for Afghanistan and said he hopes the countries who participated will move beyond mere words.

"There have been a number of pledges to coordinate [efforts] better," Eide said. "There is a long way to go there. And my strong hope is, of course, that in the future we will see the words and the promises that have been given today turn into action."

'Auspicious Beginning'

The conference in The Hague followed the March 27 announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama of a new strategy that casts the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan as intricately linked.

The new U.S. strategy -- which has been welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- calls for extra troops for Afghanistan, increased aid for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a renewed focus on targeting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We are all encouraged by the renewed determination of the United States under President Barack Obama and hope that the United States will once again lead the effort to respond to the challenges we continue to face," Karzai said. "I'm also confident that President Obama's leadership will be met by a regional ability to respond from our other allies in Europe and elsewhere."

The U.S. strategy also calls for a significant increase in civilian efforts in Afghanistan, reflecting what Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called Obama's enlightened view of the Muslim world, which he said hasn't escaped the notice of the Pakistani people.

"There is now a growing consensus among policy planners of the futility of an overemphasis on the use of force,” Qureshi said. “The international community has taken a pause for introspection and a candid reassessment of the situation."

He added, "The new administration in the United States has taken the lead in this course correction. President Obama has captured the imagination of peoples around the globe as a symbol of hope and change. His proposed way forward with the Muslim world on the basis of mutual respect and interest has been greatly appreciated in Pakistan. This is an auspicious beginning for us all."

U.S.-Iran Meeting

Delegates at the conference called for a broader regional approach that includes cooperation not only from Pakistan and Iran, but also from China, Russia, and the Arab world.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Akhundzadeh said his country is ready to work with the international community in the fight against drugs being exported from Afghanistan and with Afghan reconstruction efforts. But he criticized the U.S. plan to send additional U.S. troops there.

"Since the inception of the current government in Afghanistan, Iran has always believed that Afghanistan's foundation is based on localization of the affairs of that country,” Akhundzadeh said.

“The presence of foreign forces has not improved things in the country and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective, too," he added. "The military expenses need to be redirected to the training of the Afghan police and army, and 'Afghanization' should lead the government's building process."

Despite the criticism, delegates welcomed Akhundzadeh's presence at the conference as evidence of Tehran's willingness to re-engage with the international community on some critical regional issues. Clinton called it "a promising sign" of future cooperation.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh
The U.S. secretary of state also noted that there was a brief, spontaneous meeting between diplomats from Iran and the United States on the sidelines of the conference.

"In the course of the conference today our special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had a brief and cordial exchange with the head of the Iranian delegation," Clinton said. "It did not focus on anything substantive. It was cordial, it was unplanned, and they agreed to stay in touch."

Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Akhundzadeh as denying a meeting had taken place.

"We would have informed our nation if we had talks with the the Americans over Afghanistan in The Hague, like what we did about talks over Iraq with America," he said.

There has been no official diplomatic contact between Iran and the United States in 30 years.

Challenges Ahead

Unlike previous international conferences on Afghanistan, the one-day gathering was not aimed at getting donors to pledge funds for reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. Instead, delegates sought to bring new force to the international effort to drive the Taliban and Al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan.

Delegates also cited the necessity to reduce corruption in Afghanistan and improve governance so it eventually can become a country that is stable and self-reliant.

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta expressed confidence that the conference will help all involved identify the best way to help his country, but he warned of a serious challenges ahead.

"We are facing two choices in Afghanistan,” he said. “If we succeed in our joint journey, Afghanistan will become a crossroad of regional cooperation and interaction between South Asia and Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Far East. If we don't, it will become once again the launching pad for international terrorism and the drug mafia."

With RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari and Abubakar Siddique in The Hague and Ron Synovitz in Prague