- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS (AP) - The United States will pledge $40 million toward smooth elections this summer in war-weary Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday. She did not rule out a rare face-to-face meeting with Iran’s representative to an international conference on pacifying Afghanistan.

“I have no plans” to seek out diplomats from the longtime U.S. adversary during Tuesday’s one-day discussions, Clinton said. “I can’t forecast tomorrow.”

The U.N.-led meeting offers an early test of Obama’s offer of better U.S. relations with Iran, and of Iran’s willingness to respond.

“The fact that they accepted the invitation to come suggests that they believe there is a role for them to play, and we’re looking forward to hearing more about that,” Clinton said during a press conference aboard her plane.

The session was proposed on short notice by the Obama administration as a way to frame its new military and diplomatic strategy in a seven-year-old war that U.S. commanders call a stalemate at best. It opens a weeklong international sales campaign by a new American administration that wants European, Asian and other help to keep strategic Afghanistan from again becoming a launch pad for al-Qaida terror attacks on the West.

President Barack Obama announced a revamped strategy Friday that will add U.S. troops while narrowing military goals in Afghanistan and broadening the role of regional diplomacy and development. Presidential elections in August will be a mark of whether the new U.S. and international program is taking hold, and the United Nations has requested more than $200 million in outside aid to help run the vote.

Clinton said that although Tuesday’s meeting of more than 80 nations and organizations is not designed as a fundraiser, she will use it to formally announce the U.S. election contribution. The United States is by far the largest contributor of foreign troops fighting the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, with 38,000 in the country now. Obama plans to have more than 60,000 U.S. forces there before the August vote.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has given up a campaign to persuade or shame NATO allies into sending more fighting forces, but the new Obama strategy depends in part on contributions of expertise, training and money from allies, and self-interested cooperation from others such as Iran with a stake in containing extremism.

“We do want to encourage the participants to begin thinking hard about what their contributions will be, and there are a lot of different ways they can contribute,” Clinton said.

She acknowledged the poor record of development aid in poor, decentralized Afghanistan, where millions were squandered on ineffective or badly managed programs since a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban government accused of harboring al-Qaida.

“We’re going to try to impose greater measures of accountability so that we can actually trace the investment and the payoff for the American taxpayers and for the people on the ground,” Clinton said. “But we recognize we are starting at a point where there’s very little credibility for a lot of what’s already been invested.”

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has urged the U.S. and other members of the Western military alliance to work alongside Iran to combat Taliban militants. Afghanistan shares a 580-mile border with Iran.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Medhi Akhundzadeh, who leads his country’s delegation, said Afghans held the key to the future of their nation, not the international military force fighting the Taliban.

“The presence of foreign troops can’t bring the peace, security and stability to the country,” Akhundzadeh said, in comments translated from Farsi.

Iran, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims, has long opposed the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban. Iran also is host to a large population of Afghan refugees and is waging a major effort against the smuggling of Afghan heroin across its territory.

The United States and Iran cooperated face-to-face in the early days of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but those contacts withered. Clinton, who has been skeptical of the clerical regime’s appetite for rapprochement with the United States, noted that insecurity and drug smuggling on the Afghan border “have a direct effect on Iran’s well-being.”

“I believe that there will be an opening by this conference that will enable all the countries, including Iran, to come forward with how they want to participate,” Clinton said.

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