- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday reaffirmed his commitment for Afghan police and soldiers to take charge of security nationwide by 2014 and urged his international backers to distribute more of their development aid through the government.

Mr. Karzai spoke at a one-day international conference on Afghanistan’s future that comes at a critical juncture: NATO and Afghan forces have launched a major operation to drive the Taliban out of their strongholds, and the insurgents are pushing back. Rockets fired at the Kabul airport Tuesday forced the diversion of a plane carrying U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Sweden’s foreign minister.

Wearing a traditional striped robe and peaked fur hat, Mr. Karzai said Afghanistan and its Western allies share “a vicious common enemy.” But, he said, victory will come in giving Afghans as much responsibility as possible in combatting the insurgency within its borders. He was flanked by international diplomats, including Mr. Ban and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I remain determined that our Afghan national security forces will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country by 2014” — more than three years after President Obama’s date for the start of an American troop drawdown, Mr. Karzai said.

Delegates will endorse the 2014 goal, according to a draft conference communique obtained by the Associated Press — a reminder that Western countries expect to retain forces in Afghanistan for years to come. Even after the government takes over control of nationwide security, there will likely still be a large presence of international troops. Local forces formally took over security in the capital in 2008, for instance, but NATO troops continue to patrol its streets.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will never allow the Taliban to topple the government of Afghanistan, but he said that transition to Afghan-led security would be based on “conditions, not calendars.”

“Our mission will end when — but only when — the Afghans are able to maintain security on their own,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

Mr. Karzai also expressed his government’s desire to take charge of more of its affairs. He not only asked his international partners to channel 50 percent of their foreign assistance through the government within two years, but also urged them to align 80 percent of their projects with priorities that have been identified by Afghans.

“It is time to concentrate our efforts on a limited number of national programs and projects to transform the lives of our people, reinforce the social compact between the state and the citizens,” Mr. Karzai said. “Let us together focus less on short-term projects.”

Since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, 77 percent of the $29 billion in international aid spent in Afghanistan has been disbursed on projects with little or no input from the government, according to the Afghan Finance Ministry. That figure does not include funds for the training of security forces.

Many donor countries, and particularly the United States, have been reluctant to give an Afghan government infamous for corruption and bloated bureaucracy authority over funds, so they distribute most of their aid through international development groups or contractors. It is widely believed that graft feeds frustration with the Afghan government and boosts support for the insurgency.

NATO’s provincial reconstruction teams often say they use foreign assistance to dig wells or improve road because money for such things doesn’t percolate down from the national government.

Mrs. Clinton noted that the Karzai administration has taken steps to fight corruption, but she said more needed to be done.

“There are no shortcuts to fighting corruption and improving governance,” she said. “On this front, both the Afghan people and the people of the international community expect results.”

Mr. Obama has said he wants to begin withdrawing American troops in July 2011. Though he has stressed the timetable is dependent on security conditions, it has raised concerns in Afghanistan and the region that the United States is eager to exit the war.

“The transition process is too important to push off indefinitely,” Mrs. Clinton said as she sought to allay those concerns. “But this date is the start of a new phase, not the end of our involvement. We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission of achieving a stable, secure, peaceful Afghanistan. Too many nations —especially Afghanistan — have suffered too many losses to see this country slide backward.”

A military push in southern Afghanistan has seen violence and casualties rise in recent months. June was the deadliest month for U.S. and international forces, with the deaths of 103 service members, including 60 Americans.

In the latest violence, a NATO service member was killed Tuesday in a bomb attack in the south. NATO said the dead service member was not American but did not provide the nationality or details on the death.

Security forces virtually shut down Kabul for the conference. Police added checkpoints throughout the already heavily fortified city and closed major intersections to traffic.

Even so, rocket fire prevented a plane carrying Mr. Ban and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt from landing at the airport Tuesday morning, officials said.

“Rockets hit the airport just as we were on our way to land,” Mr. Bildt wrote on his blog. The plane was diverted to the U.S. Bagram base, outside Kabul, then the diplomats traveled aboard Blackhawk helicopters to the capital, Mr. Bildt said. The Swedish Foreign Ministry confirmed the account.

NATO forces confirmed rockets hit around the city overnight but would not say where.

Afghan and international forces raided a compound on the outskirts of Kabul on Monday night, killing several insurgents who were believed to be planning an attack on the conference, NATO forces said in a statement.

The international military coalition said its forces came under fire from men who were barricaded inside buildings in the compound. The statement said two people were arrested in the operation but not how many were killed. Spokeswoman Lt. Commander Katie Kendrick also declined to say how many people were killed in the operation.

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