U.S. seeks support on Afghan plans at Hague forum

THE HAGUE Sun Mar 29, 2009 5:01pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Washington announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan March 27, 2009. Standing behind is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Washington announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan March 27, 2009. Standing behind is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The United States is expected to seek international support for its renewed commitment to defeat Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan at a U.N. conference in the Netherlands on Tuesday.

Washington is hoping to enlist support from Iran, Russia, China and India amongst others for a new strategy to end a stalemate in Afghanistan and undercut an Islamist insurgency spilling increasingly into neighboring Pakistan.

"We need first, to ensure that there is a regional approach, and second, that neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan are involved in creating a stable situation in Afghanistan," said Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, who will co-chair the conference with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend along with representatives from nearly 90 countries including Iran, with which President Barack Obama is seeking to improve ties.

A U.S. official said she had no plans for a "substantive" meeting with Iranian representatives, but State Department spokesman Robert Wood said that, "Iran has a role to play. We hope it will be a positive one."

Shi'ite Iran cooperated with Washington when the Sunni Taliban were ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. But it backed off after being branded by former president George W. Bush as part of the "axis of evil."

It has not said who it will send to the conference, although Dutch officials have said they expect Iranian representatives.

"Iranian attendance at a big Afghan conference ... is pretty important, there are many ways Iran can help," said Malcolm Chalmers at London's Royal United Services Institute.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who will also be in The Hague, said on Saturday the plan to include Iran in a regional role was "a positive thing."

BIG TENT MEETING

The so-called "big tent" meeting follows the announcement by Obama on Friday of a new strategy which will combine extra troops, funds for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a renewed focus on targeting al Qaeda militants on the Afghan/Pakistan border.

"The meeting ... reflects the desire to reassess what the goals are and how to achieve them so that we have a strategy that is agreed on by all parties," Anne-Marie Slaughter, U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning, told the BBC.

Organizers stress the conference will focus on regional cooperation rather than seeking extra troops or money for Afghanistan, facing problems of economic under-development and drug production along with the growing Taliban insurgency.

"This is not a pledging conference," said Dutch minister of development cooperation, Bert Koenders.

"Pledging conferences are maybe the easiest in saying how much money do you want to spend," Koenders said. "The conference will ensure that there is a better political strategy toward Afghanistan."

The U.S. State Department has made clear that Clinton would not be attending with a "list of requirements" but rather seek suggestions.

More than 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan. On top of a deployment of 17,000 extra U.S. troops to tackle violence before elections due in August, Obama committed another 4,000 last week to train the army. More than 33,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed.

At a Paris donors conference in May 2008, more than $20 billion was pledged for a multi-year development effort, but critics said it exposed frustrations both at the inefficiency of the Afghan government and the failure of donors themselves to coordinate their aid.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam and Sue Pleming in Washington; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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