Exclusive: London draft sees 2011 start to Afghan handover

KABUL Sun Jan 24, 2010 12:42pm EST

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan and the international community are set to agree this week a framework for Kabul to take responsibility for its own security at a major conference in London, a draft communique obtained by Reuters showed.

Afghan troops may be managing some provinces as early as 2011, with NATO-led forces in a supporting role, paving the way for the start of a U.S. military draw-down in 18 months.

President Hamid Karzai is under intense pressure from his Western backers to strengthen and expand Afghanistan's security forces aggressively at a time of worsening violence.

But one major potential source of friction between the two sides at the Jan 28. London conference, which aims to plot a course for Western countries to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, unexpectedly eased on Sunday.

Afghan election officials announced they had decided to push back a parliamentary election to September from May, pleasing diplomats and domestic critics who want time to prevent a repeat of rampant fraud that marred a presidential vote last year.

The conference will be Karzai's first appearance on the Western stage since his tainted re-election, and both sides hope to use the meeting to relaunch his image, dented among the home electorates of countries with 110,000 troops in Afghanistan.

It aims to crystallize expectations for Afghans to start taking a leading role in fighting the insurgency, which killed record numbers of troops and civilians in 2009.

A copy of the draft communique anticipates a handover under which Afghan troops could take "security primacy" in some provinces by early 2011, with foreign forces in a supporting role, a copy obtained by Reuters showed.

Last month, President Barack Obama committed 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but also announced a target to start withdrawing them by July 2011 after building up Afghan security forces and government institutions.

Asked to comment on the draft communique for the London conference, British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth said the transition would be a long process. "We'll be able to hand over parts of Afghanistan long before we hand over other parts," he said.

The communique also commits Afghanistan to establish -- and the West to fund -- a programme to "reach out to insurgents" and pay fighters to lay down arms. That received public support on Sunday from the conference's British hosts.

"It is very important that the political system is open enough to bring those insurgents who are willing to work within the Afghan constitution," Foreign Secretary David Miliband told BBC television.

Donors will also promise to deliver more of their aid through the Afghan government, a practice Kabul says would improve its ability to manage its own affairs after years of contracts going to development agencies and Western firms.

ELECTION LOOMS

But clouding efforts to rehabilitate Karzai in 2010 is the prospect of another botched election. The parliament is one of the few Afghan institutions not appointed by the president and a rare outlet for peaceful opposition.

The presidential vote -- in which a U.N.-backed probe discarded as fraudulent nearly a third of votes cast for Karzai -- sparked a crisis of confidence in the West, and made Obama's plan to send more troops a much harder sell.

Since that election, diplomats had been working behind the scenes to persuade Karzai to postpone the parliamentary vote, originally scheduled for May 22, so that changes can be made to ensure there is no repeat of the fraud.

A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the postponement "a pragmatic and sensible decision which will allow time for reform of the key electoral institutions to enable cleaner parliamentary elections."

The new date of September 18 also means the vote will fall after the traditional summer fighting season, giving more time for the expanding international military force to help improve security, especially in the Taliban's southern heartland.

Last year, Taliban threats kept voters away from the polls in much of the south. With few genuine votes cast there, otherwise empty ballot boxes ended up stuffed with fake ones.

The United Nations is holding tens of millions of dollars for Afghan elections in an account, but diplomats say the money will not be released unless the electoral process is improved.

Critics want Karzai to replace some election commission members who they say unfairly backed him and waved through fraud.

Western leaders also want Karzai to do more to fight corruption, which they say fuels support for the Taliban. A U.N. report last week found that nearly a quarter of Afghanistan's gross domestic product is spent on bribes.

The language in the draft communique suggests that corruption will not take center stage in London.

It lists a number of anti-corruption measures, but describes them either as steps Karzai has already announced or measures to be discussed at a future conference, not new undertakings to be agreed in London.

(Additional reporting by David Milliken in London; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Emma Graham-Harrison/David Stamp)

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