Asia Crisis

Britain offers to host Afghan security conference

LONDON, Sept 9 (Reuters) - Britain said on Wednesday it has offered to host an international conference on Afghanistan to set targets for transferring security responsibilities from foreign forces to Afghan authorities.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said the conference might be split into two parts, with one part held in Kabul, security permitting, and another part held in a "major international city" yet to be decided.

"We have offered to host (the meeting)," he said.

The proposal for the conference is a joint initiative by Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, announced last weekend.

It comes as increased bloodshed in Afghanistan has raised public pressure on NATO governments to justify having troops deployed in Afghanistan, which is mired in a conflict pitting Afghan and NATO-led forces against Taliban insurgents.

The three leaders sent a letter proposing the conference to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week.

The letter praised Afghanistan's August presidential election as "an important step in its democratic history" and said it was a natural time to take stock and assess challenges.

Afghan election returns on Tuesday put President Hamid Karzai on course for a first-round victory but a watchdog said there was clear evidence of fraud and ordered a partial recount.

The letter said the conference should set "new benchmarks and timelines" for handing over responsibilities step-by-step to Afghan authorities, a process also known as "Afghanisation".

Asked if the conference was about setting an "exit strategy" for the 9,000 British troops in Afghanistan, Brown's spokesman said: "Exit strategies are very much linked to the whole process of Afghanisation and that is going to be something that will be a focal point for the conference."

The leaders proposed the conference, expected to be held by the end of the year, should be at ministerial level and co-chaired by the United Nations and the Afghan government.

Merkel called on Tuesday for Afghans to shoulder more of the security burden in their country, seeking to defuse a row over Berlin's role in Afghanistan weeks before a German election. Most Germans want the country's 4,200 troops there to come home.

Brown has called for training of Afghan soldiers and police to be speeded up and expanded to permit them gradually to take over security responsibilities from NATO forces.

About 40 British soldiers have been killed in southern Afghanistan in the last two months, leading to questioning of the mission in Britain and accusations that Brown's government has failed to equip them properly.

A continuing high British death toll could damage Brown in an election he must call within the next nine months and which he is already tipped to lose.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will say later on Wednesday that a rush to withdraw from Afghanistan is not an option despite mounting political and security problems. (Editing by Matthew Jones)