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Afghans set ambitious 2014 security target

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan forces should be leading security operations throughout their country by 2014, an international conference said on Tuesday, and they should be aiming to take over from foreign troops in some areas this year.

The ambitious deadline will rely heavily on the success of some 150,000 foreign troops in a continuing operation against the Taliban in its spiritual southern heartland, as well as on enticing thousands of insurgents to lay down arms.

It also depends on how fast foreign troops are able to train and equip their local counterparts, the difficulty of which was underscored on Tuesday when an Afghan soldier killed two U.S. civilians and one of his own comrades in northern Mazar-i-Sharif.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s flight to the conference was diverted to NATO’s Bagram airfield following an insurgent rocket attack, illustrating the reality of security elsewhere.

“As it turned out, the rocket attack was little more than a serious attempt to disrupt our sleep,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, on the same flight, wrote in his blog.

Despite a massive security crackdown for the conference, which drew about 60 foreign ministers including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, insurgents managed to land at least five rockets near the airport and diplomatic area.

The final statement from the gathering said the Afghan government would be given more responsibility for its own affairs -- including security -- in exchange for guarantees it will improve standards and accountability.

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“Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014,” the communique said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the Afghans had set out their own plans but needed to enact them.

“I have said to their ministers, individually and collectively, that it’s now very important to implement these plans,” he told reporters after the conference.

That goal was laudable, lawmaker Daud Sultanzoi said.

“Looking at it from a realistic perspective it is a very good and necessary goal but in terms of its practicality there are so many questions that have to be answered before we can really just stick to a timetable,” he told Reuters.

The United States plans to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Clinton told the conference that target date underscored the urgency of transferring more security responsibility to the Afghan government.

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“The July 2011 date captures both our sense of urgency and the strength of our resolve,” she said. “The transition process is too important to push off indefinitely.”

The Taliban have been emboldened by talk of transition timetables, convinced Washington is not committed to a drawn-out fight and insisting they will not stop fighting until all foreign forces leave.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai will see the conference as a triumph after a year in which he lost favor in the West over a disputed election, complaints about his government’s competence and a half-brother’s alleged shady business dealings.

In Washington, both U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron touted the importance of the conference as a step toward handing over security responsibilities to the Afghans.

“The Kabul Conference shows that ... Afghanistan has the support of the international community, including the United States, which will remain a long-term partner for the security and progress of the Afghan people,” Obama said, at a joint news conference by the two leaders.

The foreign visitors greeted him warmly and footage of what was promoted as the most important international conference in more than three decades was broadcast live on state television.

The final statement said participants gave strong support for channeling at least 50 percent of development aid through the government within two years, from the current 20 percent, in exchange for more accountability and a crackdown on graft.

While acknowledging problems, Karzai insists that most corruption and waste surrounds private contracts doled out by the U.S. military and government.

“We must work together to agree on common norms, standards, rules and codes of conduct on contracting,” he said. “This is especially important in the domain of private security companies whose very existence undermines and threatens our combined efforts to strengthen the Afghan government.”

More than $40 billion has been spent on Afghanistan since 2002, Oxfam says -- about half toward training and equipping the army and police force.

Sultanzoi said Afghanistan needed to change its mind-set.

“It is not just the equipment and gear and technical things,” he said. “It is also a culture that a national army has to possess in order to take control of the defense of a nation.”

Writing by David Fox; Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Hamid Shalizi and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson and Bill Trott