Afghan talks could set timetable for security transfers

LONDON (Reuters) - An international conference on Afghanistan next week could set a timetable for transferring responsibility for security in some areas to Afghan control, Britain’s ambassador to Kabul said on Wednesday.

“What we will see at the conference, I believe, is a set of conditions and an indicative timeline for provinces and districts to be transferred, but we wouldn’t expect to be naming them,” Ambassador Mark Sedwill told a news conference in London.

The conference could say how many districts or provinces might be handed over in a given period, but naming them would encourage insurgents to try to destabilise those areas, he said.

The Jan. 28 London conference will be looking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to flesh out his plans for his second five-year term after he won a tainted election last year.

It aims to inject new momentum after months of election uncertainty and the deadliest year in the long-running war against the Taliban.

Sedwill said the conference, which will focus on security, fighting corruption and economic development, would be a turning point because, for the first time, the Afghan government would be setting the agenda.

Rich countries may agree at the conference to provide funding for a new Afghan plan to reintegrate thousands of Taliban fighters, he said.

Targets for expanding the numbers of Afghan security forces will also be announced at the conference, he said.

Britain and other countries could announce new non-military help for Afghanistan, he said, although it was not intended to be a conference where countries pledged aid or more troops.


Sedwill said there was a risk that Taliban fighters, who launched a brazen assault in the centre of Kabul on Monday, could try another “spectacular” attack in Afghanistan around the time of the London conference.

Karzai will go to London with 11 of 25 cabinet seats vacant after the Afghan parliament twice rejected most of his selections.

Giving Afghan forces lead security control in certain areas would not mean that forces in the NATO-led coalition could go home -- just that they would play a supporting role to Afghan forces.

But it would be politically helpful to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other Western leaders whose people increasingly question why their troops are dying in Afghanistan.

Brown faces an uphill battle to win an election due by June and the mounting British death toll -- 249 soldiers have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 -- makes it a sensitive issue.

Brown’s spokesman said that more than 60 countries and organisations had been invited to the conference and 56 had accepted so far.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are expected to take part. Foreign ministers from Afghanistan’s neighbours, key regional players and members of the coalition are also invited.

Iran, at odds with Britain over its nuclear programme and other issues, has been invited, a Foreign Office spokeswoman said, but she would not say if it would send a representative.

When he was sworn in in November, Karzai promised to fight rampant corruption and to take control of his country’s security before his five-year term ends.

The conference aimed to “put some more flesh on the bones” of Karzai’s pledges while a follow-up conference in Kabul in the spring would be about implementing the plans, Sedwill said.

Additional reporting by Matt Falloon; Editing by Tim Castle/ David Stamp