KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and foreign forces are stepping up security in the Afghan capital for the biggest international conference in decades this week, where delegates will thrash out plans for handing more responsibility for the country to the government. Over 60 envoys, among them some 40 foreign ministers and including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are expected to attend the conference on Tuesday, co-chaired by President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
With violence at its worst levels since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, western diplomats are lauding the fact the conference is taking place in Kabul at all and the Afghan government is keen to see it run smoothly.
A major attack could be a disaster for the government and could score a valuable propaganda point for the insurgents.
While they say all necessary steps to thwart an assault on the day have been taken, both Afghan and NATO forces acknowledge they cannot be everywhere at once.
That message hit home on Sunday when in the latest spell of violence a suicide bomber killed two civilians and wounded several more, including a child, in a residential area in the capital, close to the U.S. embassy, the Interior Ministry said.
“We are 100 percent prepared but this doesn’t mean everything will go exactly to plan. We will try to do our best and we will also rely on the support of God,” said Zemarai Bashary, spokesman for the Interior Ministry which runs the police force.
NATO’s top civilian representative in Afghanistan said insurgents would try to launch an attack and no amount of security preparations could be infallible.
“We have to prepare ourselves for the fact that the insurgents are going to seek to disrupt this,” Mark Sedwill told reporters over the weekend.
“Nobody is going to offer a 100 percent guarantee, but they (security precautions) are very extensive and indeed intensive.”
Bashary said all police officers had been placed on “high alert” and had already taken up their positions in a “ring of steel” around the city. Policemen from other units such as the anti-narcotics police, would also be on standby, he said.
While Western forces are keen to point out the conference security plans have been drawn up by the Afghans, NATO said its troops would be out on the streets with their Afghan counterparts and would have a “quick reaction force” on standby.
NATO helicopters will also be circling over the city in a “show of force” to try and deter an attack, said Lieutenant Commander Katie Kendrick, a spokeswoman for NATO-led forces.
“NATO forces are also ready to assist the Afghan government with any other assets,” she said. Bashary said the ministry had not received any specific threats against the conference, but NATO forces said they had captured several militants inside the capital over the weekend who were planning to attack the meeting.
While not able to completely disrupt it, insurgents fired rockets and tried to stage a suicide attack on a peace “jirga,” or meeting, of tribal elders last month, while Karzai was addressing the gathering.
The attack was quickly suppressed but caused embarrassment for the government and led to the resignations of the interior minister and the head of the country’s intelligence service. Karzai will want to avoid a repeat of the incident.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by David Fox