PORT OF SPAIN (Reuters) - Britain will host talks on Afghanistan on January 28, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Saturday, just days before U.S. President Barack Obama spells out his expansion of the war effort next week.
The international conference in London, to be followed by a meeting in Kabul, will address progressively handing security to Afghan control, Brown and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago.
That would, in theory, allow NATO countries to draw down their forces gradually as public support wanes on both sides of the Atlantic for the costly war that began in late 2001.
The London and Kabul talks will “outline the framework for an increased lead role for the Afghans in the shaping of their destiny,” Ban said.
Brown said he saw the need “to transfer at least five Afghan provinces to lead Afghan control by the end of 2010.”
Despite talk of a transition, the immediate focus for the United States, Britain and their allies is how best to fight a tenacious insurgency by Taliban and al Qaeda militants, including calls for tens of thousands more soldiers.
Obama will address Americans in a prime-time televised speech on Tuesday to explain why U.S. soldiers need to be in Afghanistan and the way toward an “endgame” in the conflict.
He is expected to say he is sending about 30,000 more U.S. troops as part of a strategy to accelerate training of Afghan forces and press President Hamid Karzai to improve governance after his re-election in a fraud-tainted vote in August.
General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, expects the United States to be able to start scaling back its forces “sometime before 2013,” said Republican Representative Mike Coffman, who was among a delegation of U.S. lawmakers just back from a visit to Kabul.
Karzai has said Afghans would be able to take over security in five years — in line with McChrystal’s target but a goal U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “ambitious.”
Complicating the situation are the issues of Pakistan’s efforts against the militants on its side of the rugged border, Karzai’s ability to tackle corruption and the geopolitical concerns of India, China, Iran and others.
Obama’s strategy decision, after a three-month review, will shape the future of the war in Afghanistan, where 68,000 U.S. troops anchor a multinational force of 110,000 soldiers.
The war will also be a key issue in a British election due by June 2010, which Brown faces an uphill battle to win, and in U.S. congressional elections in November 2010.
Brown said he would announce next week whether conditions were right for Britain to add 500 soldiers to its 9,000-strong force in Afghanistan. He said he expected other countries to pledge an extra 5,000 troops.
Violence in Afghanistan has hit its highest levels since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2001 to oust the fundamentalist Taliban movement for harboring al Qaeda leaders responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Pakistan has also suffered a wave of militant bombings that have killed hundreds of people since its forces launched a major offensive against the Taliban in September.
Brown said the London conference would aim to “drive forward our campaign in Afghanistan, to match the increase in military forces with an increased political momentum.”
Karzai, Ban, NATO allies, Afghanistan’s neighbors, regional powers and key international bodies will be invited, he said.
White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the meeting “will be an opportunity for the international community and the Afghan government to discuss security transition, governance, economic development, reintegration and reconciliation, and civilian leadership issues.”
Beyond expanding U.S. forces, Pentagon officials expect Obama to continue the existing counterinsurgency strategy with more focus on protecting major Afghan population centers, agricultural areas and transportation routes.
That could be combined with greater use of unmanned aerial drones and special operations units to fight Taliban and al Qaeda militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in Afghanistan’s more sparsely populated areas.
But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday that the cost of the conflict to the United States — $6.7 billion in June alone — and the physical toll it has taken on the U.S. military made the war unsustainable in the long term.
“We are not going to be there another eight or nine years,” he said. “Our time there will be limited and that is important for people to understand.”
Obama, also seeking to wind down the war in Iraq, will discuss Afghanistan strategy with visiting Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Monday.
Australia, a close U.S. ally with about 1,500 troops in the war zone, is expected to announce it is sending several hundred more, the Washington Post reported.
A new NATO training mission is working to expand the Afghan army to 134,000 soldiers by October 2010. But McChrystal wants a dramatic rise in the size of Afghan forces, perhaps to as many as 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police.
Kabul announced a pay raise of nearly 40 percent for police and military recruits on Saturday — to about $165 a month — to improve the quality of the forces, especially police ranks that are plagued by corruption, desertion and high turnover.
“We have an Afghanistan that will be able to defend itself with its own national security forces,” Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli and Yousuf Azimi in Kabul, Pascal Fletcher in Port of Spain, and Ross Colvin and Adam Entous in Washington; Writing by John O'Callaghan in Washington; Editing by Vicki Allen