US Calls for High-Level Afghanistan Conference, Iran Invitation Expected

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Agence France Presse

US Calls for High-Level Afghanistan Conference, Iran Invitation Expected

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BRUSSELS — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called
Thursday for a high-level conference on Afghanistan at the end of the
month, as Washington winds up a review of how to combat the Taliban-led
insurgency.

"The United States proposes a ministerial-level
conference on Afghanistan and the broader regional challenge on March
31," she told NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

"We are in the
process of discussing with the UN the possibility that UN Secretary
General Ban Ki-moon could open the conference and that his special
representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide could chair the meeting."

She
did not say where the meeting would be held, but only that Afghan and
Pakistani officials would be invited, with NATO allies, donors,
international organisations and "key regional and strategic" nations.

"I
would expect that Iran would be invited," said State Department
spokesman Robert Wood. The Islamic republic has been badly hit by opium
production in Afghanistan.

The conference would take place days
before a summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation leaders in early
April, but not be a NATO event. The Hague in the Netherlands is one
possible venue being discussed.

The United States and its NATO
allies are battling to halt an insurgency that has severely dented
their efforts to spread democracy and foster reconstruction throughout
Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama has demanded a strategy
review focused on fighting extremism in the strife-torn country, where
he is deploying 17,000 extra troops, and in neighbouring Pakistan as he
winds down US involvement in Iraq.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de
Hoop Scheffer described the conference as a giant meeting and said the
allies had responded with enthusiasm.

"I felt a lot of appetite for a big tent meeting," he told reporters, after the talks.

Clinton
urged US allies to make greater efforts, ahead of Afghanistan's
presidential elections on August 20 which could prove a litmus test of
NATO's efforts there.

"We have a common threat. A common challenge. And a common responsibility," she said.

"We
must add resources to address the serious situation on the ground right
now. President Obama has committed 17,000 more troops, and we
appreciate that some countries are giving more."

But she added:
"We must also increase development aid and provide support to help
train and build the Afghan army and police to take on the
responsibility of keeping the Afghan people safe and secure."

Many
European allies are reluctant to send more troops and equipment to the
south of Afghanistan, where the insurgency is at its worst, and this is
straining the alliance.

But Washington hopes those who will not
stump up military resources might reach deeper into their pockets, or
help promote democracy or provide training.

The European Union is
providing Afghanistan with some eight billion euros over the 2001-2010
period and is helping train the Afghan police, although it is
struggling to find the necessary trainers.

However EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Europe could do more.

"There is a lot that can be done, it is not only militarily. It is not a military problem only," he said.

"We
can do probably more on police, on reconstruction, in regional matters,
Afghanistan is not alone, Pakistan is a very important country for the
stability of Afghanistan," he said.

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