Australia has been among the first countries in the world to donate $25 million towards a new fund designed to encourage the Taliban to lay down their guns in Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference she is confident the Taliban will leave the battlefield under the plan, which aims to offer insurgents food and jobs.
Plans for the $560-million reintegration and peace fund have been unveiled in London, as world leaders and foreign ministers from 70 countries attended a one-day conference on Afghanistan’s future.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith pledged $25 million as part of an extra $100 million Australia will pour into a range of Afghan projects from mine clearing to reconstruction.
Australia’s donation is among almost 160 million dollars worth of pledges made at the conference which also agreed Afghanistan should take more control of its own security from the end of 2010.
Afghan security forces will take over an unspecified number of provinces “by late 2010/early 2011”, the powers said after a conference in London on Thursday, saying it marked “a new phase on the way to full Afghan ownership”.
Western powers like the United States hope the pledges will allow them to cut troop levels in Afghanistan.
But the conference was dismissed as propaganda by the Taliban, who Karzai had earlier invited to join peace talks.
About 70 nations, including Afghanistan, the United States and Britain held seven hours of discussions amid tight security to discuss how to stabilise the country and bolster Karzai, re-elected in November in polls tainted by corruption.
“The Afghan desire was and is to take more responsibility and to demonstrate ownership of the whole process of state building,” Rangeen Spanta, a key adviser to Karzai and former foreign minister, said after the talks.
“Today was a good day for Afghanistan”.
The main plank of Karzai’s proposals, welcomed by the conference, is an internationally backed fund believed to be worth $US500 million ($A559.35 million) to persuade moderate Taliban fighters to renounce violence in return for jobs.
Karzai said Afghanistan and its Western supporters must “reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers who are not part of al-Qaeda”.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said $US140 million ($A156.62 million) had been pledged for the first year of the fund.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she thought the plan would work.
“We expect a lot of the foot soldiers on the battlefield will be leaving the Taliban because many of them have wanted to leave, many of them are tired of fighting. We believe the tide has turned against them,” she said.
“This is similar to what the American military did in Iraq.”
Karzai also pledged to establish a national council for peace, reconciliation and reintegration and call a “peace jirga,” or traditional gathering of Afghans.
His deputy spokesman Hamid Elmi told AFP the Taliban would “definitely” be invited, but the appeals were met with defiance by the insurgents.
“The warmongering rulers under the leadership of (US President Barack) Obama and (British Prime Minister Gordon) Brown want to deceive the people of the world by holding the London conference to show that people still support them,” the Taliban leadership said, according to SITE monitoring service.
However, a United Nations official told AFP the UN representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, met active members of the Taliban insurgency in Dubai this month for “talks about talks”.
The meeting was held at the militants’ request, the official said.
Despite the hopes expressed at the conference, foreign forces could still have to remain in Afghanistan for years – Clinton stressed the planned handover was “not an exit strategy”.
The NATO-led force fighting the Taliban is due to swell to 150,000 by the end of 2010 after a US surge, but Karzai said Thursday his country would need international help for at least another decade.
“With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years will be enough,” he told BBC radio.
“With regard to sustaining them until Afghanistan is financially able to provide for our forces, the time will be extended to 10 to 15 years.”
Brown said international allies would help Afghanistan to grow its security forces to 300,000 by October 2011.
The United States, by far the biggest troop contributor, has indicated it wants to start drawing down by July 2011.
But the potent threat posed by the insurgency was highlighted Thursday when a US soldier was killed in southern Afghanistan.
The conference also hailed measures announced by Karzai to tackle corruption, including inviting outside experts to audit the scale of graft within three months – a key demand of the West.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the conference venue were opposed to any overture to the Taliban.
“We didn’t go through all this war to have Taliban back,” said Tahmina Yousofi, a 32-year-old doctor who left Afghanistan three years ago.