Afghanistan’s new leaders were seeking to build bridges with the West at a conference in London Thursday as they struggle to bring peace while foreign combat forces withdraw after 13 years.
The conference, opened by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, is not expected to deliver new cash pledges but does provide a platform for President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah to outline their reform plans.
It comes after the two agreed to form a national unity government in September and as the US-led NATO force ends its combat mission amid a spike in Taliban attacks against international targets in Kabul.
Ghani and Abdullah are being joined by prominent figures including US Secretary of State John Kerry, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Afghanistan is entering a new chapter in its history, the start of a Transformation Decade, where it will take the lead in managing its own development and security,” Hammond said, opening the conference.
“But we should not underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead nor the enduring need for a strong partnership between Afghanistan and the international community.
“While much has been achieved, there is much, much, more to do.”
Ghani wants to implement a national “strategy of self-reliance” including tackling corruption, improving security and governance plus boosting exports.
Despite pouring billions of dollars into supporting Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, the international community had a fraught relationship with Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Many diplomats are now hoping to reset relations under the former World Bank economist, although he has yet to appoint any new ministers to his government.
The international combat mission, which peaked at 130,000 troops in 2010, winds down at the end of this year but some 12,500 NATO troops, mainly American, will stay on for several years to train and advise Afghan forces.
President Barack Obama had pledged that the US combat mission in Afghanistan would end this year but officials said last month that US forces would still be able to help Afghan troops and police fight the Taliban in certain circumstances.
Ghani will visit the US early next year when US officials will discuss with him whether to prolong further the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, Peter McKinley, Obama’s pick as his next ambassador to Kabul, said Tuesday.
The US is filling in temporarily for a shortage of roughly 400 to 700 NATO troops through the winter of 2015, officials said.
Aid levels to Afghanistan have fallen in recent years as international troop levels reduced and Western frustration with Karzai mounted.
Another aim of the conference is therefore to ensure that donor countries honour pledges made at a previous conference in Tokyo in 2012.
“It feels as if some of the sympathy that was lost over the past years may be creeping back into the world’s hearts,” Christine Roehrs of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network wrote this week.
She added that if Ghani can form a cabinet and deliver concrete reforms relatively quickly, “the good will might hold.”
Ahead of the conference, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged donor countries to stress the importance of rights for Afghan women and other human rights issues.
“Without international pressure and aid specifically targeted at ending rights abuses, many of the gains of the last 13 years could easily slip away,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. SAPA