Afghanistan conference eyes Taliban plan

London plays host Thursday to a crucial day-long international conference to chart the future of war-torn Afghanistan.

A central focus of the summit is a $500 million pay-for-peace proposal to bring Taliban fighters into the civilian fold if they promise to renounce violence.

The conference, which gathers more than 60 countries and organizations, reflects the urgency of international powers to find ways to strengthen the Afghan government in the face of a persistent Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency.

It is co-hosted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Sworn in after a fraud-marred presidential election last year, Karzai vowed to tackle corruption and said he expected the country's security to be wholly in the hands of Afghan army and police by 2014.

The United States has said it wants to start bringing American troops home by 2011.

"Tomorrow's conference on Afghanistan comes at a critical moment," Ban told reporters Wednesday at U.N. headquarters in New York before leaving for London.

"The Afghan people want a larger say in their future. ... At the same time, Afghans need to know that the international community will support them, over the long term, in building their institutions of government."

Ban has named a veteran Swedish diplomat, Staffan de Mistura, as the new top U.N. official in Afghanistan. De Mistura, who begins his stint on March 1, was a former U.N. representative in Iraq.

At Thursday's summit, Karzai is expected to ask for $500 million for an initiative to offer jobs and homes to moderate Taliban fighters, helping them return to civilian life.

Ban has said he supports the plan, and Afghanistan's major international donors are expected to pledge the money.

A "thing to watch is whether or not President Karzai and we can come up with a program for reintegration of those lower-level Taliban, which will chip away at the power of the Taliban and help to support the efforts of the Afghan security forces," said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who just returned from Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders acknowledge the need to bring at least some lower-level Taliban leaders into the political and social fabric of Afghanistan.

When asked whether the Taliban could play a role in the future of Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander there, said, "I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past."

U.S. military intelligence estimates that the Taliban now has shadow governments in 33 of 34 provinces, raising questions about whether insurgents will be motivated to reintegrate.

In a statement addressing the conference, the Taliban said the West has held conferences in the past to discuss Afghanistan's future, but there is only one solution to end the conflict: withdrawal.

"It is a matter of great sorrow that the invaders led by U.S.A. are bent on sticking to the military approach of the issue," the statement said.

"We want to say clearly, if the invaders want to save themselves from further financial and life losses, they should not deceive their people by illusory plans and strategies, nor they should waste time on them, or make our people face further sufferings and problems. They should accept the solution put forward by the Islamic Emirate, which is the full withdrawal of the invading forces from our country."

A second major gathering is expected to take place in a few months in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.

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