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Kerry backs new Afghan leaders at London meet

LONDON: Secretary of State John Kerry promised US and allied support for Afghanistan as the country’s new leaders outlined reform plans on Thursday, even as they struggled to bring peace while foreign combat forces withdraw.

“We have a government in Kabul that merits our confidence,” Kerry told an international conference in London with President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah.

“They can be confident of the support of the international community,” he said.

The conference is not focused on new cash pledges but instead on providing a platform for Ghani and Abdullah, joined by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

It comes after the two agreed to form a national unity government in September and as US-led foreign forces end a 13-year combat mission amid a spike in Taliban attacks against international targets in Kabul.

Ghani wants to implement a national “strategy of self-reliance”, including tackling corruption, improving security and governance plus boosting exports.

Kerry praised Ghani and Abdullah for putting aside their own political differences in favour of creating a united vision for Afghanistan’s development, following the presidency of Hamid Karzai, in whom Western confidence wore thin.

“We are confident that the policies outlined today will result in a more stable, prosperous Afghanistan. This is really an extraordinary moment. It’s a moment of transformation,” Kerry said.

Sharif outlined a nine-point plan for Afghanistan’s development, centred on strengthening regional economic ties.

“Pakistan remains in strong solidarity with the people of Afghanistan,” he told delegates.

“We fully support the government’s forward-looking vision.

“I share with President Ghani my vision of a comprehensive and enduring partnership between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said, where terrorism would be fought as a “common enemy”.

– ‘Transformation decade’ –

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of Afghanistan entering a “transformation decade” where it would take the lead in handling its own development, but warned of huge challenges ahead.

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 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 Washington officials will discuss with him whether to prolong the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, Peter McKinley, Obama’s pick as his next ambassador to Kabul, said Tuesday.

Another aim of the conference is to ensure that donor countries honour pledges made at a previous conference in Tokyo in 2012.

Aid levels to Afghanistan have fallen in recent years as international troop levels reduced and Western frustration with Karzai mounted.

A British official told AFP that London wanted to hear from the new Afghan leaders a “realistic recognition” of the country’s problems but also clear ideas about how to tackle them.

An international “message of support” from the conference to Ghani would then “strengthen his arm so he can make those reforms happen”, he said. -AFP

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