KABUL, Afghanistan — A high-level international conference opens Monday in Germany where representatives of more than 90 countries and organizations gather to discuss the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign military forces.
An Afghan delegation led by President Hamid Karzai arrived in Bonn, Germany, on Friday and was welcomed by the German foreign minister, who said that the international community's message was that they would continue a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, according to a statement from Karzai's office.
But even as Afghan security forces begin taking over responsibility for new regions under the second phase of a security transition, many Afghans are skeptical about the prospects that the long-awaited conference will achieve any breakthroughs. Afghan officials are looking for concrete commitments from foreign donors, but progress could be hampered by the absence of representatives of the Taliban insurgency, who weren't invited, and of neighboring Pakistan, which is still furious over a NATO attack last month that killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers.
"Before the withdrawal, we must seek financial support to pay the salaries of our armed forces. Otherwise, the security forces will collapse immediately after the pullout" of U.S.-led international troops, said Moeen Marastyal, an Afghan politician with the newly established Right and Justice Party.
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The meeting, which takes place 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion, was meant as a follow-up to a 2001 Bonn conference where the current Afghan system of government was established. German officials had high hopes for the talks, and were reportedly hoping to include Taliban representatives, but various efforts by the United States and other nations to engage politically with leaders of the organization over the past several months have failed.
The Taliban have denounced the conference and said that the first Bonn meeting "undermined the independence of Afghanistan" and paved the way for a decade of problems.
Topmost on the agenda are the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, the faltering peace process and the commitments of international community beyond 2014. But experts say that the United States and other foreign nations are unlikely to make specific guarantees of assistance.
Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for a political coalition led by Karzai's chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, said that the international community must provide more support to the Afghan government.
"Bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan without strengthening the political process and national participation is not possible," Sancharaki said.
With Afghanistan expected to take control of security from U.S. and NATO forces by the end of 2014, the second phase of the security handover began Thursday in the relatively peaceful northern province of Parwan. With the completion of the second phase in the coming months, Afghan forces are expected to have responsibility for areas that hold 50 percent of the country's population.
The second phase includes areas in six provinces: Balkh, Daikundi, Takhar, Samangan, Nimroz and Kabul, the capital. In addition, seven provincial capitals nationwide and three districts in southern Helmand province — a longtime Taliban stronghold — are also slated for handover.
The Obama administration continues to promote a strategy it calls "fight, talk and build" — but the "talk" plank is unlikely to go anywhere given the current furor in Pakistan, where the Afghan Taliban leadership is based, over the recent border post attack. Karzai personally asked Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to send a delegation to Bonn, the presidential palace said, but the call was refused.
"Pakistan's boycott of the conference will make any progress on reconciliation even more unlikely, as it remains the only country in the region with the ability to influence the insurgent groups operating within its borders," wrote Paraag Shukla, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
Mahmud Saikal, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister, said that while the conference had much to discuss that didn't directly involve Pakistan, "In the area of security, there is a need for the presence of Pakistan."
In an op-ed published last week in The New York Times, Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the move would only further isolate Pakistan, whose relationship with the United States has been badly strained since the U.S. raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.
"If Pakistan does not attend Bonn, it will send a dangerous message that it is not serious about working with Afghanistan and international community to promote stability," wrote Kerry, D-Mass.
(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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