The way forward for Afghanistan

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses audience at London International Conference on Afghanistan. (Image: president.gov.af)

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Story by Marco Werman, PRI's "The World"

Afghan forces will begin taking control of security in some of the country’s provinces by the end of 2010, a key summit on its future pledged. In a statement at the end of the one-day meeting, delegates said the process would be complete within five years.

The final communique from the summit in London said it welcomed Afghanistan’s goal of taking charge of the "majority of operations in the insecure areas of Afghanistan within three years, and taking responsibility for physical security within five years." It said the international community would continue to improve the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, boosting the army to 171,600 and the police to 134,000 personnel by October 2011.

At the conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai also introduced a plan to reach out to the Taliban as a way to decrease tensions inside Afghanistan.

One of the leading Afghan delegates at the conference is Omar Zakhilwal. He's Afghanistan's Finance Minister and Chief Economic Advisor to President Karzai. Zakhilwal is also one of the key proponents of reintegrating the Taliban into Afghan society.

"The government has always been in contact with elements of the Taliban -- at the lower level, the mid level and at the high level," said Zakhilwal. "What it did not have was the support of the international community; therefore the Afghan government could not give assurances to elements who wanted to join a peaceful way of life. 

"Now with the London conference and the strong endorsements from the US, the UK, from other donors, we have the backing and we can give the assurances to our enemy that if they renounce violence, if they distance themselves from Al Qaeda, they respect Afghan constitution that ensures basic human rights and women's rights; they could come to not only an ordinary peaceful life, but they could also be part of the political process. They could run and be members of the Parliament. If they have the capability just like any other Afghan, they could also serve in the government in whatever post they're capable for."

Getting the Taliban back into the camp of normalcy will involve money, Zakhilwal admits. But, he says, the cost will be less than the cost of war.

Security remains a big concern for Afghan citizens. President Obama, in his State of the Union Address, sounded hopeful about the rising quality and number of Afghan troops and police, and a future where these forces will take on a fuller measure of responsibility in the country.

Backing up President Obama's remarks, Zakhilwal asserts that Afghan forces are increasing in strength, saying 60 percent of the country's operations are currently being conducted by Afghanistan's own security forces.

"Just weeks ago I personally was witness to the sophisticated suicide attacks around my Ministry by the Taliban, or elements of them," said Zakhilwal. "It was only our security forces that responded to them and with very minimum casualties. Within a few hours everything was calmed down. So that shows the competence and capability of our own security forces."

As for how Afghanistan will finance security forces this year and in future years, Zakhilwal says the government expects the international community to pick up the bill.

"Investing in Afghan security forces costs a thousand times less than what it costs U.S. soldiers," he said. "Right now one American soldier in Afghanistan cost about a million dollars per year. One Afghan soldier costs about five thousand. So the aim here is that as we gain self-sustainability, we will rely less and less on US soldiers and their sacrifices and for a fraction of their costs."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World.

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