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New Afghan strategy planned

THE HAGUE, Mar 31 – Afghanistan’s international backers, including Iran, gather Tuesday to try to bring new impetus to efforts to combat the Taliban-led insurgency, help spread democracy and rebuild.

On the eve of the "big tent" meeting in The Hague, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the 90 countries, organisations and observers taking part to bring constructive ideas to the table, with key elections approaching.

"We are hoping that each neighbour, friend and stakeholder who is participating will have constructive ideas about what that country would do to try to help us achieve the security and stability goals that we set," she said.

"I think there are a number of ways that different nations can be constructive in supporting Afghanistan," she told reporters travelling with her to The Netherlands.

"There are a number of issues that affect the neighbours, including terrorism and narcotic trafficking," she said.

Clinton announced a US donation of 40 million dollars (30 million euros) to the elections, seen as a litmus test of efforts to spread democracy, more than seven years after the fundamentalist Taliban regime was ousted.

Earlier Monday, the European Commission said it was ready to commit an additional 60 million euros (79 million dollars) in aid to support the elections, as well as the police and the farm sector in Afghanistan.

The one-day conference puts Pakistan, a haven for Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, at the epicentre of international efforts, but also attempts to draw in other neighbours, like China and Russia.

"We should recognise that the ‘West’ cannot solve this alone. I think it is important that we are realistic in that regard, and certainly NATO cannot do this all by itself," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Monday.

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Iran will take part in the talks — to be opened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and hosted by the

Netherlands, the United Nations and Afghanistan — but a meeting with the US team appeared remote.

The source of 90 percent of the world’s heroin and a breeding ground for militants, Afghanistan poses a thorny problem particularly for Iran, as well as other neighbours, with its opium production and asylum seekers.

Clinton was upbeat about the attendance of Tehran, to be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoondzadeh.

"The fact that they accepted the invitation to come suggests that they believe there is a role for them to play and we are looking forward to hear about that," she said.

"There are two issues in particular, border security and counter-narcotics that have a direct effect on Iran’s well being," she noted.

But diplomats were cautious about reading too much into the attendance of the Islamic republic, which has been accused of supporting various factions — militant and governmental — in Afghanistan to try to wield influence.

"There are some things the Iranians could be very helpful with. Counter-narcotics is an obvious example," one European diplomat noted. "But there are also a lot of very unhelpful things."

The gathering is not billed as a donor’s conference.

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But Scheffer has appealed to nations outside of NATO — like Japan, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States — to contribute two billion dollars a year to an alliance-managed fund to build up the Afghan army.

Yet the conference comes as public support for the NATO-led military operation in Afghanistan wanes, and as nations taking casualties in the south take aim at allies not doing their fair share of combat.

As civilian casualties mount, ordinary Afghans are also increasingly resentful of the foreign military presence and of President Hamid Karzai’s inability to improve the economy and with it their livelihoods.


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