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Afghan president must crack down on corruption, NATO leaders say

Leaders of NATO countries told Afghan President Hamid Karzai today that they expect him to match their investment of aid and armies with a serious commitment to run a clean and transparent government.

The message was underscored by both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama at the close of a two-day summit of the transatlantic alliance that endorsed a 2014 target date for Afghans to take charge of their own security from NATO forces.

The summit also produced an agreement to move forward with a missile defence shield that would link American and NATO systems covering European territory. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, whose presence at the summit was hailed as a "reset" of the strained relations between his country and NATO, said his country is open to co-operating in the anti-missile system.

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Mr. Harper called the summit a major success. On Afghanistan, he said that it sent a clear message to the Afghan leadership.

"In general terms, what I and others told President Karzai was that the support of our governments, and indeed our populations, depends on the government of Afghanistan's respect for democracy, the rule of law, fair elections, human rights and good governance," said Mr. Harper.

Mr. Karzai has said he can hardly be expected to control corruption when he does not control most of the money being spent in his country. Only about 20 per cent of the international investment and aid flowing into Afghanistan each year is channelled through government ministries.

The Afghan leader pressed the NATO leaders to increase that to 50 per cent.

As far as Canada is concerned, that is not going to happen any time soon. "Our answer is clear," said Mr. Harper. "We will not disburse a dime for the government of Afghanistan unless we are convinced it's going to be spent in the way it's meant to be spent."

President Obama echoed the prime minister. He said NATO and the other countries operating in Afghanistan have to take into consideration the difficulties of Mr. Karzai's position as the president of a aid-dependent country where more than 130,000 foreign troops are operating.

"We have to listen and learn and be sensitive," said Mr. Obama in a news conference after the summit. "But if we're footing the bill … he's also got to pay attention to our own concerns as well."

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NATO also offered Afghanistan a long-term aid package today that envisions continued financial subsidies and training for a 300,000-strong national security force that the war-torn country may not be able to afford on its own for years.

After a meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the 48 countries that have manpower and money invested in his country, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the "aim" was to have Afghanistan take charge of its own security by the end of 2014 - but with the proviso that international forces will stay on if Afghan soldiers and police cannot ensure that the country will not again become a safe haven for terrorists.

While a staged handover will start next year, the situation on the ground and Afghan capabilities will determine the pace. "We will not transition until our Afghan partners are ready," said Mr. Rasmussen.

Mr. Karzai had proposed the deadline last year, and said he remained confident that his government would be able to take on "leadership and ownership" of the country by the end of 2014.

At the same time, some NATO officials acknowledged that a transition to Afghan self-rule will require a more graceful political handover that takes President Karzai's frustrations with NATO into account.

Less than a week ago, tensions between Mr. Karzai and the U.S. commander of NATO forces erupted in public after he criticized the counterinsurgency tactics of the U.S.-led military operation and suggested foreign troops should start to leave. The Afghan leader has also pushed to have more of the international aid flowing into the country controlled by his government.

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"There is no question there are some frictions between us," said a senior Kabul-based official of the alliance, who briefed reporters on the condition he not be named.

"We weren't always responsive before" when Mr. Karzai condemned civilian casualties resulting from NATO operations, he added, and "for several years we didn't properly resource the campaign in Afghanistan."

Mr. Rasmussen made a similar admission in an interview with Portuguese radio on the eve of the summit. "I think that, seen retrospectively, we underestimated the challenge and our operation in Afghanistan didn't have sufficient resources, and yes, that was a mistake."

At the summit, Canada won praise for its decision this week to provide 950 of the 2,000 military trainers that NATO estimates will be needed in Afghanistan over the next four years.

"Trainers are the ticket to transition," said Mr. Rasmussen.

Mr. Karzai also offered his thanks. "Canada has been at the forefront of assistance to Afghanistan since the beginning," he said, adding that the country is "extremely grateful to the Canadian contribution to the wellbeing of the Afghan people."

On Friday, the first day of the two-day summit, NATO leaders also approved a new "strategic concept" for the alliance that sets out threats it faces over the next 10 years and a plan for a missile-defence system that would link U.S. and European shields against ballistic missiles.

No specific countries are named as threats. But Mr. Harper and French President Nicolas Sarkozy identified Iran, which has developed long-range missiles and is believed to be building a nuclear weapon capability, as a serious threat to the alliance.

Regardless of what role NATO forces may play in Afghanistan after the deadline, Canadian soldiers will not be there to participate, according to Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.

Combat troops are pulling out next year as planned, he said, and the military trainers pledged to NATO this week will not stay past March, 2014, regardless of what other members of the alliance do. "There is no flexibility," he said.

The military's endgame plans for handing over security to newly trained Afghan forces calls for a phased NATO withdrawal from areas of the country where the Taliban threat has been reduced to "levels they can handle themselves," according to the senior alliance official who briefed journalists in Lisbon.

The pullback will start town by town, along the model used in the Balkans and in Iraq, with foreign forces drawing back to the perimeters in places deemed safe enough for Afghan soldiers to control.

Bolstering the credibility of Mr. Karzai's government will also be a priority. The choice of areas to be transferred, the official said, will be based in part on whether tribal conflicts might erupt, warlords might try to rival state control and whether the level of corruption is high enough to fatally damage the credibility of the Kabul government.

To counter Taliban propaganda that the central government is hopelessly corrupt and weak, he added, NATO and international organizations have to step back and transfer control. Instead of controlling the contracts for infrastructure projects, and taking credit for them, foreigners need to let local Afghan officials be seen as delivering the goods.

"It means changing the way we provide support," he said.

The approach is meant to apply lessons learned from the Afghan war, which began with a NATO attack to oust the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and evolved into a deadly defensive war against a resurgent Taliban counterattack.

Mr. Rasmussen said the updated security concept statement approved by NATO leaders Friday is an attempt to learn from the Afghan experience.

In addition to identifying potential new threats to the transatlantic alliance from cyber-attacks and ballistic missiles, the document calls for NATO to get involved in reconstruction and development in post-conflict areas and devote more resources to long-term military training of security forces around the world.

"We have learned that military operations cannot be the only solution," Mr. Rasmussen said.

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