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US Envoy: London Conference an Opportunity for Momentum in Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke (File)

President Barack Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan says a January 28 conference in London provides an important opportunity for the U.S. and other nations to galvanize support for Afghanistan. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

The London conference will bring together the United States and other nations supporting the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), along with the United Nations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as Ambassador Holbrooke will attend the meeting, which it is hoped will generate significant funding commitments and lay out a clear roadmap for non-military assistance.

Ambassador Holbrooke said that after President Obama's decision last year to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the time has come for all to sit down and chart a way forward to maintain momentum. "Following the president's December 1st announcement of the troops, it was time for the world to get together again. We are gratefto [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown, [Foreign Secretary] David Miliband and their government, for summoning us to London and we go with great enthusiasm."

Holbrooke's testimony came as the U.S. State Department released a 30 page report outlining plans to maintain a robust multi-year civilian presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While noting that the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is not open-ended, the report says the U.S. will remain politically, diplomatically and economically engaged in both countries to protect enduring U.S. interests in the region.

In unusual testimony by a foreign government official, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the Senate panel that transferring lead responsibility to Afghan forces will be a critical aspect.

Calling this a decisive moment in Afghanistan, he pointed to what he suggested could be the greatest achievement of the London conference. "The biggest deliverable of all from next week's conference is an understanding among the 70 or so foreign ministers who are attending, and also I hope the wider public, of the coherence and clarity of the plan for the future of Afghanistan."

There is significant concern in Congress and the Obama administration about rampant corruption in Afghanistan, something President Karzai is being pressed hard to address.

Saying good governance is needed in Kabul and Afghanistan's provinces, committee chairman Democrat John Kerry referred to a recent U.N. report saying corruption is costing Afghanistan $2.5 billion a year, with Afghans more concerned about this than insecurity or unemployment. "Real reform means appointing effective leaders and district level. They and officials carryout their orders are the only point of contact that most Afghans have with their government. A new survey by the United Nations found that one out of every two Afghans paid a bribe to a public official last year. Graft has become a part of everyday life, and that must stop," the senator said.

"It's important to recognize that the Afghan government doesn't just need to avoid being outgunned by the insurgency, it must not be out-governed by the insurgency either," added Foreign Secretary Miliband.

Despite the recent Taliban attacks in Kabul, Ambassador Holbrooke offered an upbeat assessment of the situation on the ground in Kabul while addressing the corruption and other issues. "I don't want to promise you that corruption will disappear tomorrow, it won't. And President Karzai can't fix that problem on his own. I don't want to promise you that reintegration will suddenly bring thousands and thousands of people off the battlefield. All I can tell you senator and for the rest of the committee is that I found the situation in Kabul in a better situation than at any time in the year since we took office and we inherited a very difficult situation to put it bluntly," he said.

Ranking committee Republican Senator Richard Lugar said the London conference must produce results after years of disconnected and uncoordinated development efforts. "The London conference is a crucial opportunity for President Karzai to improve cooperation with international efforts in his country while recognizing his own responsibility to enable reform. He must find the means to consolidate disparate influences within his own government in the pursuit of national development," he said.

The Obama administration hopes next week's London conference will generate funds to support the Afghan government's reintegration plans, along with the clear and coherent plan Foreign Secretary Miliband urged in Thursday's hearing.

Ambassador Holbrooke said the London Conference will be followed by an international conference in Kabul later this year at which the Afghan government would formally present commitments to the people of Afghanistan.