European Leaders Call for High-Level Meeting on Afghanistan to Assess Progress

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

The leaders of France, Britain and Germany have called for a high-level international conference on Afghanistan, saying it is time to "take stock of progress . . . and to evaluate the challenges that lie ahead."

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the leaders said the conference, which they suggested take place outside Afghanistan under U.N. and Afghan sponsorship, would facilitate agreement on "new benchmarks and timelines" for gradually turning responsibility for the country over to Afghans.

The letter, dated Tuesday and released Wednesday by the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, coincides with growing European concern about the direction and objectives of the international enterprise in Afghanistan. It clearly suggested that decisions should not be left solely to the United States, which fields about two-thirds of the nearly 100,000 foreign troops there.

Antiwar sentiment is strongest in Britain, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week delivered a major speech designed "to take head-on the arguments that suggest our strategy in Afghanistan is wrong and to answer those who question whether we should be in Afghanistan at all." In addition to Brown and Sarkozy, the letter was signed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, where opposition has been fueled by an airstrike in northern Afghanistan last week that was initiated by German troops and that killed an unknown number of civilians.

In remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday at a military ceremony in Norfolk, Va., NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed concern "that the public discourse on the effort in Afghanistan has started to go in the wrong direction," the Associated Press reported from Brussels.

No date was set for the proposed meeting of foreign ministers, although the leaders' letter said it should take place "before the end of this year right after the inauguration of the new Afghan government."

The inauguration has been indefinitely postponed while the results of the Aug. 20 presidential election remain in dispute. Although Afghan electoral officials said Tuesday that President Hamid Karzai has amassed more than 54 percent of the vote, with nearly all ballots counted -- enough to avoid a runoff with his nearest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah -- an international commission is investigating complaints of ballot-box stuffing and other extensive fraud, and a final tally could take months. Most of the fraud complaints have been directed at Karzai's campaign.

A delayed result poses a dilemma for the Obama administration and NATO governments with troops in Afghanistan. None of them is satisfied with Karzai's performance as chief executive over the past five years, and all are concerned about election irregularities, but none wants to offend him in anticipation of his likely reelection.

In an interview published Wednesday by the French newspaper Le Figaro, Karzai said that the British and U.S. news media, which have reported widely on the fraud allegations, have tried to "delegitimize the future Afghan government," and he suggested that their governments were manipulating them in order to install a "puppet" government.

"In Afghanistan, the puppets have never brought luck to their foreign masters," he said, mentioning past military occupations by Britain and what was then the Soviet Union. "I hope the Americans will not try the same thing because they would face the same fate."

Karzai noted that he had won Afghanistan's last presidential election, in 2004, with 54.5 percent of the vote and that he expected to do better this time. But he said he would respect the official outcome.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "would look forward to participating" in the proposed international conference. Although Clinton has remained largely silent on the Afghanistan issue, Kelly said that "it's moved to the top of her agenda, really, in the last few days."

He said that Clinton had spoken "several times" with Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, and met Wednesday with the administration's special representative to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke. Kelly said Clinton would also meet with Democratic Sens. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Ted Kaufman (Del.), who returned this week from Afghanistan.

Clinton has also attended meetings at the White House, he said. President Obama's national security team has begun discussions on a new assessment of the situation in Afghanistan by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the country.

Correspondents Edward Cody in Paris and Pamela Constable in Kabul contributed to this report.

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