KABUL, Afghanistan — Joined by leaders from Iran to America, President Hamid Karzai embraced plans Tuesday for Afghan forces to begin taking control of their country by next summer as another bleak assessment of the war raised new questions about the timing of the hand-over.
Amid smothering security that shut down much of Kabul, Karzai backed new reforms designed to give his corruption-riddled government more credibility and to empower the troubled Afghan security forces to take full control of the country by 2014.
While Afghan forces prevented any major attacks on the international conference, insurgents sought to disrupt the event by firing a rocket at Kabul's airport, forcing a plane that was carrying U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to land instead at nearby Bagram Air Base.
As the conference wound down, NATO officials also announced that an Afghan army trainer had opened fire at a shooting range in northern Afghanistan, the second attack in a week. Tuesday's shooting in the relatively quiet city of Mazar-e-Sharif killed two American civilians — both thought to be private security contractors training Afghan army recruits — as well as two Afghan soldiers, including the suspected attacker.
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The killings came a week after a rogue Afghan soldier escaped after killing three British soldiers in southern Afghanistan.
"The actions of this individual are not representative of the thousands of men and women who train and fight side by side with ISAF everyday to protect their fellow citizens from insurgent brutality," said German Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
America's $27 billion plan to create a reliable Afghan police force and army is considered the linchpin for President Barack Obama's plan to start scaling back U.S. military force in Afghanistan next summer.
As American forces leave, Blotz said, NATO will turn over military control a few of Afghanistan's more stable provinces to Afghan forces.
"I think we could expect, say, summer or mid-2011 as the actual starting point for transition of the first provinces," Blotz told McClatchy. "We will perhaps see a number of provinces in the first phase."
Under the plan unveiled Tuesday in Kabul, Karzai reaffirmed his vow that Afghan forces will take full control of security in their country in 2014.
"I remain determined that our Afghan national security forces will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country by 2014," Karzai said in a tightly guarded hall at the Foreign Ministry.
As with Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, foreign leaders made it clear Tuesday that change would happen only when Afghan fighters were ready to take control.
"Transition will be based on conditions, not calendars," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told high-level delegates from 60 nations who were gathered in Kabul. "Transition will be done gradually, on the basis of a sober assessment of the political and security situation, so that is it irreversible."
The much-maligned attempt to rebuild the Afghan security forces has shown uneven progress this year.
In recent months, the U.S.-led training mission has exceeded its recruiting targets. As of July 1, there were nearly 107,000 Afghan police officers and almost 130,000 Afghan soldiers in the force. Trainers are looking to add another 70,000 Afghans to the forces over the next 15 months.
In her address to the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told delegates that Obama's July 2011 deadline wouldn't mean that America would flee Afghanistan soon.
"This date is the start of a new phase, not the end of our involvement," she said. "We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission. ... Too many nations have suffered too many losses to see the country slip backward."
More than 1,000 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan over the last nine years. Further, as NATO reported that two more NATO soldiers had been killed Tuesday, a respected humanitarian group warned that the violence is getting worse.
The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that analyzes security threats for aid groups, warned that Taliban-led militants are posing "a formidable geographic presence and are escalating attacks" across Afghanistan "at their own direction and tempo."
It's important for nongovernmental organizations "not to be misled by authoritative, but unsubstantiated, statements that progress is being made in turning back (the Taliban-led insurgency's) capability," the group warned in a new report. "It is very clearly not."
While expectations were low for Tuesday's conference, Western leaders cast the gathering as another modest success in this crucial year.
After months of often-prickly relations with Karzai, American officials now are working to empower the Afghan president.
Delegates backed Karzai's long-standing push to gain more direct control over the billions of dollars in international aid that are flowing into Afghanistan. The conference agreed to boost the amount of development aid that goes through the Afghan government from about 20 percent to 50 percent over the next two years.
"We are aware that, with the best of intentions, the government and its international partners have sometimes sought to achieve peace, security and development without sufficient engagement of the Afghan people," Secretary-General Ban told the conference. "At times, we have shown insufficient consideration for Afghan culture and history."
In exchange for channeling more money through Karzai's government, the Afghan president agreed to press ahead with efforts to contain political corruption, which has undermined confidence in him. He vowed to beef up anti-corruption programs and impose new penalties on corrupt leaders.
However, Karzai has made such promises before without substantive results. Many Afghans, along with some Western donors, are skeptical that he's prepared to take serious action now.
"Mr. Karzai is bluffing," said Wadir Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University. "The old commanders who looted the Afghan people in the name of Islam are still in power."
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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