The United States said Wednesday that it will support a plan to reintegrate Taliban fighters set to be announced by Afghan President Hamid Karzai at an international conference in London.
U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke said Karzai will outline the plan Thursday to convince low-level and midlevel Taliban fighters who don't back al Qaeda to give up their fight against U.S. and NATO forces.
The plan will be a centerpiece of the one-day London conference designed to boost the flagging war effort in Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO forces have been taking increasing casualties from a resurgent Taliban. The Taliban rejected the plan, saying in a statement posted to their Web site Wednesday that their fighters wouldn't be swayed by financial incentives because they were fighting not for "money, property and position" but for Islam and an end to the foreign military presence in their country.
Holbrooke said U.S. officials believed otherwise.
"The overwhelming majority of these people are not ideological supporters of Mullah Omar (the fugitive Taliban leader) and al Qaeda," Holbrooke said. "Based on interviews with prisoners, returnees, experts, there must be at least 70 percent of these people who are not fighting for anything to do with those causes."
The U.S. and others have been trying to convince those elements to lay down their arms - and on Wednesday the United Nations removed asset freezing orders and travel bans on five former Taliban officials, something Karzai had been pressing for as part of his effort to draw them back into the fold.
Holbrooke said he was encouraged by recent polls in Afghanistan indicating that a majority now blames the Taliban, not Western forces, for the country's violence.
On Tuesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel put the total cost of the program at $500 million over five years, but Holbrooke said it was too early to put a price tag to the fund.
"We don't know enough about the plan," he said.
Karzai said Wednesday that Afghanistan aims to reduce soon the burden on its allies of providing security, but cautioned that Afghan forces would need long-term international support.
Meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Karzai said that "Afghanistan does not want to be a burden on the shoulder of our allies and friends"
"Afghanistan wants to soon be defending its own territory, its own people, with Afghan means," he said.
Holbrooke said that Taliban who back al Qaeda, or support the group's harsh treatment of women, would not be accommodated.
He said there has been no discussion of an amnesty for Taliban fighters, saying the immediate goal is to convince them to stop fighting.
Holbrooke said the goals for the London conference go beyond the reconciliation plan and will include discussions of a province-by-province handover of security control from U.S. and NATO forces to Afghan forces. But he conceded no timetable will be announced, saying certain conditions would have to be met before the security transition could begin.
The Taliban accused the conference organizers of seeking to entrench their economic and culture presence in the region, adding that a string of previous international gatherings had failed to deliver despite the expenditure of "lots of money and time."
The British government announced Wednesday that Afghanistan's creditors have agreed to debt relief worth $1.6 billion ahead of the London conference.
Britain's Treasury said the decision will help Karzai's government to rebuild the country's fragile economy - which has now received debt relief worth a total of $11 billion, according to Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal.
Meanwhile, NATO said it had reached agreement with Kazakhstan to open a new supply route for international forces through Central Asia, offering an alternative to the alliance's main logistics chain through Pakistan, which has come under repeated militant attack.