Pressure mounts for Afghan solution at London meet

Afghanistan will seek to drum up support for its plan to buy off Taliban militants at a meeting Thursday with its allies, who are expected to press Kabul to move more quickly to take over security.

President Hamid Karzai will address about 70 countries and organisations that give vital support to his government in talks that some partners have said will be crucial but the Taliban has dismissed as a waste of time.

The London meeting comes amid disquiet about the situation in Afghanistan more than eight years into a gruelling fight against the Taliban that has cost thousands of lives and is losing public support in several nations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the conference was vital to determining the success or failure of the mission in Afghanistan.

"In London we are talking about nothing less than setting the future course, a course that I am convinced will determine the success or failure of our mission," Merkel said Wednesday.

She has announced 500 more German troops for Afghanistan, a doubling of development aid and plans to offer 50 million euros (70 million dollars) over five years to a new fund to draw militants back into mainstream society.

Karzai has been lobbying for contributions to a 500-million-dollar reintegration programme that will offer Taliban jobs and security guarantees if they stop fighting.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown also voiced support for the plan which he said could "detach" moderate Taliban from those who are "violently committed" to the movement's hardline Islamic ideology.

"To weaken the Taliban, you divide them and you offer those people who are prepared to renounce violence... a way out. And that is something that we will do and something that president Karzai wants to do," Brown said.

Karzai, meeting students with Brown at Downing Street, reiterated that such an offer would only be made to Taliban who are not members of the Al-Qaeda network.

The plan is also reported to have gained support from Japan and the United States although US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, emphasised in London that Al-Qaeda would have to be excluded.

"There is an American red line, and it is Al-Qaeda. There cannot be any negotiation if they don't renounce Al-Qaeda because those people cannot be negotiated with," he said.

The reconciliation push and UN's removal of five Taliban from a sanctions list are seen as confidence-building measures for eventual peace talks, a diplomat said, with Karzai previously holding out the possibility of government posts for Taliban who lay down their weapons.

But the Taliban has publicly rebuffed negotiations and reiterated in an emailed statement Wednesday a demand for "invading forces" -- its term for foreign troops -- to withdraw as a condition for any talks.

"The London conference is in fact aimed at extending the invasion of Afghanistan by occupying forces... (It) is just a waste of time," it said.

There are around 110,000 international soldiers in Afghanistan; the United States has pledged 30,000 more troops this year, ahead of plans to drawdown from 2011, and has asked its allies for 10,000 extra soldiers.

Military officers have said they hoped the extra muscle could weaken the Taliban into accepting a peace deal.

Thursday's meeting is expected to also push for Afghans to assume security responsibilities.

Karzai said Afghanistan did not want to be a burden on its allies but needed five years before it could take charge.

"We will be trying our very best to be ready to defend the major part of our country from two to three years and when we reach the five-year end point, that's when we would be leading," Karzai said Wednesday.

In addition to troops Afghanistan's allies are looking to step up reconstruction and development aid, but are expected to press Karzai to clamp down on rampant corruption that has sapped efforts to date.

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