PORT OF SPAIN - A major international conference on Afghanistan, to be held in London in January, will aim to set the conditions for a gradual transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan control, Britain said on Saturday.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the conference as U.S. President Barack Obama prepared to explain to Americans next week why he is expanding the costly and unpopular war effort.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, NATO allies, Afghanistan's neighbors, regional powers and key international bodies will be invited to the January 28 conference, Brown said.
Ban, speaking at a news conference with Brown on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago, said the London conference would be followed within a few months by another high-level conference in Kabul.
The conferences would outline the framework for an increased lead role for the Afghans in the shaping of their destiny, Ban said.
Obama is expected to announce on Tuesday a 30,000 increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan to boost coalition efforts to defeat an obstinate Taliban insurgency.
Brown said he would announce next week whether the conditions were in place for Britain to increase its 9,000-strong force in Afghanistan by 500 soldiers. He said he expected other countries to pledge another 5,000 troops.
Brown said the London conference would aim to drive forward our campaign in Afghanistan, to match the increase in military forces with an increased political momentum (and) to focus the international community on a clear set of priorities.
ROADMAP TO SECURITY TRANSFERS
Foreign ministers will be invited to the London conference, with the United States likely to be represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a British official said.
The conference, originally proposed by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, could offer a glimpse of an exit strategy for NATO countries by setting out a roadmap for Afghan forces gradually to take over more security responsibilities.
That could ease the pressure on leaders like Brown, who has faced strong criticism at home over the 235 British military deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 and over allegations he has failed to give British troops the proper equipment.
I want the conference in London to set the conditions needed for district by district handover to Afghan lead responsibility (for security), Brown said.
He believed this could begin next year in a number of districts, including one or two in the southern province of Helmand, where British troops are battling the Taliban.
I think we need to transfer at least five Afghan provinces to lead Afghan control by the end of 2010, he said. Lead Afghan control means Afghan troops would increasingly be on the front line, but would still be supported by coalition forces.
Afghanistan will be a key issue in a British election, due by June, that Brown faces an uphill battle to win.
Brown said he wanted the conference to set a timetable for political and security actions in Afghanistan for 2010 and beyond, following Karzai's controversial re-election.
The conference would concentrate on the political strategy for Afghanistan to complement the military one, Brown said.
There is an ideologically driven hardcore of the Taliban, but by combining military pressure with incentives for people to reject the violence ... we believe we can squeeze the insurgency, he said.
We need a new relationship between Afghanistan and its neighbors, we must leave behind the mistrust of the past, Brown said.
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher)