Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — A landmark international conference on Tuesday endorsed President Hamid Karzai's plan for Afghanistan's security forces to take over responsibility for safeguarding the country within four years, setting a potential timeline for foreign troops' departure.
The Afghan capital was under virtual lockdown for the high-level gathering, which passed without any major attack. However, insurgents fired rockets at Kabul's international airport overnight, forcing the diversion of a plane carrying U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Bagram air base, north of the capital.
Helicopters thundered overhead as the delegations arrived and departed. Below, the streets were nearly deserted except for patrolling police.
"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 told the delegates, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and dozens of foreign ministers and other dignitaries.
Conference participants also endorsed plans to channel at least half of the $13 billion in annual international aid through Afghan government channels. Currently, only one-fifth of such assistance is funneled through Afghan ministries.
In return, Karzai promised to fight corruption through such means as requiring government officials to declare their assets, and the strengthening of a task force meant to crack down on graft.
Events elsewhere in Afghanistan on Tuesday brought a troubling reminder of the profound obstacles to turning the Afghan military into a professional, dependable fighting force. An Afghan military trainer at a firing range in northern Afghanistan turned his weapon on two U.S. civilian counterparts, killing both before being fatally shot himself, Western military officials said.
A second Afghan soldier was also killed in the exchange of fire and a Western service member wounded, the NATO force said, adding that the incident was under investigation.
The endorsement of Karzai's security timeline by the Kabul conference was not binding, but it addressed a growing desire on the part of North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to have some kind of pullback plan in place. All the major troop-contributing nations in the Afghan conflict were represented at the meeting.
Karzai had put forth the goal of a security handoff by 2014 last November, as he was inaugurated for a second presidential term. Since then, though, the sense of urgency surrounding an exit strategy for the West has increased dramatically.
The Obama administration has set a target of July 2011 for the start of a drawdown of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, officials have stressed that will depend on conditions there.
Already, doubts have been raised as to whether the tide can be turned against the Taliban by then. A major military operation to secure the southern city of Kandahar, which was described by U.S. commanders as a linchpin of the war, has moved ahead much more slowly than planned.
Domestic political support for the Afghan war has eroded sharply in countries that are the main American partners in the NATO force, including Britain, Canada and Germany. Those qualms have been heightened by the rising Western troop casualty rate, which now stands at its highest level since the Taliban movement was toppled in 2001.
While the five-hour conference proceeded, the Western military announced another troop fatality, in Afghanistan's south. A second Western military death, also in the south, was announced later. The nationalities of the slain service members were not immediately disclosed.
Leaders addressing the conference stressed that the 2014 target would be dependent on the Afghan police and army demonstrating their ability to take the lead on security, on a province-by-province basis. Despite intensive training by Western mentors, the army and, even more so, the police are considered far from ready to step into that role.
"I welcome the road map agreed on today on transition to an Afghan lead in security," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the gathering. "But transition will be based on conditions, not calendars."
He added, "We will never allow the Taliban to overthrow the elected government by force."