A major conference on a comprehensive development strategy for Afghanistan kicked off Tuesday at The Hague, Netherlands, with an unusual show of international solidarity.
Representatives from more than 70 nations as well as countless international organizations and observers kicked off the one-day summit at The Hague.
Speaking at the outset of the summit, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, arriving from an earlier Moscow conference on Afghanistan, praised the unified expression of Afghan support.
"There is real potential to make concrete progress in important areas, from fighting illicit opium production to increasing productivity in traditional agricultural commodities, from combating organized criminal groups to advancing regional economic cooperation," he said.
The summit comes on the heels of a major policy announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama on the Afghan strategy. Obama said Friday he would send additional troops and military trainers to Afghanistan while renewing the efforts against al-Qaida and offering non-military aid to Pakistan.
Ban said that, after decades of conflict, support for the Afghan challenge was a global obligation.
"We cannot afford to fail in this endeavor," he said. "Failure would be a betrayal of the Afghan people. It would be a betrayal of the progress that has been achieved."
Ban's comments were echoed by his special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, who said those involved should rise up to meet the challenges and "stand firm in our commitments."
The conference was overshadowed in part by the presence of American and Iranian officials, who expressed similar statements on the need to boost the effort in Afghanistan.
Iranian officials reacted warmly to calls to curb the opium trade and work toward general reconstruction but opposed moves to increase the number of foreign troops in its eastern neighbor.
Iran support needed, Clinton says
Iran needs to work with its international partners to combat the cross-border opium trade from Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
Clinton and representatives from more than 70 countries, including Iran, convened for a one-day summit at The Hague, Netherlands, to find a comprehensive strategy to tackle the declining situation in Afghanistan.
Clinton had earlier this month opened the door for Iranian cooperation on Afghanistan as part of an effort by Washington to thaw relations with its longtime adversary.
Taking action against the narcotic trade in neighboring Afghanistan is in the best interest of the Islamic republic, Clinton said. Iran has struggled with a growing number of heroin addicts in its country.
"From our information, they're very concerned about the narcotics crossing into their country," the secretary said. "I would imagine that's an area where they'll be willing to work with others."
Iran, for its part, told the delegation Tuesday at The Hague conference it was willing to work with the international community on the narcotics issue and general reconstruction but voiced its opposition to the increased presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Clinton also pledged $40 million to support the August presidential and provincial elections in Afghanistan and called on the international community to follow suit, the Wall Street Journal reports.
"The real goal (of the conference) is to raise the international commitment to Afghanistan," she said.
Guardsmen form multinational training group
Members of the Michigan National Guard and the Latvian military joined forces to create the first-ever multinational training group for Afghan soldiers.
The mentoring team of Michigan guardsmen and Latvian soldiers based in Afghanistan's Kunar province along the volatile border with Pakistan established the Observer, Mentor, Liaison Team to advise Afghan army troops.
U.S. military embedded training teams typically work with Afghan forces. The U.S. National Guard said its team has trained since January at a military base in Germany for the unique mentoring role.
"We did joint tactical and technical training," said U.S. Army Capt. Dan Voss. "That way we will all be on the same page, not just an American way or a Latvian way but an OMLT way."
U.S. President Barack Obama has put strengthening the Afghan army and police force as a priority in his new strategy to revitalize the effort in the beleaguered nation.
The OMLT team will work with around 700 Afghan troops to patrol the border areas with Pakistan.
Iraqi resistance on the rise
The resistance movement opposing the foreign presence in Iraq will reach its peak in the next few months, an influential Sunni cleric said.
Mohammed Bashar al-Faydhi, a spokesman for the clerical Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, said in an interview with the Iraqi political Web site Niqash.org that the prevalence of the armed resistance to American forces is increasing.
"We have all witnessed the rise in the number of attacks during the last month, and I expect the resistance to reach its peak during the coming few months," he said.
The AMSI formed in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its leaders stress that they oppose terrorism but consider the resistance as a legitimate option to combat what they consider the foreign occupation of Iraq.
Faydhi said the group was asked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to join the Iraqi government following disputes with Sunni parties in Baghdad as part of a broader reconciliation effort. He stressed, however, that reconciliation could not take place while the U.S. occupation remains in place.
"Neither al-Maliki nor any other person have the right to call for reconciliation," he said. "The occupation is ongoing, and all international conventions give people under occupation the right to resist their occupiers."
British forces prepare to leave Iraq
The consolidation of the coalition force structure in Basra marks the beginning of the end for the British mission in Iraq, the British defense secretary said.
"U.K. forces from 20 Armored Brigade will complete their remaining military tasks in southern Iraq as part of (Multi-National Division -- South) and then withdraw before the end of July," a Ministry of Defense news release said.
Coalition forces have said they will restructure their efforts for operations south of Baghdad to one consolidated headquarters, Multi-National Division -- South, the ministry said.
The 4,100 remaining British forces operate from their base in the southern port city of Basra as part of Operation Telic, their mission in support of the coalition effort in Iraq.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Michael Oates will command MND-South while British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon returns home with his troops.
"Today's restructuring reflects the success of our armed forces, our coalition partners and of the Iraqis themselves," British Defense Secretary John Hutton said. "The Iraqis are now firmly in control of their own security in Basra, and it is this that allows us to begin the process of drawing down our forces from Iraq."
Baathist reaction mixed on return
Reactions by members of the Iraqi Baath Party to a decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to encourage the return of some of its members were mixed.
Maliki had opened the possibility that officials from the former Baathist regime would be welcome to complete in the parliamentary elections slated tentatively for the end of the year. Exiled former Iraqi army officers, many of them from the Baath Party, were also invited to return to service at a certain rank.
Abu Naboukhaz al-Falluji, a Baath Party leader, told the Voices of Iraq news agency that the Maliki government was dealing only with individuals, not the party as a whole.
"We are not concerned with the current government's initiatives because it targets certain people who represent themselves only, not the party," he said.
He went on to stress that the platform of the party of former President Saddam Hussein hinged on the departure of what he called occupation forces from Iraq.
"The occupation forces and the countries who help them are the main reasons for what happened in Iraq," he added.
Meanwhile, Abu Wassam, a Baathist leader in western Anbar province, said there were "dissidents" within the party who had rejected the offers to return to the government.
In January, Baghdad dispatched officials to various capitals in the region to meet with former Iraqi military officials, mostly from ranks at or below lieutenant colonel, as part of a de-Baathification law.
Washington lobbied the Shiite-led government of Iraq to pass the measure to encourage Sunnis to return to the government as part of a political reconciliation effort.
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