BONN Foreign governments pledged on Monday to support Afghanistan long after allied troops go home, with or without a political settlement with insurgents once seen as the best way to prevent a new civil war.
At a conference of more than 80 countries but boycotted by Pakistan, they said even after most foreign combat troops leave in 2014, the Afghan government will not be allowed to meet the fate of its Soviet-era predecessor, which collapsed in 1992.
"The United States intends to stay the course with our friends in Afghanistan," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "We will be there with you as you make the hard decisions that are necessary for your future."
Hosts Germany sought to signal Western staying power in the country, where al Qaeda sheltered under Taliban protection before the September 11 attacks, at the gathering in Bonn.
"We send a clear message to the people of Afghanistan: We will not leave you on your own. We will not leave you in the lurch," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
Ten years after a similar conference held to rebuild Afghanistan, the Afghan war is becoming increasingly unpopular in Western public opinion -- especially since U.S. forces found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2 in a raid that removed a central pretext of the 2001 invasion.
Western countries are under pressure to spend money reviving flagging economies at home rather than propping up a government in Kabul widely criticised for being corrupt and ineffective.
And as expected, delegates at the Bonn conference steered clear of making specific pledges to make up a shortfall in funding for Afghanistan estimated by the World Bank at some $7 billion a year from the end of 2014.
For now, nobody wants to show their hand too clearly in the hope that someone else -- from the United States to Europe, the Gulf to Asia -- will come forward to foot a share of the bill.
Brewing confrontations pitting Washington against Pakistan and Iran, two of Afghanistan's most influential neighbours, have also added to despondency over the outlook for the war.
Pakistan boycotted the meeting after NATO aircraft killed 24 of its soldiers on the border with Afghanistan in a November 26 attack the alliance called a "tragic" accident.
But delegates from Russia to Iran to China, all uneasy about the U.S. military presence in their neighbourhood, were nonetheless able to agree with Western powers "the main threat to Afghanistan's security and stability is terrorism."
"In this regard, we recognise the regional dimensions of terrorism and extremism, including terrorist safe havens, and emphasise the need for sincere and result-oriented regional cooperation..." a conference statement.
Pakistan is accused by Washington and Kabul of providing "safe havens" to insurgents to use to counter the influence of rival India. Pakistan says it being used as a scapegoat for the U.S. failure to bring stability to Afghanistan.
SCALING BACK OBJECTIVES
The mood at the Bonn conference was a far cry from the early days of the Afghan war when, fresh from toppling the Taliban, Western powers hoped to bring permanent peace to a country which has now been at war for more than three decades.
But with problems of insecurity, governance, corruption and narcotics inside Afghanistan, compounded by insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan, objectives have been scaled back.
By the time of a conference in London on Afghanistan in January 2010, Western governments had agreed insurgents could be brought into peace talks if they were willing to cut ties with al Qaeda, give up violence and respect the Afghan constitution.
But even that goal has proved elusive. Embroynic contacts with the Taliban have yielded little, and foreign governments have been preparing increasingly for a scenario in which there is no peace settlement with the Taliban even before the before most foreign combat troops leave in 2014.
The aim now is to leave behind a government which is just about good enough to survive, even if fighting persists in parts of the country and the Taliban insurgency remains active.
Some are still hoping Pakistan will use its influence to deliver the Afghan Taliban into a political settlement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told reporters Pakistan had missed a good opportunity to discuss its own issues and the future of Afghanistan by not attending the Bonn conference. "But it will not stop us from cooperating together," he said.
Asked what he wanted Pakistan to do to help bring peace in Afghanistan, he said: "Close the sanctuaries, arrange a purposeful dialogue with those Taliban who are in Pakistan."
Clinton said she expected Pakistan to play a constructive role in Afghanistan, even as she voiced disappointment that Islamabad chose not to attend the conference.
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Afghanistan could still have a bright future even if the Taliban were not brought into a political settlement.
"It may take a longer time to bring about our objectives but we should not be deterred at all by Taliban reluctance to come to the table..." he told the BBC.
Foreign governments were also determined to try to dispel at least some of the pessimism seeping into the Afghan project.
Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, whose country became the first to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan -- much to the irritation of Pakistan -- pledged India would keep up its heavy investment in a country whose mineral wealth and trade routes made it "a land of opportunity."
In a rare positive development, Clinton said the United States would resume paying into a World Bank-administered Reconstruction Trust Fund for Afghanistan, a decision that U.S. officials said would allow for the disbursement of roughly $650 million to $700 million in suspended U.S. aid.
The United States and other big donors stopped paying into the fund in June, when the International Monetary Fund suspended its programme with Afghanistan because of concerns about Afghanistan's troubled Kabul Bank.
IRAN ROW OVERSHADOWS CONFERENCE
In a sign of quite how difficult it will be to bring peace to Afghanistan, the conference was nearly overshadowed before it started by a row with Iran -- increasingly at odds with the United States and European powers over its nuclear programme.
Tehran said on Sunday it shot down a U.S. spy drone in its airspace and threatened to respond. International forces in Kabul said the drone may have been one lost last week while flying over western Afghanistan.
Iran has been accused in the past of providing low-level backing to the Taliban insurgency, and diplomats and analysts have suggested Tehran could ratchet up this support if it wanted to put serious pressure on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Monday also reiterated Iran's opposition to the United States keeping some forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
Simon Gass, NATO's senior civilian representative in Kabul and former British ambassador to Tehran, downplayed the prospect of Tehran acting as a spoiler in any Afghan settlement.
He recalled Iran was a historic foe of the Taliban, which has a record of hostility to Afghan Shi'ites, Iran's co-religionists.
Despite its dislike of the Taliban "Iran has a history in Afghanistan of supporting some Taliban groups in different ways. That could continue. We shall have to see," he said.
"But what I would say is that my quite long experience of Iran is that Iranians are realists, and once the international agreements are in place which define the security architecture for Afghanistan after 2014, my belief is that Iran will begin to adjust to those new realities," he told Reuters.