BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Canada pledged on Thursday to keep its troops in Afghanistan after France offered to bolster the NATO force there, and other world leaders said they were committed to the country for the long haul.
In a joint declaration issued at a summit in Bucharest, the 40 nations of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission confirmed their “firm and shared long-term commitment” to Afghanistan.
“The whole international community, including the United Nations, are behind you,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a joint news conference after meeting President Hamid Karzai.
“The cost of disengagement would be greater than the cost of engagement,” Ban said. “It is absolutely necessary that the international community continue to engage so that and until the Afghan government will be able to stand on their own”.
The NATO declaration included the goal of helping train an 80,000-strong Afghan army by 2010 as part of what the 26-nation alliance NATO hopes will allow domestic forces to gradually lead more security operations across the country.
Karzai called the vision statement a platform for a “journey towards a more prosperous, stable and secure Afghanistan” and “if addressed fully, will bring about the security the Afghan people are seeking”.
Karzai told the news conference Afghanistan would be ready by August to take responsibility for security in Kabul.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer welcomed this, but added: “Let us be clear, NATO’s presence will be necessary tomorrow and in the long-term.”
Uncertainty of Canada’s commitment had emerged at a time of tensions over whether other countries were doing enough in the battle against Taliban insurgents with suicide attacks and car bombings on the rise.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pledge of 700 more troops, coupled with planned contributions by other nations, proved enough for Ottawa to withdraw a threat to pull its 2,500 troops out of the 47,000-strong Western military alliance force.
Canada’s minority Conservative government — which had been under pressure from three opposition parties to pull out next February or earlier — set conditions of an extra battalion and more equipment for it to stay until 2011. It also wanted more focus on reconstruction and development.
“Today I can report that we have met these conditions,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a news conference, further marginalising what had months ago promised to be a possible election issue in Canada.
He said it was important not just for Afghanistan but also because it marked an increased role in the alliance for an often reluctant France.
“I think it represents in fairness a significant and historic re-engagement of France in NATO, which we have seen coming really since the arrival of President (Nicolas) Sarkozy in power,” he said.
Among other troop pledges was one from New Zealand, which was strengthening its provincial reconstruction team in Bamiyan province, west of Kabul, by 18 soldiers to 140, Prime Minister Helen Clark said in a statement.
U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed Sarkozy’s troop pledge and said it would allow some U.S. troops to move from the east to the south of Afghanistan, scene of the worst violence.
The French move was another sign of the warm relations Sarkozy has cultivated with the United States since he took office in May last year.
The international force compares to the 100,000 to 120,000 Soviet troops serving in Afghanistan at any time during the Soviet Union’s occupation from 1979 to 1989, according to Russian military experts quoted in Russian language websites.
Additional reporting by Mark John and Andrew Gray; Gyles Beckford in Wellington