Karzai takes on the roadside bomb-makers

On the eve of a London conference on his country, Afghanistan's President bans key ingredient used in insurgents' bombs
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President Hamid Karzai has banned a key ingredient in the roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of British, American and Nato soldiers in his country as he moved to reassure the international community that he is acting against terrorism ahead of a major conference on Afghanistan this week.

The Afghan government outlawed the use of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, used by the Taliban in 90 per cent of improvised roadside explosives, on the eve of the London conference to set out a political and military plan for the region. President Karzai will join US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gordon Brown for the one-day meeting, chaired by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, on Thursday. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and foreign ministers of Afghanistan's leading regional partners will also attend.

It will follow an emergency conference on Yemen in London on Wednesday, prompted by the heightened threat of terrorism following the attempted airplane attack on Christmas Day, which it is suspected was hatched in the country.

The Afghanistan conference will set out a strategy for the next 12 months, including milestones for President Karzai's government to pass before the eventual handover of military control and political governance to Kabul.

At the London gathering, President Karzai will propose a plan, funded by Western governments, to offer money and jobs to rank-and-file Taliban fighters, who are not members of al-Qa'ida or other terror groups, in an attempt to persuade them to switch sides and bring an end to the fighting. Taliban commanders pay their foot soldiers higher rates than government forces, but wages for Afghan forces would rise from $120 (£75) a month to $165 a month.

Mrs Clinton unveiled a plan last week, to be presented in London, for the stabilisation of Afghanistan, also including bringing low-level fighters back into mainstream society. Taliban leaders have been excluded from the reintegration plans, but yesterday Pakistan's foreign ministry said it was reaching out to "all levels" of the Taliban in an attempt to bring peace to Afghanistan.

The British government wants the conference to approve a timetable for transferring power to Afghan security forces and government.

At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in November, Mr Brown called on Kabul to identify within three months from the date of the conference additional Afghan troops to be sent to Helmand for training. By six months, there should be a clear plan for police training, including tackling corruption, while within nine months some 400 provincial and district governors should be appointed. Within a year, the Prime Minister said, 50,000 additional Afghan troops must be trained, taking the total number of soldiers to 134,000. At least five out of 34 provinces should be under Afghan control within a year.

US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, wants the London meeting to set a target of 171,000 Afghan soldiers by October 2011, and police numbers to increase from 94,000 to 134,000 by that date.

The scale of the task facing world leaders was underlined on Friday with another death of a British soldier from an explosive device in Helmand. The soldier from A Company 4 Rifles was the 250th to be killed in the country.

Nato troops have seized tons of ammonium nitrate fertiliser over the past five months in southern Afghanistan, but the new ban is designed to send a message that the government is doing everything it can to curb the insurgency. President Karzai banned the use, production, storage, purchase or sale of the fertiliser and farmers have one month to turn in their stocks or face prosecution.

The Afghan president is under intense pressure to act against terrorism and corruption following his disputed second-term election last year. Mr Miliband last week said the Afghan government needed to show it was taking steps. Writing in the New Statesman, the Foreign Secretary said: "To remain resistant to Taliban intimidation, Afghans need to know that their government can provide basic justice and maintain order."

Mrs Clinton said on Thursday: "What [Afghans] want is a government that can and will function, and we are expecting a lot from President Karzai and his new government."

US President Barack Obama has set a timeline of July 2011 for the start of a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, echoed by Mr Brown.

The Independent on Sunday has led calls for a withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan within a year, while leaders in other EU countries are under pressure to demand a speeded-up withdrawal. Germany is among those said to be frustrated at the lengthy commitment.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who will not attend the talks at Lancaster House, central London, but who is instead sending her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, yesterday stressed her country's commitment to training Afghan troops. She will hold talks in Berlin with President Karzai this week before he travels to London for the conference.

The meeting will also highlight the effort needed by Pakistan to tackle terrorism in its country and border areas with Afghanistan.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said yesterday that the government was reaching out to "all levels" of the Afghan Taliban to end the insurgency against Kabul.

The talks on Yemen on Wednesday will bring together the foreign ministers of the country's main development partners, including the US and Saudi Arabia. Britain arranged the conference to coincide with the Afghanistan meeting after a Yemen-based al-Qa'ida group claimed it was behind the failed bid to blow up the Amsterdam to Detroit plane on 25 December.

The talks will focus on security and development funding to prevent Yemen becoming a failed state and being used by al-Qa'ida to launch further attacks. The Yemen government is also contending with a Shia revolt in the north and separatist movement in the south.

Underscoring the fragility of the its authority over the country, the bodies of 20 of 26 Saudi soldiers reported missing were yesterday found on the border after fighting against Shia rebels.

US General David Petraeus, who discussed military co-operation with Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier this month, pledged a doubling of aid from Washington to the country, taking it to $140m (£87m).

Saudi Arabia is believed to be spending between $200m and $300m a year on helping Yemeni security authorities conduct counter-terrorism work. Britain launched a £7m five-year justice and policing programme in the country in 2008, and earlier this month Mr Brown agreed funding with President Obama for a counter-terrorism police unit.