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Hillary Clinton and Hamid Karzai due in London

Hillary Clinton and Hamid Karzai due in LondonAfghan President Hamid Karzai and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are due to arrive in London ahead of a crucial conference on the future of Afghanistan.

The one-day meeting is intended to draw up a blueprint for Afghan forces to gradually take over responsibility for growing areas of their country, paving the way for the eventual withdrawal of international troops.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is co-hosting the conference with Mr Karzai and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said that at least five Afghan provinces – and some districts of the lawless Helmand region – could be handed back to home-grown authorities by the end of this year.

But he has set no timetable for the return of British forces. With US President Barack Obama‘s “surge” of 30,000 American troops and Britain’s deployment rising to 9,500, the international military presence in Afghanistan is reaching its highest level since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001.

Nato’s new civilian representative in Kabul, British diplomat Mark Sedwill, on Tuesday predicted that the alliance will have troops in Afghanistan, probably including British troops, “for 10 to 15 years”.

International troops would continue in a combat role for three to five years, before shifting their focus to mentoring Afghan soldiers, he said.

His appointment came as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of strategy and operations, focusing on tackling corruption, beefing up the national army and police and improving the lot of ordinary Afghans to prevent them turning to the Taliban.

High on the agenda at the conference will be efforts to reintegrate former Taliban insurgents into mainstream society.

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