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US designates Afghanistan as major ally

The United States has designated Afghanistan a major non-NATO ally, giving the war-torn country special privileges as the US prepares to pull its troops out in 2014, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Saturday.

Clinton announced the move, which provides a long-term framework for security and defence cooperation, during a brief visit to Kabul where she had a breakfast meeting with President Hamid Karzai.

"We see this as a powerful symbol of our commitment to Afghanistan's future," Clinton said at a press conference after the talks.

"This is the kind of relationship that we think will be especially beneficial as we do the transition." 

The new status, which comes into effect immediately, makes it easier for a country to purchase and finance its acquisition of US defence equipment, along with other benefits.

"The United States is not abandoning Afghanistan," Clinton said. "Quite the opposite: we are building a partnership with Afghanistan that will endure."

This is the first such designation by President Barack Obama's administration. Other countries with the designation include Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, Japan, Jordan Korea, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. 

Clinton said the security situation in Afghanistan "though far from ideal, is certainly more stable", while the capacity of the Afghan security forces had "significantly improved."

NATO leaders have endorsed plans to hand Afghan forces the lead for security across their country by mid-2013 while foreign troops will gradually switch their focus from combat to support mode.

NATO has a total of 130,000 soldiers helping the Karzai government fight an insurgency by hardline Taliban militants, and they are due to withdraw by the end of 2014 when the transition process is complete.

The US and Afghanistan have already signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement which includes commitments on promoting democracy, good governance, advancing long-term security with the provision of foreign funds for the Afghan forces. 

Clinton's visit to Kabul was a three-and-a-half hour stopover on her way to a major conference in Tokyo in which Afghanistan is set to seek billions of dollars in civilian aid.

Karzai, who will be in Tokyo along with officials including Clinton and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, has called for some $4 billion a year in civilian aid for Afghanistan to be pledged during Sunday's conference.

But a principle of "mutual accountability" will be stressed at the 70-nation meeting, making continued payment of aid conditional on Kabul making progress, particularly on corruption and transparency. 

"Whilst (the NATO summit in) Chicago sought to show the beginnings of the implementation into transition, the transformation decade, on the security side, the goal of Tokyo is to (do) that same piece on the economic side, the civilian side," a US official said.

He stressed the important role of the private sector and encouraging private sector investment.

"For true kind of economic stability which obviously goes hand in hand with political stability there's obviously a diminishing role for assistance over time if we can build up true economic investment," he said.

After more than 30 years of war, the Afghan economy is weak and the country cannot survive without foreign aid. According to the World Bank, spending on defence and development by donors accounted for more than 95 percent of GDP in 2010-11.

Without a functioning economy, Kabul covers only $2 billion of the $6 billion it spends each year not counting security costs, said a Western diplomat, with donor countries making up the difference.

That would add to the $4.1 billion promised annually at the Chicago conference in May for security costs.

The Western diplomat said the Afghans were terrified that when NATO pulls out, the money will disappear with them.