A global conference in Germany to discuss Afghanistan's future beyond 2014 comes as the country faces political instability, an enduring Taliban-led insurgency and possible financial collapse following the planned drawdown of international troops and foreign aid.
About 100 countries and international organizations will be represented at the Monday gathering, with some 60 foreign ministers in attendance, among them U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But one of the most important countries for Afghanistan's future, its eastern nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan, said it will boycott the conference to protest last month's NATO air assault carried out from Afghan territory that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan is seen as a crucial player in the region because of its links and influence on insurgent groups that are battling Afghan government and foreign troops and that sometimes use Pakistan as a base for their operations.
The Bonn conference is expected to address the transfer of security responsibility from international forces to Afghan security forces over the next three years, long-term prospects for international aid and a possible political settlement with the Taliban.
"Our objective is a peaceful Afghanistan that will never again become a safe haven for international terrorism," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
The U.S. had once hoped to use the Bonn gathering to announce news about the prospect for peace talks with the Taliban, but neither an Afghan nor a U.S. outreach effort has borne fruit.
The reconciliation efforts suffered a major setback after the September assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading the Afghan government's effort to broker peace with the insurgents.
But Washington and other partners are still trying to arrange an interim step toward talks _ the opening of a Taliban diplomatic office where its representatives could conduct international business without fear of being arrested or killed. Such a deal would be a minor accomplishment for the Bonn gathering.
"Right now we don't know their address. We don't have a door," to knock on, said Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Eklil Hakimi.
The final declaration of the Bonn conference is expected to outline broad principles and red lines for the political reconciliation with the Taliban, a project that several leading participants in the conference increasingly predict will outlast the NATO timeline for withdrawal in 2014.
The Bonn conference also seeks to agree on a set of "mutual binding commitments" under which Afghanistan would promise reforms and policy goals such as good governance, with donors and international organizations pledging long-term assistance in return to ensure the country's viability beyond 2014, a senior German diplomat said.
"It's about not repeating the mistakes of 1989, when the Soviet troops left and the West also forgot about Afghanistan," he said, referring to the bitter civil war that unfolded soon after the sudden withdrawal that was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will formally open the one-day conference of about 1,000 delegates. Afghanistan's western neighbor Iran also joins the conference, represented by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
Afghan civil society groups are meeting on the sidelines, and some 5,000 protesters were out in Bonn's streets Saturday, urging an end to the Afghan war.
While the conference is nominally run by the Afghans and organized by Germany, the United States is the key participant because it's the country that has by far invested the most blood and treasure in Afghanistan since 2001.
The NATO coalition of 49 countries currently has 130,000 troops in the country, including about 72,000 Americans. The U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, however, totals more than 101,600 because other American forces operate under a separate command. The vast majority are set to withdraw from Afghanistan over the next three years, leaving only a small force focused on training and counterterrorism missions beginning in 2015.
President Barack Obama announced this summer that 10,000 U.S. troops will come home by the end of the year. Another 23,000 will be pulled out by the end of September 2012. Those troops represent the 33,000 reinforcements that Obama sent in to help reverse the Taliban's momentum, leaving a force of about 68,000 U.S. forces, which will gradually shrink as the deadline for withdrawal approaches.
That deadline was set a year ago, by agreement between NATO and Afghanistan. There is little chance it will be extended.
The U.S. had also hoped to use this opportunity to unveil an agreement with the Afghan government establishing operating rules for the small number of remaining U.S. forces and other issues after international forces withdraw. But talks on the deal have bogged down over the past several months.
Although the Bonn gathering is not a donors' conference where specific pledges are expected, the U.S. is seeking agreement among other nations that they will not rush to the exits and commit to long-term financial assistance to avoid seeing Afghanistan slip back into chaos.
The international troops' withdrawal could indeed cause the Afghan economy to collapse, the World Bank warned last month, stressing that the war-ravaged nation will need billions of dollars in aid for another decade or more.
Afghanistan this year received $15.7 billion in aid, representing more than 90 percent of its public spending, it said.
In a report published ahead of the conference, the Afghan government said that despite expected revenue increases from a growing mining industry, customs and taxes, foreign donors will have to finance about half of the country's economic output in 2015, equivalent to aid worth $10 billion.
Despite the international troops' presence for more than a decade, Afghanistan still ranks among the world's poorest and most corrupt nations.
Without foreign help, Afghanistan won't be able to pay for basic services needed by its security forces which are slated to increase to 352,000 personnel by the end of 2014. Those expenses will have grown to twice the size of revenues and will result in a shortfall of about $7.8 billion annually, or about 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product in 2021.
"There will be a gap from when international forces withdraw, and we want to see a plan," for filling it, Hakimi said.
Although the United States has spent $444 billion in Afghanistan since it invaded the country in late 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and plans to spend $101 billion in fiscal 2011, most of that money "does not reach Afghanistan because it primarily funds salaries of international soldiers, purchases of military hardware, and the like," the World Bank said.
Despite improvements to security in Afghanistan, militants operating from safe havens in Pakistan and chronic problems with the Kabul government pose significant risks to a "durable, stable Afghanistan," according to a recent Pentagon progress report on the country.
Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.