By Ray Fleming

THE annual Munich Security Conference has become a February fixture in the international calendar. Foreign Secretary is the lowest level of representation expected and president or prime minister is preferred. President Hamid Karsai of Afghanistan qualifies on the basis of his title but his contribution to last weekend's gathering was typically unhelpful. He called for the speedy disarmament of the NATO-administered provincial reconstruction teams which are engaged in a variety of infrastructural and other projects of importance to Afghanistan's future after the eventual withdrawal of foreign forces. Karsai''s demand was a surprise to the NATO representatives at the Conference who had not heard of it before and did not know he was going to make it at this forum. His return to the subject of the use of private security companies was expected and in fact does make some sense because these civilian operatives are outside Karsai's control and enable him to complain that their presence is a threat to his authority. It is unlikely, however that the United States will agree to reduce their presence significantly until a broader disengagement is under way.

There is a strong feeling among Western nations which still have a stake in Afghanistan that Mr Karsai would be better occupied dealing with the corruption in his country which has reached as close to his person as the collapse of one of the largest banks in the country in which his family is involved.