2 Afghanistan conferences: No solutions
KABUL, Afghanistan — The much-vaunted London Conference on Afghanistan ended less with a bang than a whimper, albeit a very diplomatically worded one.
The hype had been prodigious: The conference was supposed to chart a new course for Afghanistan’s relations with the international community, set up a framework for peace negotiations with the Taliban and reaffirm the world’s commitment to stay the course.
In Kabul, all waited, some with hope and some with dismay, for a major breakthrough on talks with the Taliban. It has been a centerpiece of President Hamid Karzai’s domestic policy since he began his second term in November.
“The Afghan government has taken serious steps to ensure that dialogue with the Taliban will be discussed at the (London) conference,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Faqiri, in an interview last week. “The Afghan government is ready to overcome any obstacles to bring peace to the country.”
But negotiations were never mentioned in the 34-point communiqué that ended the London meeting. Instead, a much more general “reintegration” program was outlined to bring less committed fighters back into society. This is hardly a new move: It is just a better-funded version of a program that has been in place since 2005 to provide incentives for lower-tier insurgents to lay down their arms, say long-time Afghanistan observers.
The major emphasis in London seemed to be on beefing up Afghanistan’s own security forces, allowing them to take over the fight so that international forces can begin to withdraw. The United States, which will increase its military presence in Afghanistan this year, has plans to start to draw down its forces in 2011. Canada has already announced its intention to leave at the end of next year; the Dutch have also said that they want their troops home by the end of 2010.
With one Western country after another promising an imminent reduction of their forces in Afghanistan, responsibility will soon have to be handed over to the Afghans.
In London, plans were drawn up to increase Afghan National Security Forces to over 300,000 by October 2011. Less clear is how the effort will be funded. Afghanistan cannot afford to keep that many men under arms.
“This is not realistic,” said a staff member from the Norwegian Ministry of Defense. “The Afghan budget cannot sustain it.”
The Afghan government wants more international assistance to be funneled through government structures — a difficult prospect given Afghanistan’s status as one of the most corrupt countries on the planet.
The conference communique promised up to 50 percent of aid money would be channeled through the government — provided that Karzai makes progress in building capacity and fighting graft.
But for many disappointed observers, the London conference came down to declarations and promises, with little in the way of radical departures.
Not that this was unexpected to those in the know.
“It’s all just talk, talk, talk,” said Piotr Krawczyk, an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs, who has previously served with the Polish Embassy in Kabul.
He was one of more than 300 delegates at a parallel conference in Prague, where, in the three days leading up to the London conference, diplomats, analysts, and officials were debating the future of Afghanistan.
The stated subject of the Prague conference was a discussion of the future of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the loose network of military bases cum civilian development centers that has taken responsibility for rebuilding much of the country in the post-Taliban period.
The sessions were devoted to upbeat assessments of progress and firm commitments to renewed cooperation.
But in the corridors and during breaks the delegates engaged in feverish speculation on what would happen this year in Afghanistan. The mood was dark, and there were many more questions than answers.
“It’s hard to say anything anymore,” said one veteran commentator, speaking privately. “ No one really knows what will happen.”
One Western ambassador remarked over coffee that there was a feeling of desperation in the air. “People are just throwing various solutions at the problem,” said the diplomat. “ There is no real strategy here.”
But in Prague, as in London, Herculean efforts were made to paint the best possible picture of developments inside Afghanistan, and to hold out hope that all may yet be well.
“Local capacity is weak, but growing,” said Nicholas Williams, Head of the Operations Division for NATO in Brussels. “There was a positive message from the January 18 attacks (In Kabul): the security forces were able to control the situation.”
Williams was referring to a series of attacks in which seven Taliban suicide bombers took control of one the capital’s busiest and most heavily fortified districts, just steps away from the Presidential Palace, known as the Arg.
Two of the attackers blew themselves up immediately; Afghan police, backed up by the army and the National Security Directorate, were able to vanquish the remaining five in a little under four hours.
Training for the police has bee a sore point; in an interview last April, Richard Holbrooke categorized efforts to get the Afghan police up to speed as a “disaster.”
Prominently featured in several presentations in Prague was a recent poll sponsored by ABC, the BBC, and ARD showing that Afghans were overwhelmingly optimistic about their country and their future. The survey has provoked an outcry from Afghans and Afghan specialists, who claim that it does not correspond to an increasingly grim reality.
Bruce Sherman, head of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio Liberty and Voice of America, cited the poll repeatedly in his talk to a mixed Afghan and international audience, urging them to take the results to heart.
“ The media coverage of Afghanistan has been overwhelmingly negative,” he said. “But this poll shows that Afghans have a much different view.”
One European diplomat was fuming about the survey and the use to which it was being put.
“It is now obvious that this poll was timed for the London conference,” she said, speaking on the condition that she not be identified by name. “It is completely directed at domestic audiences. The poll itself is nonsense.”
In the end, the object of both conferences seemed to be to shore up flagging support for the Afghanistan effort at home.
“Every year since 2006 we have heard that Afghanistan is at a crossroads,” said Barbara Stapleton, Senior Adviser to the EU Special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking in Prague. “But 2010 really is a crossroads — for the international community and for their domestic populations.”
As international commitment wanes, the search for a solution is becoming increasingly frenzied.
“There’s very much a feeling of ‘Last Chance Saloon’ about all of this,” said Frank Ledwidge, author and analyst, who served in Helmand Province as a legal adviser. “For the West, this is surely the last throw.”
All eyes and hopes are now pinned to the Kabul conference, slated for March. This is expected to be the next big international conference with many of the same delegates trying again to find solutions to many of the same problems.
Third time’s the charm?