London Afghanistan summit glosses over the cracks

Despite a retooled strategy that links a U.S. troop surge to efforts to build the Afghans’ capacity to govern and protect themselves, Western optimism over Afghanistan’s prospects has continued to ebb. So, a key task of the Jan. 28 conference convened in London by Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown and co-hosted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was to foster confidence that a positive outcome could be achieved sooner rather than later. “Today’s conference represents a decisive step towards greater Afghan leadership to secure, stabilize and develop Afghanistan,” declared the concluding communiqué.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, and Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrive at the London Conference on Afghanistan
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, and Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrive at the London Conference on Afghanistan

Despite a retooled strategy that links a U.S. troop surge to efforts to build the Afghans’ capacity to govern and protect themselves, Western optimism over Afghanistan’s prospects has continued to ebb.

So, a key task of the Jan. 28 conference convened in London by Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown and co-hosted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was to foster confidence that a positive outcome could be achieved sooner rather than later.

“Today’s conference represents a decisive step towards greater Afghan leadership to secure, stabilize and develop Afghanistan,” declared the concluding communiqué.

The premature release of the communiqué by German officials before the daylong conference even broke for a lunch of goat’s cheese and sea bass underlined how little would be decided at the conference itself.

And the document’s boilerplate contents revealed the limits on what had been agreed in the detailed negotiations that preceded Thursday’s summit.

The document reiterates familiar aspirations for boosting the country’s security, development and governance, but fixed targets are in shorter supply — and some appear to have been scaled back.

For example, Germany, the third largest contributor to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, had been under pressure from its allies to boost its troop commitment, but two days before the London summit it announced an increase of only 500 extra soldiers plus a so-called “flexible reserve” force of 350 deployable at short notice — far fewer than Washington had hoped for, and with an emphasis on training Afghan forces rather than engaging in frontline fighting.

“This could strain relations with Washington ... [Berlin] is now inviting the Americans to do the dirty work in Afghanistan,” says Henning Riecke, an analyst at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.

Although the conference reiterated ambitious targets for rapidly expanding the Afghan National Army and the police force, the fact that no timetable was set for the phased transfer of security control from NATO to these indigenous forces underscores a sense of caution over how quickly Afghan forces will be able to take over.

Last November, Brown had suggested that five provinces would be under Afghan control by the end of 2010, and President Obama set a goal of beginning to draw down U.S. troops in July 2011.

Thursday’s communiqué avoids most such specifics. Britain’s Secretary of State for Defense Bob Ainsworth told TIME he expects “late this year or early next to be able to transition some provinces” to Afghan control. “We’re not on an exit strategy,” he added. “We’re going to put this country in a good place.”

Mindful of the cloud of suspicion that remains over his administration following its return to power in flawed elections, Karzai in London reiterated his pledge to tackle Afghanistan’s rampant corruption. At the summit, he announced the creation of an independent High Office of Oversight to investigate corrupt officials and the strengthening of other anticorruption bodies.

“Fighting corruption will be the key focus of my second term of office,” Karzai promised. “We are determined to put an end to the culture of impunity.”

One notable absence from the London summit was that of Iran, Afghanistan’s influential neighbor on its western flank. “The approach of this conference is still towards increasing military actions in Afghanistan,” an Iranian official told the official Fars news agency. Tehran’s decision to stay away, said British Foreign Secretary and conference chairman David Miliband, was “inexplicable.”

That same adjective might seem to apply to the failure of the Afghan government to include in its delegation even one woman. When Orsana Ashraf, the founder of the nongovernmental organization Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, first heard about the London conference, she began to lobby officials to ask that women’s views be properly represented.

The response, she says: “They said this isn’t ladies’ business; this is about security.”

The omission of women from the Afghan delegation may, however, be taken by many as a portent. The Afghan strategy now being pursued by NATO and its regional partners is predicated on the goal of achieving a political solution, and reconciliation with many of those currently fighting under the Taliban banner.

The London conference roundly endorsed a reconciliation fund aimed at wooing Taliban fighters to cross sides, while Pakistan and other regional players are pressing for some form of power-sharing deal to be negotiated with the movement’s leaders if they cut ties with al-Qaeda. Such talk has Afghan women fearing that their own hard-won freedoms could be in jeopardy.

“As we see the Taliban coming back, what will happen to the women of Afghanistan?” asked Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre, in a meeting in Westminster before the summit.

That’s one of a number of questions that could have cracked the smooth sheen of unanimity that glossed the outcome of Thursday’s meeting.

Instead, the conference created a bounce of energy, not real momentum, but enough to buoy hopes of progress, with Karzai reaching out to some of those currently outside the government camp at the tribal jirga assembly he plans to convene within weeks.

He also plans to convene an international conference in Kabul in the spring, although recent Taliban attacks in the heart of the capital have raised security fears over that event.

Cautious optimism also reigned after talks on Yemen hastily organized to take place alongside the Afghanistan conference, following the failed Christmas Day attack on a jetliner in Detroit.

The Yemen meeting, on Jan. 27, set out steps to counter the growing threat from al-Qaeda militants based in the failing state, and envisaged a boost in aid from the U.S. and other nations. “We cannot afford inaction,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of that meeting.

But the challenge remains to turn all this talk into action.

TIME

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