Kabul Conference: Happy Face on Grim War Realities

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Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton join in a group photograph at the conclusion of the International Conference on Afghanistan at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Kabul on July 20, 2010

The first major conference of foreign governments on Afghan soil, held Tuesday, July 20, in Kabul, was intended to be a milestone on the road to achieving Western goals of withdrawing from a stable Afghanistan. But its message won't allay doubts over the exit strategy of the U.S. and its NATO partners. The half-day conference, attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, featured familiar promises: Afghan security forces would eventually take over and allow NATO troops to go home; the Afghan government would do more to tackle corruption and deliver good governance. A new soft deadline was endorsed: President Karzai hopes his security forces will take charge of the country by 2014. The conference attendees also agreed that the proportion of foreign aid money channeled directly through the Afghan government (rather than through Western militaries and NGOs) would rise from 20% to 50%, although that proposal has raised corruption concerns among some Western diplomats.

But the increasingly perilous situation on the ground undercuts the conference's effort to convince skeptical Westerners that the war can be won in Afghanistan. Indeed, plans to begin the transfer of security control of some Afghan provinces from Western forces to Afghan troops by the end of this year were quietly dropped from Tuesday's talk out of concerns that local forces would not be ready. The Taliban know that NATO powers are under growing domestic political pressure to end what has already been America's longest war, and they see the Obama Administration's stated intention to begin drawing down U.S. troops next summer as a sign that NATO recognizes that it can't win the war. In response, NATO is hoping its soldiers can be replaced by Afghan security forces. "Maybe the insurgents think they can wait us out, but we will stay for as long as it takes to finish our job," said NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a commentary published Tuesday. That "job" was not defeating the Taliban but standing up an indigenous army to fight them. "Our training of Afghan soldiers and police is ahead of schedule," wrote Rasmussen, "and by next year there will be a 300,000-strong Afghan security force — and it can't be waited out."

Training tens of thousands of troops, however, doesn't necessarily turn them into the bulwark against the Taliban that Western forces currently provide. Although NATO is ahead of schedule in meeting its target of expanding the Afghan National Army to 134,000 troops, even relatively optimistic estimates by U.S. officials say only 30% of that number are in effective military units. The proportion of the police force currently deemed effective is less than half of that. Getting impoverished Afghans to sign on for a paycheck, a uniform and a weapon is one thing; getting them to fight and die for the present government is quite another. The idea that Western armies in Afghanistan, particularly in the Pashtun south, will be replaced by 2014 with Afghan security forces ready to hold the line against the Taliban remains just that — an idea, not yet demonstrably workable in the field.

In truth, the underlying assumption of many of the key players is that the war will end not in defeat for either side but in some sort of political settlement with the insurgents. The issue of reconciliation with the Taliban got very little attention in the communiqué adopted in Kabul on Tuesday. But that was widely read as a sign that the Afghan government and its various foreign allies have not achieved consensus on the issue of negotiating with the Taliban, not as a sign that the idea is dead.

After all, though a political settlement may be the only endgame in town, there's no clear strategy for achieving one. Formally, the Afghan government abides by the U.S. policy that only those Taliban who put down their weapons, renounce al-Qaeda and accept Afghanistan's constitution — and Clinton on Tuesday emphasized its provisions on women's rights as a red line for Washington — could be reintegrated into Afghan society. But while U.S. officials repeatedly warn against trying to reconcile with the Taliban leadership, it's widely known that the Karzai government is undertaking its own efforts to negotiate directly with that very same Taliban leadership. So far, the Taliban have shown little interest in what's being offered at the table, and that's understandable: as many observers in the region note, it's not realistic to demand that the Taliban put down their arms as a precondition for talking when the Taliban believe, not without good reason, that they're winning the war. (The current U.S. military strategy aims to push back the insurgents and disabuse them of the belief that they can prevail by force, although such a shift in momentum is unlikely to be achieved by July 2011, when President Obama plans to begin the drawdown of U.S. troops.)

The Taliban's momentum is not the only obstacle to negotiating a solution. Besides the obvious difficulty the U.S. faces in concluding a peace deal with those who harbored al-Qaeda before 9/11 and who ran a murderous regime of repression and regression, there is major domestic resistance to such a deal within Afghanistan. The Karzai government and its security forces have long been premised heavily on the support of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, the ethnic minorities who together comprise almost half the population and who backed the Northern Alliance against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. Leaders of these communities have vehemently rejected any reconciliation with the Taliban, warning that bringing the movement into any sort of power-sharing arrangement would trigger a civil war. Indeed, fear that the Taliban and their Afghan foes can never reconcile has prompted some influential figures in the West to begin proposing a de facto partition of Afghanistan that would cede the Pashtun heartland to Taliban control. That's a long way from the gloss applied to the situation by those gathered in Kabul on Tuesday, whose pronouncements are unlikely to convince many on the ground that the tide is being turned.