British Prime Minister Gordon Brown may have called the London Conference on Afghanistan for domestic political purposes, as a sort of publicity stunt. But the nearly 70 nations that gathered there unexpectedly took advantage of the meet to plot out a NATO exit strategy. Of course, how realistic it is remains to be seen. The London conference saw as many plans put forward for dealing with the low-intensity war against the Taliban there as there were countries in attendance. And, even while it was being held, major fighting broke out in the Pashtun city of Lashkar Gah. And in the Pakistani port of Karachi, Taliban attacked a NATO truck convoy. Since Afghanistan is landlocked, Karachi is serving as the major port for the war effort.
President Hamid Karzai asked for 15 years more of a substantial NATO commitment and heavy investment of foreign training and aid in the country.
Karzai also offered to open talks with the top echelons of the Old Taliban of Mullah Omar in hopes of bringing them in from the cold. While Karzai has been talking to some elements of the insurgency (including Gulbadin Hikmatyar of the Hizb-i Islami or ‘Islamic Party,’ one of Reagan’s old ‘Freedom Fighters’ now incorrectly lumped in with the Taliban), he wanted the London conference to give him the resources to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Some European powers were unexpectedly open to the idea of a national unity government that would bring some Taliban officials in from the cold. NATO was even willing to back such efforts, putting together $500 million in bribes to bring Taliban or rural tribal forces over to the government side. The Western press is not mentioning it, but Saudi Arabia is putting in $150 mn. in aid to Afghanistan, and Karzai is pleading with King Abdullah to help negotiate a ceasefire with the Taliban.
The US is more wary, willing to bring over the everyday guerrillas but unwilling to imagine a return of Old Taliban officials to positions of power. India was apparently extremely concerned by the widespread interest in the Karzai plan, since New Delhi does not believe Taliban can be separated into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ India remembers that the Taliban helped train guerrillas to hit Kashmir. New Delhi is also worried that any push to reintegrate the Taliban into the government might well increase Pakistani influence, and Islamabad is already offering to help Karzai negotiate with the Taliban and other insurgents. India and Pakistan are fierce rivals.
NATO was generally very unhappy at Karzai’s mention of “15 years”, and instead began speaking of 2011 as the beginning of a withdrawal of NATO troops, with the expectation that over time more and more of Afghanistan’s provinces would be patrolled by the Afghan military without foreign assistance.
US President Barack Obama’s plea for an extra 10,000 NATO troops to committed is falling on deaf ears in Europe. The NATO military commitment to Afghanistan is widely unpopular in most countries. Canada has said it would bring its troops home by 2012. France says it will send no more troops to Afghanistan and criticized Karzai’s 15-year timeline. Germany is sending only 500 more troops. The Dutch may pull out their 2000 troops soon. Obama is highly unlikely to get his 10,000 quota from NATO, though that piece of the troop escalation was key to his plan.
What he’ll get instead is increasing NATO troop drawdowns
There is an emerging Indo-American suspicion of the Karzai reconciliation plan, and a NATO-Pakistan-Afghanistan convergence of interest in it.
Perhaps alarmed at how far the talk of reintegration was going, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who said Monday that The Taliban would inevitably be part of any political settlement, nevertheless warned that “foreign” (presumably Arab) fighters in Afghanistan would not be part of any truce, and would have to leave the country or risk being killed.
Some say that with the US withdrawal from Iraq ahead of schedule, Washington will be willing to take on Afghanistan itself if NATO is not willing to commit to a long-term mission. But Afghanistan is a big, craggy country armed to the teeth, and US resources are not what they once were.
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