At the Kabul conference: a road map to transition in Afghanistan

President Karzai and the international community agreed on a path to transition at the international conference in Kabul. Whether the various deadlines, including Afghan control of military operations by 2014, can be achieved is unknown. But the plans point the way forward to Afghanistan ownership of its future.

If the White House describes July 2011 as the start of a NATO handover of security in Afghanistan to that country’s forces, think of July 2010 as serious preparation for that start.

On Tuesday, more than 40 countries with a stake in Afghanistan met at a high-level conference in Kabul and agreed to a road map to Afghanistan’s ownership of its future – and not just the security piece of it. Dubbed the “Kabul Process,” the document is full of benchmarks and timetables, including two biggies:

Afghanistan security forces will lead and conduct all military operations against the Taliban by 2014, and be responsible for all law enforcement; and within two years, at least 50 percent of all foreign aid will flow directly to the Afghan government (now, about 20 percent is funneled through the government). That last point commits Afghanistan to creating a transparent and accountable government that can responsibly handle such aid.

This is an incredibly ambitious series of goals presented by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and adopted by those at the conference, and who knows whether they can be fulfilled. But the significance lies in the fact that they represent a plan with specific targets, a way forward. The document also puts President Hamid Karzai and the international community on the same page, working toward the same goals in the same time frame.

Despite a summer of heavy casualties and security setbacks for international forces, there has been progress in building up the Afghan Army. Recruiting is ahead of schedule, but NATO countries must step up and fill about 2,000 slots for trainers who deploy alongside Afghan soldiers. Police corruption, meanwhile, remains a serious challenge, one that greatly influences how Afghans regard the Karzai government compared with Taliban rule.

The development front, however, may pose an even greater challenge. The Kabul communiqué amounts to a promise to reform government so that it can take the lead in Afghanistan’s development. That includes reforming elections, holding a fair election in the fall, establishing an anticorruption court, setting development priorities, and delivering services to the population. The strategy is to create a “whole” government – this in a country of clans and devolved power.

“We all agree that steady transition to Afghan leadership and ownership is the key to sustainability,” President Karzai said at the conference.

Whether his transition commitment is motivated by national pride, personal politics, or international pressure is hard to know. But the July 20 communiqué certainly dovetails with the desires of an impatient international community to “get on with it” nine years into a war which wearies voters back home.

Canada and the Netherlands are proceeding with plans to withdraw their troops. Poland wants out, and Germany has said it wants to start handing over control of its responsibilities next year. The British, while pledging a 40 percent increase in aid to Afghanistan, are working toward a withdrawal deadline of 2014 (the same as Afghanistan’s takeover deadline).

The great unknown is whether conditions on the ground – in governance and security – will dovetail with the transition timelines set forth today. Most likely not, but at least there is now an agreed path forward.

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