Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said he expects his troubled nation to take full control of its security in 2014. The Kabul Conference where he announced this appeared long on promises of unwavering support for Afghanistan but short on concrete new solutions to the country’s war and deepening corruption problems.
Many analysts note that Afghanistan has recently taken steps to reassure the United States and others who are supporting the Karzai government that corruption is being addressed. The government is creating new approaches to channel aid more effectively and to woo members of the Taliban away from the organization.
The Kabul Conference’s final communiqué essentially seems to put an international stamp of approval on the Karzai government’s existing plans, especially the goal for Afghan forces to take charge of the country in four years, allowing international troops to withdraw.
How the US sees it
The US, Afghanistan, and others are hoping that the target date will spur faster development of Afghan forces and reassure the restive voting publics of Western democracies that an end to the fighting is in sight.
“I remain determined that our Afghan national security forces will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country by 2014," President Karzai told the conference.
June was the deadliest month for foreign troops of the nearly nine-year war, the longest in US history, and members of the US Congress have grown angry at evidence that billions of dollars in development aid here have been stolen or wasted, and at the fraud-marred election that returned Karzai to power last year.
"The world is with Afghanistan, and the world stands in opposition to Al Qaeda, the extremist militant Taliban, and to those who are trying to deny Afghanistan the future it deserves," US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the conference, which was attended by the senior ministers of more than 40 nations.
Secretary Clinton reiterated the Obama administration’s goal to begin withdrawing combat troops by the end of next summer, and praised Karzai’s plan for eventually taking control of security. She said the target to start withdrawing troops “is the start of a new phase, not the end of our involvement" and that the US has “no intention of abandoning our long-term mission of achieving a stable, secure, peaceful Afghanistan."
What NATO says
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that “we will never allow the Taliban to overthrow the elected government by force," and that an actual handover will be determined by the local security situation.
The Afghan defense and interior ministries are currently drawing up, in concert with NATO, a plan to start taking over control of some districts and provinces as soon as next year. Whether Afghan forces will be on their own in such locations is still a question. In 2006 and 2007, US forces in Iraq announced handovers of authority to Iraqi commands that were still largely reliant on US logistical support to function.
How big was this conference?
Afghanistan and its international backers used words like “historic” and “landmark,” to describe the conference, which organizers said was the first major conference in Kabul since the 1970s. Meanwhile, security was provided by a near total lockdown of the central parts of Kabul.
Both Monday and Tuesday were declared holidays and temporary checkpoints and blockades around the city shut off a number of normally busy thoroughfares in a perimeter around the Foreign Ministry, where the conference was held. The Kabul airport was closed for civilian flights on both days.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led umbrella for the war effort here, said a number of Taliban members planning to attack the conference were killed or captured on Monday night.
Tight security appeared to prevent a repeat of the attempted Taliban attack on the country’s “peace jirga” in early June, when a rocket landed near the tent where Afghan delegates had gathered to discuss ways to reach out to insurgents during Karzai’s opening address.
Enter Iran and a complicated dance
This time, the only fireworks at the conference were perhaps provided by Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, who blamed international forces here and “elements” in Afghanistan and Pakistan for training the Sunni militants who carried out an attack last week on a mosque in Zahedan, near the Afghan border, which killed 30 people.
Last week, Clinton condemned the attack as terrorism. Mr. Mottaki's presence at the conference was a reminder of the complex diplomatic dance that will be required to see a negotiated end to the war.
Iran and the US regularly trade bellicose rhetoric over the country’s nuclear program, and US and Afghan officials have alleged that the country has occasionally supported Taliban fighters here.
Pakistan’s lawless border regions with Afghanistan continue to be a resupply haven for Taliban fighters, and both US and Afghan officials say that the intelligence services in the US ally continue to provide support to the Taliban and allied groups like the Haqqani network.
Iran, like the US, has also been flexing its soft power here, contributing to building projects and extending commercial links, particularly in cities like Herat in Afghanistan’s west. And so has India, another close US ally but longtime enemy of Pakistan. India financed the construction of a highway last year that links the Afghan province of Nimroz to an Iranian port, in an effort to reduce Afghanistan’s reliance on the Pakistani port of Karachi.
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