At London Afghanistan conference, a developing script of withdrawal

The leaders of Afghanistan and 70 nations involved in the war and aid efforts there gathered in London on Thursday. New funds were promised for Afghanistan, but crafting a withdrawal strategy was a key part of the agenda.

Matt Dunham/Reuters
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (r.) shakes hands with Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband (2nd r.) as Prime Minister Gordon Brown (l.) and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon applaud, after his speech at the 'Afghanistan: The London Conference' in central London Thursday.
Graphic News

Some 70 nations raised $140 million Thursday as part of a focused, momentum-building effort to aid the government of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. But clear signals were also delivered that the US and its NATO allies are crafting a departure strategy and determined to transfer security responsibility to Kabul within five years.

Mr. Karzai and top officials from the US-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan were gathered in London for a conference on the future of Afghanistan. The London Conference's final communique made it clear that an eventual pullout was on almost everyone's mind.

Some $300 million to $500 million was informally agreed upon for a new “trust fund” to reconcile Taliban soldiers not linked to Al Qaeda or militant ideology; $1.6 billion in debt relief was announced, and $870 million in humanitarian aid appealed for. Delegates agreed to ongoing efforts to battle terror, train police and the Army, and align a military surge with what British Foreign Minister David Miliband called a “civilian” surge to reach Afghan hearts and minds.

But the back story and underlying meaning of the Jan. 28 conference appears to be a slow but inexorably developing script of transition, handoff, and departure. The conference communique and language of UN, NATO, US, and UK diplomats here was rife with “timelines” and “deadlines,” and laden with allusions of exit.

In an extended set of security agreements, conference participants “welcomed” increased “partnering” between NATO and Afghan forces, “and the principle that Afghan forces should progressively assume the leading role in all stages of operations.”

In point 10, the Afghan government is encouraged to start "conducting the majority of operations in the insecure areas...within three years" and "within five years," handle physical security in trouble spots.

“We committed to a transition strategy,” said UN special envoy Kai Eide, stressing in a Monitor interview that the strategy is backed “as much by Afghan authorities as the international community…. We’ve treated Afghanistan like a no-man’s land where decisions must be taken thousands of miles away. The Afghans are telling us they know their own country and want more say.”
US President Barack Obama has said he wants US troops to start leaving Afghanistan by the summer of 2011. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told participants here that Afghan forces will take “greater and greater responsibility, province by province, beginning this year.”

A senior European diplomat offered that “deadlines are now seen as important for focusing minds in Kabul.” The 70 agreed that the specifics not addressed at the London conference will be fleshed out at a “Kabul conference” later this year in which “a plan for a phased transition to Afghan security" will be created "as soon as possible.”

What is being sought by the NATO allies is what US envoy Richard Holbrooke calls “momentum” and affirmative assistance that will aid in withdrawal.

Analysts say the dynamics are sensitive, since a perceived political imperative to begin leaving, and the requirements to succeed, are in tension. What has instead happened after President Obama’s Dec. 1 speech announcing a middle-ground Afghan policy, is that the definition of success in Afghanistan has been redefined from the broad aim of democratization to a more sparse and pragmatic concept of “containing Al Qaeda.”

The conference also stressed the importance of a “regional solution” – with hoped-for new input from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India, and Iran. But delegates from Tehran did not show up in London, “inexplicably,” according to Mr. Miliband. Iran, as a Shiite-based state, is seen as influential for its culture, language, and religious constituency in important swaths of the Afghanistan – and is widely regarded as a needed partner for peace.

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