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Aims of the London conference on Afghanistan

Nato-led soldiers in Kabul, 26 January, 2010
Withdrawal is not mentioned when it comes to Afghanistan

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

They say it is not about withdrawal - the word is said to sound weak and to frighten the Afghan and Pakistani governments.

But it looks as if the London conference on Afghanistan is partly about just that, wrapped up in policies about "transferring primacy" to Afghan forces and "talking to the Taliban".

It is about giving Western public opinion the confidence that there is a strategy not only for fighting the war but also for getting out of it.

And it is about putting pressure on the Afghan government to do more itself - governing better and fighting better.

The "they" who deny it is about withdrawal are officials from Western governments anxious to sell their policy of intervention at a time when public opinion is faltering.

Enticement to peace

This is especially true of the British government, which called this conference. Governments tend only to call such conferences when things are going badly. They do not need to when things are going well.

The conference, the officials say, will have three aims.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
President Karzai has called a loya jirga or council

The first is to lay out a security plan. This will set up a "reintegration fund" to entice Taliban fighters, mainly locals, away from war into peace. Some might be paid to form local anti-Taliban militias.

The problem with this is that it has been talked about before. In December 2007, British officials briefed about it. Little happened. (The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, opening the conference, formally announced the setting-up of this 'trust fund".)

As for the Taliban leaders, President Karzai has had the UN remove five from a sanctions list banning international travel and freezing funds. They include the former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil. More than 140 names remain on the list however. The president might also announce some sort of council or loya jirga. (Update: He has now done so. He also called on the Saudis, who have maintained contact with Taliban figures, to help in this.)

Nobody thinks the Taliban leadership is ready to talk. Quite the reverse.

Also on the security front, the hope is that province by province, and starting as early as the end of this year in quieter regions, military leadership will be handed over from Nato to Afghan forces. There should be more than 170,000 soldiers in the Afghan army by next year.

Shifting targets

The process is not supposed to be date-driven but conditions-driven - "end-state not end-date" as the jargon has it.

There is a timetable as well, a transfer within five years if all goes well - if.

Gen Stanley McChrystal: "We're here to give time and space to the Afghan people to build a nation"

The target-driven philosophy that has dominated domestic policy in the UK in recent years is now being deployed on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Targets have been redefined. They are not enemy positions. They are "end-state conditions".

The second aim of the conference is to encourage better governance and more effective aid.

The third is to persuade Afghanistan's neighbours to help more. Talks about that have already taken place in Istanbul. However, Iran has refused to come to the London conference, saying that there was too much emphasis on a military solution. The British government said the Iranians had "missed an opportunity."

The Taliban leadership do not have as their principal aim al-Qaeda's violent global jihadist agenda
UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband

In all this, the link between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, whom the Taliban once protected - the usual justification for the war in Afghanistan - is now being subtly re-assessed.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "We do not conflate or confuse al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban government in Afghanistan in the 1990s provided a supportive environment for the al-Qaeda senior leadership.

"But the Taliban leadership do not have as their principal aim al-Qaeda's violent global jihadist agenda. The vast majority of its low- and mid-level fighters are certainly not motivated by it."

This means there does not have to be an all-out victory. Indeed, like withdrawal, victory is a word not heard.

The path to the exit door is still likely to be protracted, tortuous, and bloody
Sir Rodric Braithwaite
Former British ambassador to Moscow

Sceptics remain. Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former British ambassador to Moscow who is writing a book on the Soviet role in Afghanistan, said: "The Americans, and therefore we, are redefining our goals.

"Instead of demonising the Taliban, we now contemplate the possibility that some of them could become part of the solution, an Afghanistan run by the Afghans themselves. That is welcome, the beginning of strategy.

"But it takes two to tango, and the Taliban may believe that they have less to gain by talking to President Karzai and his foreign supporters than by sitting it out until we leave anyhow.

"The path to the exit door is still likely to be protracted, tortuous, and bloody."

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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