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Afghanistan conference: Will the new strategy work?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai at Downing Street
The Taliban has dismissed the London talks as propaganda

The London conference on Afghanistan has set out a clearer strategy to end the war. The question now is whether it will work.

The strategy is ambitious. It has military and political aspects, based on counter-insurgency doctrine that the one cannot succeed without the other.

Military

The military aim of the strategy is to hand over to the Afghans the security leadership of the whole country, within five years. And 2010 is supposed to be the decisive year in terms of reaching that goal.

To that end, the Nato campaign and the American military surge now underway in the fight against the Taliban will be complemented by a surge in the numbers of Afghan forces. The Afghan army, the main fighting arm, currently at about 104,000, will rise to 171,000 by October 2011.

The plan is that, province by province, the Afghans will take over the lead role, starting in quieter areas late this year or early next.

Of course, this all depends on how good the Afghans will be and whether Nato forces can sufficiently subdue the Taliban. And the quieter areas do not really matter. It is in the tough areas that the issue will be decided. Who can really say when Helmand will be pacified?

Political

The political part of the strategy, and one designed to make the military side easier, is in two parts. One seeks to entice lower-level Taliban fighters into peace with money from a special fund, with $140m (£86m) committed internationally already.

A US army official greets tribal leaders in Nangarhar province
Some Afghan tribes have signed a pact to keep the Taliban out of their lands

The principle seems to be - if you can't beat them, let them join you.

Quite how this will work at local level is uncertain. It is not hard to imagine, for example, a group of fighters taking the money one day and returning to the fray the next. For that reason the cash might be given to development projects. But that might not be so attractive to the fighters.

There is a precedent. One Pashtun tribe has just agreed to take $1m in aid in return for keeping the Taliban away. This could be a model. On the other hand, a senior Russian official, who was in Afghanistan during the Soviet era, said that economic enticement through jobs and development was tried then as well - and had failed.

The second political element is that President Hamid Karzai also seems to want to open up a political space for former guerrillas. He is inviting those Taliban interested in making peace to talks and has announced one of those grand Afghan councils, a loya jirga.

Taliban scepticism

Mr Karzai has already got some former Taliban leaders removed from a UN boycott list, presumably because he wants them to act as vanguard for others. But how seriously can this be taken?

A senior Western official said this week that the top Taliban leadership was not in the mood for talks. However, there have been reports, sourced to UN officials, that senior Taliban elements based in Pakistan met a UN representative recently to express interest in negotiations. The ultimate significance of such an approach remains to be determined.

Afgan army training centre in Kabul
The plan envisages a bigger Afghan military

There have been hints that not all Afghan government ministers are entirely convinced about this switch in war strategy.

Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who was at the conference, stressed the military side and said that a counter-offensive was about to begin. He has said previously that he is worried that the US is "lowering expectations" about what it can achieve.

He was probably referring to remarks from the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates that the American aim should be to contain any al-Qaeda threats emanating from the region.

Public opinion

The conference is also serving another, less obvious, but vital purpose. It is to bolster public opinion, especially in Britain, which called for and hosted the event.

If the public can see that there is a strategy and a way out, then they might more easily support the continued commitment of men and material to the conflict - and the sight of coffins coming home.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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