The London international conference on Afghanistan was held on 28 January 2010 against the backdrop of a particularly bad year for the ISAF and US forces, a controversial Afghan presidential election and a confused American AFPAK policy. President Obama in his West Point speech (October 2009) had stated that US troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011 but he did not announce the timetable for complete withdrawal. This has left the world guessing whether the international community is now tired and intends to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.
The conference was expected to bring some clarity on the future strategy of the international community. The conference was held within a few days of a regional conference in Istanbul to which India was not invited and in which Pakistan held sway.
The communiqué issued at the end of the Conference is full of promises to the effect that henceforth the strategy of Afghanistan’s international partners would be to strengthen institutions of security and governance in Afghanistan. The most important goal set by the conference is to handover the physical security of Afghan provinces to Afghan national forces in the next five years. The idea is to transfer ISAF’s responsibilities to the Afghan Army in a phased manner, beginning with the soft areas first. The Afghan Army’s numbers will be raised to 171,600 and that of the police to 134,000 by 2011.
Another important goal set by the conference is to set up a ‘trust fund’ to facilitate an Afghan-led peace and reintegration programme. This is a euphemism for reintegration of those militants who shun violence, snap their links with al Qaeda and other terror groups.
A number of steps were announced to promote good governance, fight corruption, deal with the drugs and narcotics problem, enhance capacity building, etc. To deal with corruption, a pet peeve with Western donors, an international oversight group has been set up.
Some of the specific decisions taken at the conference were:
Two key questions emerge from the Conference. The Communiqué seeks to assure Afghanistan that the international community will not exit the country leaving the government in the lurch. At the same time it also makes the point that the transition to an Afghan-led security system where the responsibility for security will be primarily that of the Afghan forces will be made as rapidly as possible. Is this possible given the state of the Afghan forces? How long will the international community be able to remain committed in Afghanistan? Second, will the strategy of splitting the Taliban on the basis of promises of monetary inducements via the ‘trust fund” being set up for this purpose succeed? This is anybody’s guess. Ending the war by promising inducements may turn out to be wishful thinking.
The United States does not want to get bogged down in Afghanistan and yet it cannot afford to leave in ignominy of defeat. The rise of Pakistani Taliban, who are linked with their Afghan counterparts, shows that the Taliban are nowhere near subdued. Because war weariness has set in, Western powers appear to be in a hurry to transfer responsibility to the Afghan forces who are hardly ready for the job. The desire to engage with the Taliban stems from war weariness, rising casualties and dwindling public support in Western countries for the war effort in Afghanistan. If the international community has to engage the Taliban, then it must engage those Taliban who matter. What is the point in engaging those who are minor players? 2010 may well turn out to be the year that will determine whether the Taliban will be subdued or not.
India has been opposed to the false distinction between the ‘good’ Taliban and the ‘bad Taliban’. But the international community seems to have ignored India’s objections. India may have to soften its long held view on the Taliban. There is a danger that India may be becoming marginal to finding a solution to the Afghan imbroglio despite its impressive reconstruction programme in the country.
India will have to figure out how important does the international community think its economic assistance to Afghanistan is in stabilising the country. While privately the United States and Western countries appreciate India’s positive role, they are unable to say so forcefully and openly in view of Pakistan’s paranoia. This is a good time for India to review its Afghan strategy taking into account the increasing war weariness of the Western forces and President Karzai’s policy of reintegrating the ‘good Taliban’. Pakistan wants to marginalise India’s role in Afghanistan. Western countries are aware of Pakistan’s game plan but are unwilling to confront it with the realities. For them Pakistani ‘cooperation’ is more important than India’s reconstruction assistance. India must assess carefully the developing scenarios in Afghanistan. In particular, India must figure out whether the reintegration of the Taliban is at all possible and whether the present regime will survive such reintegration.