Byline: Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai
The latest international meeting on Afghanistan optimistically set a date for a security handover and devised a plan to rebuild the country. But is any of this actually achievable?
Big international conferences on Afghanistan have become an annual, and more recently a biannual, ritual. They mostly follow the same script. Afghanistan's international backers, led by the United States, pledge more money and steadfast backing for the beleaguered government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (It has received some $29 billion in aid over the past nine years.) In return, the president vows to fight the Taliban harder, spend international aid money more wisely, end corruption, and promote good governance in order the win the embattled population over to his side.
This week's conference , the ninth since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, was envisioned to be different. Indeed there was an element of desperation about it. The Taliban seemingly has the momentum, steadily expanding the insurgency from the south and east to the west and north. U.S. and NATO casualties have been rising (June was the deadliest month with 60 American and another 40 NATO soldiers killed). And support for the war is dwindling in the U.S. and at rock bottom in Europe. So both Karzai and the international community knew they had to make this conference a watershed moment. They had to create a new narrative telling a more positive story, showing that there is momentum on the coalition's side, that all is not bleak, that there is, in Vietnam War terminology, a light at the end of the tunnel.
If there is light, it seems to be a faint glimmer. Enough for Ashraf Ghani, the savvy former finance minister who helped to orchestrate Afghanistan's input at the talks, to declare the conference "a major success." To provide security for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the 40 foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending the event, the biggest international meeting ever held in Kabul, the Afghan security forces locked the city down to prevent a recurrence of suicide bombings by insurgents who are operating perilously close to the capital. Few residents ventured onto the heavily patrolled, eerily quiet streets during the national holiday that had been declared for the meeting.
Both Karzai and his international backers went out of their way to show a new spirit of purpose and cooperation, seemingly putting behind them months, if not years, of gnawing mistrust. The meeting's banner headline was Karzai's determination as he highlighted in his keynote speech that Afghan security forces "will be responsible for all military and law-enforcement operations throughout the country by 2014." That nonbinding promise would allow for a withdrawal of most, if not all, of the nearly 150,000 foreign troops now operating in the country.
The international donors met Karzai's gesture by pledging to meet a long-standing Afghan request: to channel more aid money directly through the country's treasury and not through ministries and a myriad of nongovernment aid organizations and contractors. …