Kabul Conference Sets Lofty Goals

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (middle front), with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on his left and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on his right, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 20 Shah Marai / AFP-Getty Images

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 to 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. In the past, fearing that much of the aid would get siphoned off through the country's notoriously corrupt practices, international donors only disbursed about 20 percent of aid money through the government. This time the internationals agreed to distribute at least half of the aid directly through the Afghan budget within two years. Most of that aid would be earmarked for some two dozen priority development projects that Karzai and his advisers had singled out "to transform the lives our people," in the president's words.

For once, Ghani says, the international donors listened to what the Afghans wanted to do rather than telling them what to do. "Now there's a strategic understanding between the Afghan government and the international community on the way forward," he tells NEWSWEEK. "There's a very clear sense of transition not just in security but across the board to Afghan leadership and ownership." That step forward requires the Afghans to take more responsibility for their performance and future. And as in the past, Karzai vowed once again to fight corruption by requiring government officials to declare their assets and by reinforcing antigraft agencies. "Now it's up to the government and ministers to carry out the clear mandate the president has given them," adds Ghani, who ran against Karzai in last August's disputed presidential election. "They must now show immediately if they are up to the task, or if they are ignoring the president."

Ghani does not down play the challenge. "Corruption is moving like a tidal wave throughout the entire country," says Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. As Ghani says, there is no such thing as "petty corruption" in poverty-stricken Afghanistan: "If someone who earns $200 a year loses $30 in corruption, that is not petty for him." The heat and the spotlight will also be on the finance, commerce, and health ministers who must begin dealing with the graft associated with the import of construction materials, pharmaceuticals, food, and fuel that has merchants and consumers up in arms. "That's going to be an immediate test," Ghani says.

The other test cases will be getting the Ministry of Agriculture to start delivering aid, know-how, and technology to the some 80 percent of Afghans who work on the land. Then there is mining, on which the country's economic future may hang. Geologists from Russia and the U.S. have discovered a treasure-trove of iron, copper, precious metals, lithium, and rare-earth metals in Afghanistan that is potentially worth astronomical sums. But already the Ministry of Mines is operating under a cloud, suspected of striking a less-than-transparent extraction contract for a copper mine south of Kabul with a Chinese mining company.

More aid funds will be directed to the largely neglected sectors of higher education and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to help create an educated work force and employment for the poor, the disabled, and for women. But clearly there are no quick fixes for the massive economic and socials problems that the country faces. "We won't know for years whether channeling 50 percent of aid directly through the government will result in more efficient and effective governance and aid development," says Rondeaux. "Unfortunately, it may be too late by then."

Indeed, security is the linchpin of development. And the U.S. and the coalition are betting all their chips that "Afghanization" of the conflict will allow American and NATO forces to gradually disengage from combat and security operations and go home. The plan is to have a 300,000-strong Afghan army and police force in place by the end of next year. But some experts see that as a false hope. "Realistically, the Afghan army and police will not be ready even by 2014," says Gilles Dorronsoro, author and Afghan expert. "We are losing ground quickly, and there is no hope that we can do better in the next 18 months.

"Afghanization cannot work without negotiations and a political agreement with the Taliban leadership," adds Dorronsoro. To that end, there was curiously little talk about talking to the Taliban at this week's conference. That is largely because Karzai and the coalition do not seem to have a political strategy to end the conflict. Part of the problem is that in the Taliban's eyes, Karzai may be too weak and compromised for the insurgents to talk to him. "Karzai's legitimacy is a serious question, and he may have preciously little to offer the insurgency," says Rondeaux. "The U.S. will have to get directly involved." Dorronsoro agrees. "The United States must make contact with the Taliban leadership with the help of Pakistan."

Mullah Shabir Akhund, the Taliban's shadow governor for eastern Afghanistan, dismisses the importance of the Kabul meeting. "The conference is an attempt to allow the Karzai regime to survive a bit longer," he says. "But Karzai, the U.S., and NATO have already lost." He adds that Taliban meetings, or shuras, are much simpler and more effective. "Some come by motorbike, some by donkey, and some on foot," he says. "Then we spread our chadors under a tree, sit down, talk, and decide."

Without serious negotiations with men like Akhund and the Taliban, grand strategies for Afghan development and stability like those devised in Kabul this week may never get off the ground.