THE London Conference on Afghanistan, held on January 28, was supposed to work out a coherent exit strategy for the West with regard to the war-torn country. The conference was attended by representatives of more than 70 countries and of the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the United Nations.
The desperation to get out of Afghanistan was evident in the statements of most Western leaders present at the meeting. The willingness to open dialogue with the good Taliban in order to find a political solution was an indication of the prevailing pessimistic mood.
But a political or military solution was nowhere in sight, and it is apparent that the military occupation of Afghanistan will continue for at least another five years. In fact, Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants the foreign troops to be around for a minimum of 15 years. He reiterated this demand once again in London, and E.U. and NATO officials were critical of his 15-year time line.
It is evident that the grandiose promise of United States President Barack Obama to withdraw all American troops by 2011 is no longer feasible. With the militarily ascendant Taliban refusing to be drawn into dialogue, the conditions on the ground will mean that U.S. troops will continue to be stationed in Afghanistan beyond this deadline. The 10,000 additional NATO troops from European countries that Washington expected to be deployed in Afghanistan as part of the military surge do not seem to be materialising. France has announced that it will not send any more troops to Afghanistan. Germany has promised only 500 more troops, while the Netherlands is on the verge of pulling out all its 2,000 soldiers.
While appealing to the good Taliban to start talks, the West has set up a $650-million trust fund to buy off warlords and tribal groups allied with the Taliban. The West is also trying to persuade the Saudi Arabian government to use its influence and money to wean fighters away from the Taliban. Saudi Arabia has pledged an additional $150 million in aid to Afghanistan.
You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends the insurgency, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the conference. She, however, hastened to add that the outcome of the London Conference did not in any way signal an early exit strategy for the U.S.
British Foreign Secretary David Milliband announced that Afghan forces would be in charge of all the provinces within the next five years.
The Afghan President appealed to all the neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan, to support our peace and reconciliation endeavours. In fact, Pakistan emerged from the conference with its role further enhanced. There was an implicit acknowledgement from the international community that any meaningful solution to the Afghan tangle was possible only with the help of Pakistan.
India, which was represented by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, was confined to the sidelines. India is among the major donors of development aid to Afghanistan. It has a high-profile political and strategic presence in the country. At every opportunity, the Pakistani establishment has been complaining about Indias growing footprint in Afghanistan, which Islamabad considers its own strategic backyard.
Even more galling to New Delhi was the Wests endorsement of the idea of talking to the good Taliban. New Delhi, Teheran and Moscow are of the view that the Taliban, be it the good, the bad or the ugly, is all terrorists.
The U.S., which is doing the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan, seems to have come to the conclusion that the only feasible way out of the political and military impasse is either to bribe Taliban fighters to lay down their arms or negotiate a peace deal with its leadership. The Americans were doing business with the Taliban government before September 11, 2001.
New Delhi was also holding talks with the Taliban government in the late 1990s. There was talk of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan being routed through Afghanistan then. The American company Unocal was keen to extend the pipeline through Pakistan to India. It was the hijacking of an Indian Airlines passenger plane to Kandahar during the rule of the National Democratic Alliance government of A.B. Vajpayee that significantly hardened New Delhis stand towards the Taliban.
The Taliban Foreign Minister at the time, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, had negotiated on behalf of the hijackers of IC-814. Kashmiri militants had also undergone training in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power.
The West has now identified Muttawakil as a member of the good Taliban and he is no longer on the U.N.s sanctions list. He is now a free man, and is being used to persuade the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table.
As Foreign Minister, he had tried to play a mediatory role between the Bush administration and the Taliban leadership before the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2002.
The Indian External Affairs Minister continues to insist that the Taliban is composed of terrorists. We consider them to be terrorists, who have close links with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, he told the media on the sidelines of the London Conference.
At the same time, the Minister said that India would go along with the reconciliation programme announced in London. Krishna said that the Taliban should be given a second chance. A solution through military action is not the only alternative. I think that there are other alternatives that need to be tried, Krishna said in London.
Given the consensus in London, the Indian government had no option but to fall in line with the West despite misgivings that the reconciliation process could help Pakistan regain its strategic depth in Afghanistan.
The reconciliation plan has the strong backing of the Afghan President, who is known to share a very warm relationship with New Delhi. Interestingly, Karzai had expelled two U.N. diplomats in December 2007 for making contact with the Taliban.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not attend the conference despite an invitation. Though there is no love lost between the Iranian government the Taliban, the government has always been in favour of an Afghan solution to the problem. Mottaki, during his last visit to New Delhi, had made it clear that Teherans priority is an end to the foreign occupation of Afghanistan.
The move to start seriously talking with the Taliban was evident even before the London Conference started. The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told the British media that all Afghans, including the Taliban, can play a role in the peace process if they focus on the future, not on the past.
Kai Ede, the outgoing U.N. representative, is a strong votary of the reconciliation process. He said that this was the first time that peace-making efforts got such strong support from the Karzai governments international backers. Ede stressed that the military strategy in Afghanistan was deeply flawed and was doomed to fail unless political concessions were made soon. There were reports that Ede was already engaged in secret talks with the Taliban leadership. However, both Ede and the Taliban spokesman have strongly denied this.
The Taliban dismissed the London Conference as a propaganda exercise. The war-mongering rulers under the leadership of President Obama and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown want to deceive the people of the world by holding the London Conference to show that people still support them, said a statement issued by the Taliban. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzais rival in the recent election, is of the view that the Taliban is not willing to enter into negotiations at this stage. The Taliban has been saying for some time that it will engage in talks only if there is an end to foreign occupation.
But, in a renewed bid to reassure the West and neighbouring countries about its future intentions, the Taliban statement said: We do not intend to harm neighbouring countries and other countries of the world. We will not allow our soil to be used against any other country. The statement also alluded that there was a rethink about the regressive social policies that the Taliban had adopted when it was in power from the mid-1990s.
The Islamic Emirate is committed to take measures for the fulfilment of our countrymens educational needs in the light of the fundamentals of Islam and the requirements of the contemporary world, the statement said.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Obama administration is using Pakistans Inter Services Intelligence Directorate to negotiate directly with the Taliban leadership. U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones, while not explicitly ruling out Pakistans help, told an American newspaper group that Washington was pursuing a general strategy of engagement. Hillary Clinton, however, clarified after the London Conference that the U.S. backed reintegration of the Taliban into the political process but the top Taliban leadership led by Mullah Omar was excluded from the reconciliation deal.