What to Look for at the London Conference

by Joshua Foust on 1/26/2010 · 8 comments

The London Conference on Afghanistan begins this week. I had the chance to ask you-know-who (you know, an anonymous British official, sigh) a couple of questions about what we can expect, and what the plans are going forward.

The diplomat framed the conference as covering three broad areas outside questions of military strategy (he expressed deep confidence in General McChrystal’s plans repeatedly). The three broad areas are:

  • An element of reassurance for the Afghan people, to include:
  • —Better governance;
    —Economic development; and
    —”Giving the Afghan people a sense of their own future.”

  • Some form of outreach to the insurgency, to include:
  • —Reintegration;
    —”Splitting” the insurgency in some way by tempting away elements of its lower ranks.

  • A “regional aspect” to Afghanistan, to include:
  • —An attempt to “manufacture a situation” where Afghanistan and its neighbors move in the same direction, with the same interest; and
    —An aggressive push of “straight up diplomacy” to persuade Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Iran, that their interests are better served by no destabilizing the country.

Regular readers here know I’d raise some questions here, especially about the outreach portion of the agenda. For some time now, I’ve been arguing that the British military have been a strategic disaster in Helmand—though they’re hardly unique in that sense, as America and France and Germany have performed appallingly as well. But British efforts in particular to reach out and co-opt the Taliban (Musa Qala, to be sure, but in many other ways as well) have been terrible, and left Helmand more impoverished and the Taliban more in control than when they took over in 2006.

This anonymous diplomat said that previous outreach efforts have “a slightly checkered history” (I love love lovehate British understatement). He argued the context for reintegration has not been right, and that under the leadership of General McChrystal, that context is changing in such a way that the people who previously chose to remain with the insurgency will not choose to side with the Coalition and Afghan government. That sounds great, but the proof is in the pudding—unstated during this conversation was the enormous problems of Afghan governance.

In fact, governance seems an even bigger problem than the conceptual issues of reintegration. The gist of the London Conference seems to center around forcing the Afghan government to take charge of its own political future in some way, by taking advantage of the “space” the McChrystal surge has created.

Ignoring the uncomfortable parallels with the Iraq Surge in 2007 (e.g., that creating marginally better security in some areas will allow for a permanent, political solution to the insurgency), this approach strikes me as exactly backward. The international community will be announcing the creation of a trust fund to pay for reintegration, but since the Afghan government has shown itself unwilling even to follow through with the current reintegration offers it has on hand, I don’t see how simply throwing money at the problem—with the inevitable corruption that would accompany such a move—actually addresses the problem.

Then there’s the concept: this conference will be all about the international community trying to make the Afghan government follow its plans on its schedule, while still seeming to be self-motivated and in some way “Afghan.” That just doesn’t make sense to me. (To be fair, the diplomat argues that the Afghans’ co-chairing of the conference, and their presentation of papers and agenda, makes it all about them and their ambitions.)

The last bit we discussed was the regional context. This is perhaps the most problematic, since the discussion still seems frozen in 2008, back when Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid were calling for the creation of a “contact group” that would bring together Afghanistan’s neighbors to discuss a de-escalation of hostilities.

The challenge with a regional approach is that the international community has been trying it since 1999—before the U.S. invasion (in fact, the official “Six Plus Two” round of negotiations, named for Afghanistan’s six neighbors plus the U.S. and Russia, ended in 2001). The talks went nowhere. Islam Karimov has proposed the addition of NATO to restart the talks as a “Six Plus Three” plan, and that seems to be what the London Conference is all about.

But if one of the main pillars of this regional initiative is convincing Pakistan that its interests lie in supporting the Karzai government, what about India, which is facing a growing chorus calling for its own surge into the country?

“This regional framework is not the next version of the 6+3 or some kind of other grouping,” the diplomat said. It needs to be the region itself resolving these issues.

But if that’s the case, if this is to be Afghanistan and its neighbors solving the political, economic, and social problems that plague the country… why is the upcoming conference in London? Why all the NATO input? What’s the point of forcing a solution on our terms while demanding it be on theirs?

Look for that contradiction to play itself out on Thursday. I’ll be really happily surprised if it’s anything more than a bunch of blathering and grandstanding.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Laurence Jarvik January 26, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for posting such an informative report, Josh.

Sailani January 26, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Sounds like the usual litany of intangibles that have next to zero impact when, and if, they trickle down to the provincial or district level.

I wonder if someone will do the math in London. Afghanistan might have something like 5 million unemployed young Pashtun males (thin slicing this one, but it’s probably a lowball figure). If a few tens of thousands of them are currently planting IEDs, firing rockets, making ambushes, etc. on behalf of the Taliban as day labourers (or under some longer term employment scheme) then buying them off is not exactly likely to starve the Taliban of potential rank and file insurgents.

Is this really not obvious to everyone?

Dafydd January 27, 2010 at 5:16 am

Not sure I really want to defend the UK Military effort in Afghanistan, but I think it is worth mentioning the failure in Helmand was really a coalition failure. When the Brits arrived their idea was to let the locals grow the poppy, provide security and shoot Taliban.

For domestic political reasons the US could not accept that. From there the Brit mission was doomed to failure.

For some reason there is a serious love in between McChrystal and the UK establishment. You saw this in the diplomat you spoke to. If you remember him in London selling his plan, it would appear this is reciprocated. (I would make some comment about the Brit upper class and men in uniform, but it is too soon after my breakfast).

I think we are seeing pretty much the same thing (as the Helmand situation) here. Moving Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan in a similar direction should actually be pretty easy. It’s just that the direction they would choose for themselves would be very displeasing to the west.

I am pretty sure Karzai, on his own, could cut a deal with significant numbers of (currently) Taliban commanders. But that would involve a return to warlordism for much of the country. Again, unacceptable to the west.

The Afghans must feel like they are working for a micromanaging boss. This boss keeps telling them they are responsible for this, that or the other, but every time they want to get on with the job, the boss is there saying, “don’t do that, not like that, not with them.”

In fairness you recognise this paradox. In the old days of imperialism you could implement policies disgusting to your home population in far off lands and people would hardly get to hear about it, certainly not in time to make any difference. Ever since the invention of telegraph that has been getting progressively more difficult.

Joshua Foust January 27, 2010 at 7:29 am


You’re right that it’s probably unfair to single out the British military for criticism, though I was speaking to a British official so I thought that kind of limitation was kind of implied. I guess not? Anyway, it’s my bad entirely for not being clear about that, and I’ve made some edits above to clear up that everyone has failed Afghanistan, and not Britain in any unique way… militarily.

On the reconciliation thing, I think Britain deserves unique opporobrium for their efforts.

Dafydd January 27, 2010 at 9:08 am

I think we can all agree little practical benefit is likely to come from the London conference to anyone in Afghanistan.

This is something that seems far more geared to the re election chances of the UK government and the US mid terms.

Karzai doubtless sees an opportunity to create a little more room for manoeuvre, while the Turkish government sees a chance to boost their international standing.

The Brits have for some time been more divided than the US on talking to the Taliban. Significant sections of opinion having seen this as the way forward from day one. Initially Karzai felt this undermined him (and got a Brit diplomat sacked). Now he, the UN and it seems large sections of US opinion favour that option.

I fail to see how reconciliation with the Taliban can be advanced when the Taliban are not even invited.

Moreover, how to avoid the Musa Qala scenario, where you cut a deal with the Taliban, and they race against each other to renege on the deal quicker and more fully than seems humanly possible?

If I thought we could cut a deal with the Taliban and run (while they stuck to the deal), I would think it is a good idea.

As things stand, it takes me back to another thread. If the locals think the International coalition is looking for an exit route, they will move over to the Taliban en masse.

Toryalay Shirzay January 28, 2010 at 12:12 am

The Taliban never give up taking over Afghanistan,this is in their blood.You would know this only if could fathom how they feel and non-Pushtons simply cannot grasp this.There is only one way to stop the Taliban from taking over and that is their complete defeat.This is because the Taliban are made of two extremely violent and explosive elements:Extreme Pushton arrogance and hyper Islamic fascism.You have read the Taliban proclamations:they are more than happy to die for their cause.This alone should be enough to convince you;otherwise the realities on the ground will !!

Dafydd January 28, 2010 at 4:06 am

Toryalay, what do you think the chances are of the coalition, or anyone else, completely defeating the Taliban?

Toryalay Shirzay January 28, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Dafydd, the chances for the complete defeat of the Taliban are quite good provided the following conditions were activated and meticulous ly implemented: 1–strong will and determination to defeat them,2–the US/NATO neutralize interference from Arabs,Pakistan and Iran,3–allow and empower all anti-Taliban elements including former anti-Taliban warlords and their followers to attack the Taliban without mercy ,uprooting them thoroughly in the same manner that the Allies dealt with Nazis and Fascists in Europe.Anything short of this will just prolong the war and misery for all involved.

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