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:
—Economic development; and
—”Giving the Afghan people a sense of their own future.”
- Some form of outreach to the insurgency, to include:
—”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.