The London Conference and the Road ahead in Afghanistan
January 25, 2010
Q1: What is the London Conference?
A1: It is an international meeting that the British government is hosting, in partnership with the government of Afghanistan and the United Nations. Scheduled for Thursday, January 28, 2010, it will be attended by top officials from more than 70 countries participating in, supporting, or affected by efforts to manage the Afghan conflict, including most countries in that region, members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), EU member states, and other key international organizations. The event is being cochaired by British foreign minister David Miliband, Afghan foreign minister Rangin Spanta, and Kai Eide, the UN secretary general’s special representative to Afghanistan.
Q2: What is the purpose of the conference?
A2: Its stated purpose is to discuss and come to some agreement on how the international community will support the nonmilitary aspects of Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts. When British prime minister Gordon Brown announced the conference in November, he said the purpose was “to match the increase in military forces with an increased political momentum, to focus the international community on a clear set of priorities across the 43-nation [ISAF] coalition, and marshal the maximum international effort to help the Afghan government deliver.”
David Miliband told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that the conference was intended to offer more than simply an opportunity for participants to pledge new troops and money, but rather to serve as a forum for substantive discussions of a political strategy. The committee chairman, Senator John Kerry, said he hoped the London Conference would be an “opportunity for the international community to commit to a coherent civilian strategy”; his cochairman, Senator Richard Lugar, called it “an opportunity to consolidate the civilian response.”
Q3: Why the focus on a civilian response?
A3: Much of the public discussion of Afghanistan strategy in 2009 focused on the military aspects of the conflict, especially the question of a “troop surge”—that is, whether to increase the number of troops to a level requested by military officials to support the counterinsurgency. Many experts and commentators complained, however, that the debate over troop levels obscured the far more important issue that, without a vision for the political future of Afghanistan, any military or even civilian activities undertaken as part of the counterinsurgency would not amount to anything of lasting value. History shows that insurgencies are wars not over territory but over loyalty, and loyalty is won not by guns but by governance. Some analysts therefore argued for a “civilian surge” to accompany the military increase and for a political strategy to give purpose to both.
President Obama resolved the military question publicly in his December 1, 2009, address at West Point, when he announced an immediate increase of 30,000 troops (bringing the total U.S. commitment to about 100,000) and an 18-month time frame during which U.S. troops would prepare to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan security forces. But in that speech he also sketched out a broader political goal, namely an Afghan government with the capacity to secure its territory so that it could not be used again as a safe haven for al Qaeda or other dangerous groups.
Most who agree with this overall political goal also agree that achieving it will require a significant civilian as well as military commitment by the international community. But to date, coordination among international civilian organizations has proven to be an even bigger challenge than coordination between civilian and military efforts. The British government therefore hopes—and all the major players in Afghanistan share this hope—that the London Conference will be used as an opportunity to develop and win concrete commitments for an overall civilian strategy.
Q4: Will the conference deliver an actionable civilian strategy?
A4: Probably not, but that does not mean the exercise will have no value. Miliband himself said the most important “deliverable” to come out of the conference will be “clarity, cohesion, and confidence” among participants about what needs to be achieved in Afghanistan over the next year and a half if the Afghan government is to be prepared to take control over its territory. To that end, some media have reported, the conference is expected to produce a set of “benchmarks” and “milestones” for the gradual transfer of control, one district or province at a time, from international to Afghan security forces, on more or less the same time line that President Obama laid out at West Point.
The agenda has been built around three issues that most observers agree are central to success: security, governance, and regional cooperation. In fact, these issues are key themes throughout the U.S. State Department’s new Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy as well. That strategy was released on January 21—just one week before the London Conference—by Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the same Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that Miliband testified at.
It is clear that the Brits and the Americans were in close contact during the development of both the U.S. strategy and the London agenda. Both are intended to highlight priorities for action and milestones for measuring progress on issues such as: the reintegration of low- and mid-level Taliban commanders and their troops into local communities; efforts to improve accountability and counter corruption in the Afghan government; the importance of building the capacity of the Afghan police in particular and of subnational governance structures in general; and the need for constructive relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors, and especially for stability in Pakistan.
These are clearly central issues, but any document that comes out of the London Conference might not amount to a fully realized strategy to address them. Still, the conference will serve the important purpose of making explicit what actions the different international partners are willing to take and what resources they are willing to commit.
And indeed, many participating countries are expected to announce their pledges of support (in money, troops, and civilian staff). Germany, for example, will probably announce the results of heated domestic debates over whether to send up to 1,500 more troops. Moreover, NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations are rumored to be planning to announce new special representatives to Afghanistan, with NATO likely to expand the mandate of its current civilian representative to try to improve international civilian coordination; the current British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, is the rumored candidate for that post. Holbrooke has said that Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s current special representative for Iraq, is a candidate to replace Eide in the UN post. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is expected to present his country’s plans (developed jointly with UN officials) for the reintegration program and the expansion of the national police and armed forces.
Q5: Is this the first international conference to discuss strategy in Afghanistan?
A5: Not by a long shot. In late 2001, Afghan leaders gathered near Bonn to form an interim government; they met there again a year later to discuss internal political arrangements. An international conference took place in Berlin in 2004, which produced the Berlin Declaration, setting out the international community’s vision for the political future of Afghanistan and their pledges for over $8 billion to support it.
In a January 2006 conference in London, the international community produced the Afghanistan Compact, a statement of principles for international cooperation for and with Afghanistan, plus benchmarks and timelines through 2010 for efforts in security, governance, and development. At that meeting, Afghanistan released its Interim National Development Strategy and set up a Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, cochaired by one of its own officials and the UN representative. In June 2008, the final, five-year Afghan National Development Strategy was released at an international conference in Paris.
In the days before this year’s London Conference, Turkey is hosting two regional summits for Afghanistan’s neighbors, part of a series of smaller meetings it has been participating in with several Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) countries to try to improve regional cooperation. (Iran has participated in some of the smaller meetings, but it has not yet indicated whether it would attend either the Turkey summits or the London Conference.) Later this year, Afghanistan will host an international conference in Kabul as well to pull together a lot of these threads.
Q6: What is the greatest challenge facing these international partners?
A6: The greatest challenge in Afghanistan today is simply the sheer number of great challenges in Afghanistan today. As CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman has analyzed extensively, it is clear that this is a war we are not winning. Since 2005, when the Taliban and other insurgent factions had shadow governments in 11 provinces, that number has increased steadily, rising to 28 provinces in 2007, and to 33 out of the country’s 34 provinces by the end of 2009. Attacks, military casualties, and civilian casualties have all been on the rise. The central and provincial governments barely control their own cities, and much of the country has never been under any central government control. Its people are among the poorest and least literate in the world, with most places lacking even basic infrastructure. So much needs to be done in so many sectors in so many places, both in Afghanistan and in the region, that the partners in this project risk trying to do too much at once—and risk failure even if they do everything right.
And yet the Taliban who clamor to replace the government remain deeply unloved by most Afghans, who recognize that the presence of international forces, while unwanted in the long term, is probably necessary to protect them in the short term, and the Afghan government, while viewed as deeply corrupt, might still be their best hope for stability—if it can learn how to govern them. As the United Kingdom’s David Miliband said to the U.S. Senate last week, the key for the international community is to help the Afghan government not just outgun the Taliban, but outgovern them as well.
Robert D. Lamb is a senior fellow in the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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