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Afghan Summit Agenda – Head For The Exits

Posted by Steve Hynd on January 24th, 2010

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According to a leaked document handed to the UK’s Financial Times, the first item on the agenda for the London summit on Afghanistan is a rapid handover of responsibility for security to Afghan forces.

The six-page draft envisages Afghan forces starting a phased process to take over responsibility for security at provincial level from the 110,000-strong Nato-led force later this year. Afghan security forces may assume primary responsibility for securing a number of the country’s 34 provinces by early 2011, the draft says.

A Western diplomat said the agenda had won wide endorsement from European countries including the UK, which with some 9,000 troops has the second biggest contingent in the 110,000-strong foreign force currently in Afghanistan after the US.

…Mark Sedwill, the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, said in London this week that the conference will seek to come up with conditions and an indicative timetable for handing over to Afghan forces. There was no mention of a timeline in the draft seen by the FT.

According to the document, the Afghan government will commit to providing sufficient police and troops to support the planned transition from the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). In return, Afghanistan’s allies will commit to accelerating efforts to boost the government’s security forces to “meet the conditions for a transfer as quickly and effectively as possible”.

In spite of the draft’s emphasis on speed, foreign troops are likely to remain in Afghanistan for a lengthy period as the government struggles to accelerate the deployment of army and police needed to contain the Taliban.

Sedwill is being touted as a favorite for the new post of Nato’s special civilian representative in Afghanistan, with powers to co-ordinate Nato’s reconstruction efforts – so if he says there will be a timetable of some kind there’s a good chance he knows what he is talking about. But the real question is whether this rapid handover is designed to make a lengthy occupation – albeit with reduced forces – more palatable to Western voters who have lost confidence in the Afghan adventure, or whether this is a preliminary designed to paper over the factional cracks and head for a military exit.

Some indication of which of those two future courses is the intention of Coalition leaders may be given by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ current schizophrenia on the Afghan Taliban. As the Washington Post notes, he can’t seem to make up his mind recently whether they are a “cancer” or an “essential part” of the Afghan political fabric. Back to the Financial Times’ leaked document:

The draft agenda also calls for Afghanistan’s government to reiterate its commitment to establishing a programme to try to lure fighters from the Taliban with offers of jobs or training programmes.

It also urges the government to hold dialogue with insurgent leaders who are prepared to accept Afghanistan’s constitution and who have no ties to terror networks such as al-Qaeda. In return, Afghanistan’s allies will provide funds to support the initiative.

The document makes no explicit reference to power-sharing negotiations with the Taliban’s leaders, although there is a growing recognition in Washington that some form of deal between insurgents and the government may be the most viable hope of ending the conflict.

That suggests an ad hoc set of initiatives that will pair security handover with reconcilliation and enable the West’s exit. The deep divisions in Afghan society will be papered over, just as in Iraq, and when the cracks finally widen again and Afghan society explodes into a new cycle of violence it will be the pesky Afghan peoples’ fault for disregarding the opportunities given by the West invading and upsetting the apple cart.

(It should be noted in passing that the best time for such a cynical exit strategy was probably around 2004, when the Taliban were at their lowest ebb. But Bush was hyper-focussed on Iraq and didn’t notice the ongoing dynamics that would make it progressively messier and more difficult. Still, what’s done is done.)

A lot of people who care deeply about Afghanistan and its people will be deeply upset if this is what occurs. Many experts on the country feel that the West could stay and do better than it has done, do things smarter and more sensitively. Yet a decade of occupation surely sends the message that there’s fat chance of the West ever climbing such a steep learning curve. Advocating staying to inevitably mess up more, despite however many good intentions and any number of glad-talking strategy papers that will never make the translation to reality-on-the-ground, isn’t really in the interests of Afghanistan and is actually advocating more national torture at the West’s hands. If Afghanistan must go to hell in a handbasket, let it be Afghans who take it there.

Experts on Afghanistan also have a tendency to miss the geopolitical forest for the local Afghan trees. The wider picture is well set out by right-leaning realist Arnaud de Borchgrave in a must-read oped for the New Atlanticist entitled “America’s Global Fatigue“.

There is a growing chorus of geopolitical deep thinkers and intellectuals who favor a strategic retreat from the imperial posture of the Cold War, where we are now fighting terrorist cells on a planetary scale, and a reassessment of priorities. One of the Democratic Party’s champion fundraisers, speaking privately, said, “At times I feel that we’re exhausted, sitting on the sidewalk, applauding the inevitable as Team China marches by.”

…China is only too happy to hold America’s coat as it sinks deeper into expensive geopolitical commitments while Chinese leaders win friends and influence people in Asia, Africa, Latin America and a large part of North America (Mexico and Canada). China is also building an ultramodern infrastructure of roads, railroads and airports that is in sharp contrast to America’s long-neglected public services, water supplies, power grid, road and rail networks, and air traffic control.

As de Borchgrave also notes, “Fighting two trillion-dollar wars abroad while millions are jobless at home doesn’t make much sense to well over half the American people.” Geopolitical considerations and domestic ones are in alignment: it’s become nonsensical to continue draining America’s treasury and energy on occupations ostensibly designed to keep the lid on a few hundred terrorists who in any case have largely moved to other,safer climes in Pakistan, Yemen and other nations.

And those geopolitical strictures and emptying reserves mean that papering over the cracks in order to head for the exits is the only viable course.

In Afghanistan, a Chinese company is investing $3 billion in Logar province near Kabul to mine 240 million tons of copper ore, worth $88 billion. One must assume they are not worried by the Taliban. The insurgents confide in their Pakistani friends they will need the income when they get back in the saddle.

…These are the insurgents originally trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to take over Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Off the record, knowledgeable Pakistanis can see them back in power, posing as moderates, after NATO and U.S. governments tire of fighting an invisible enemy.

In the Gulf, the big winners from US-led meddling were Iran and France. On the sub-continent, the big winners seem set to be China and Pakistan, which is closer to China’s orbit than America’s anyway. That should be a cautionary couple of tales for any future contemplation of invasions to “protect America from terrorists” numbering in the hundreds.

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