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Kabul and International Partners: Still Struggling over the Basic Design

The Kabul conference was meant as 2010’s culmination of a process to reaffirm the legitimacy of the Kabul government with both the international community and the Afghan population. At the conference, Kabul was to reaffirm its ownership of and initiative on taking responsibility for Afghanistan’s security and economic development and tackling corruption.

Yet little progress has been achieved along many of these dimensions since the January London conference on Afghanistan and since the May peace jirga.

On the security front, Kandahar was to be locus of the military surge, a key strategic area to be secured from the creeping and more and more palpable presence of the Taliban. By the end of July, a major security push was to be visible. Yet the local Kandahari leaders’ reluctance to expose their population to fighting persuaded President Hamid Karzai and ISAF to adopt a less visible approach, focusing on deploying elite police forces to the city and on securing its perimiters. It has been a slow, arduous process that has yet to assure Kandaharis that their security is improving.

The major economic topic of the conference is how to manage the vast mineral wealth that lies under Afghanistan’s soil. However, little agreement exists between donors and potential investors, such as China, as how to ensure that the wealth will indeed contribute to equitable economic growth in Afghanistan and not turn out to be yet another bout of resource curse. Meanwhile, the technological demands on extracting many of the mineral resources and insecurity will inevitably delay Afghanistan’s ability to tap many of these resources.

Fearing the effects of U.S. military drawdown and a possible stampede out of Afghanistan by the rest of the international community next July and the precarious security situation this could leave behind, President Karzai has put his greatest energies into a political peace process with the Taliban. Even there, little agreement exists between Kabul, Washington, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and the rest of the international community about the scope and parameters of such a process. President Karzai has clearly moved ahead of Washington in conceiving of the process as negotiations with the Taliban and affiliated groups, such as Gulbuddin’s Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and the Haqqani network. To this effect, he has reorganized his top security team, firing officials, such as his intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, opposed to such negotiations. He has also demanded that the United Nations remove many Taliban leaders from its blacklist. And to an unprecedented degree, he has reached out to Pakistan, which has been promising him that it can deliver peace deals with the Haqqanis and the Quetta Shura.

But Washington is nowhere on board with such a process. Instead of strategic negotiations, it is focused on the reintegration of low-level fighters who come out of the cold. Moreover, Washington does not necessary see the conversion of such fighters as demobilization process. Rather, it is hoping it can use them as militias to fight the Taliban.