According to Gordon Brown, the aim of the international conference in London on January 28 would be to deliver “a new compact between Afghanistan and the international community.”

An international conference in London on January 28 will focus on the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan. Some 70 delegations, including from India, may attend the conference, co-chaired by the Secretaries-General of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The challenge is daunting as the Afghan war is no more redeemable.

An international conference is always an organic entity that evolves in its run-up, especially when an old warhorse like Britain happens to be the master of ceremonies. What began as an angry demand to rationalise the waywardness of the United States strategy in Afghanistan has transformed beyond recognition. Last September, the German contingents in the Amu Darya region perpetrated a horrific war crime by ordering a NATO airstrike on an impromptu gathering of poor Afghans helping themselves to free fuel from a tanker stuck in a bend in the Kunduz river. The German psyche chaffed, having vowed never again to commit war crimes. Reacting to a public outcry on the eve of a tricky national election, Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that the international community draw a clear timeline to “Afghanise” the war so that Berlin could contemplate an exit strategy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to Ms Merkel’s rescue and they addressed the U.N. to hold an international conference to set a timeline for the Afghan government to assume the responsibility of the war. It fleetingly seemed as if the tipping point had been reached. Britain promptly appeared on European mainland. Empathising with the German-French demand, it offered to host the conference. Washington seemed disinterested but observers could anticipate that the London conference would be an Anglo-American enterprise.

These footfalls must echo in the memory in order to put the conference in perspective. To be sure, Britain will host a gala event -- “all 43 powers engaged in the international coalition will attend, together with other regional and Muslim partners and international organisations.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown justified that it was “right” for Afghanistan’s regional neighbours (such as India) to attend, since “it is very important to recognise that in the longer term, Afghanistan’s future is dependent on both non-interference by its immediate neighbours and economic and cultural cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours.”

Mr. Brown said the aim of the conference would be to deliver “a new compact between Afghanistan and the international community.” He underscored that “the first of those priorities is security,” which meant expectations that countries like Germany might actually announce “troop deployments building on the total of 1,40,000 troops promised for 2010.” Yes, incredible as it sounds, Ms Merkel might actually end up pledging more deployments on top of the 4,500 troops already serving in northern Afghanistan. The German press is reporting about parleys among Berlin politicians to arrive at a consensus figure.

Indeed, U.S. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have introduced a new subplot to Clausewitzean wars — you raise troop level and rev up the war and thereafter decide when to freeze it and on what terms (“the status of forces agreement,” as in Iraq). Mr. Brown said: “I hope the London conference will also be able to set out the next stage in a longer-term plan: the changing balance between [NATO] alliance forces and the Afghan army and defence forces as the number of Afghan forces increases from 90,000 to 1,35,000 next year and possibly to 1,75,000 later.” He touched, en passant, on the core issue of “Afghanisation” which, in his view, would form only the second priority -- setting out an “outline programme for the transfer of the lead responsibility” to the Afghan forces, which he hoped could begin during 2010.

British diplomacy is famous for its tenacity. Mr. Brown said: “London must also encourage a new set of relationships between Afghanistan and its neighbours and, in particular, better joint working with Pakistan.” Thus is born a brand new key theme of the conference -- Britain will actively work on the setting up of a “regional stabilisation council.” After all, as an erstwhile imperial power, that is the least Britain can do for regional stability. The energetic Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is already trudging the long and lonely diplomatic mill towards the proposed regional council.

Meanwhile, the genie is out of the bottle: Mr. Obama’s December 1 strategy never intended to focus on a U.S. withdrawal plan. The plain-speaking U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke said on December 7 that Mr. Obama’s mind was being widely misinterpreted, in particular the mid-2011 date in his strategy speech six weeks ago. “It’s not a withdrawal, but the start of a responsible transition in which American combat troops will begin to draw down,” said Mr. Holbrooke, adding another review by Mr. Obama would look at the issue again in December.

Mr. Holbrooke was shepherding an attentive gathering of American think-tankers to think straight instead of meandering into silly notions of a U.S. troop withdrawal. He underlined that the U.S. had more important issues to worry about such as promoting reconciliation between the Afghan government and the “relatively moderate” Taliban elements. Mr. Holbrooke, who is in Islamabad for consultations with the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, says the reconciliation process with the Taliban is “high on our personal priority list.” Indeed, he already has an able and highly experienced deputy positioned in Islamabad to assist him — Ambassador Robin Raphel, who as Assistant Secretary of State in the Bill Clinton administration was exceptionally well regarded by the Taliban leadership in Kandahar.

In essence, the idea of the “good Taliban” refuses to go away. Mr. Holbrooke explained: “They [Taliban] fight for various reasons; they are misled about our presence there. They have a sense of injustice or personal grievances. Or they fight because it’s part of the Afghan tradition that you fight outsiders and they have the NATO/U.S. presence conflated with earlier historical events, some of which [read Soviet intervention] are not too far in the past.” Therefore, the U.S. strategy’s priority in 2010 will be to win over the “non-ideological militants” and entice them to quit the fight and instead help the U.S. forces turn the tide of the war. “It’s absolutely imperative that we deal with this issue. If we don’t deal with it, success will elude us.”

Some other templates have also appeared before the London conference. Washington has resumed its covert war of attrition against Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The U.S. has realised that it does not squander much smart power to persuade the inexperienced Afghan parliamentarians to reject those of Mr. Karzai’s Cabinet nominees in Kabul who are not Washington’s blue-eyed boys — and thereby cast the President in the bazaar as a weak leader as well as debilitate him by breaking up his pan-Afghan coalition of supporters. Washington wants the decks cleared for a “regime change” in Afghanistan as soon as the co-option of the Taliban on its terms is completed.

Conceivably, Mr. Obama cannot be a “hands-on” President as regards such political skulduggery in Kabul, but the stench of the eddy is bound to strike his nostrils some day. Mr. Karzai defiantly said last week: “With the international community, I don’t need to have their favour … The international community, especially the West, they must respect Afghanistan and its government, and understand that we are a people, we are a country, we have a history, we have interests, we have pride, we have dignity. Our poverty must not become a means of ridicule and insult to us … We’re not going to ask [the London conference] for more cash. We are going to ask the international community to end night-time raids on Afghan homes. We are going to ask them to stop arresting Afghans. We are going to ask them to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties … the war on terror is not in Afghan villages. It’s not in the pursuit of every man that’s wearing a turban and has a beard.”

Mr. Karzai has reason to be indignant. He just received the report of the Afghan investigation team which looked into the massacre of civilians in two recent U.S. military operations. A statement on Mr. Karzai’s website said: “The delegation concluded that a unit of international forces descended from a plane Sunday night into Ghazi Khan village in Narang district of the eastern province of Kunar and took ten people from three homes, eight of them schoolchildren in grades six, nine and ten, one of them a guest, the rest from the same family, and shot them dead.” Mr. Karzai’s call to the U.S. to hand over the killers has fallen on deaf ears.

The non-NATO participants at the London conference such as India will face a tough call as to how far it is in their interest to identify with the patently unilateralist Anglo-American agenda. The bottom line will always be that India should never consider deploying troops in Afghanistan. Fortunately, the U.S. will never disregard Pakistani sensitivities and invite New Delhi, either.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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