Karzai’s Taliban surprise

The Afghanistan Conference in London this week was expected to be a just one more in a series of international talk-fests intended as a show of international solidarity with Afghanistan. Like the Hague, Paris, London, and Tokyo conferences before it, foreign ministers and envoys would gather to make vague speeches and announce their financial commitments ...

Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Afghanistan Conference in London this week was expected to be a just one more in a series of international talk-fests intended as a show of international solidarity with Afghanistan. Like the Hague, Paris, London, and Tokyo conferences before it, foreign ministers and envoys would gather to make vague speeches and announce their financial commitments to various programs. The difference, if any, in this case is that the conference was also initially intended to convince the world that the Karzai government was serious about governing well, about tackling corruption and addressing impunity that is causing the Afghan government to lose credibility with the Afghan people and the international community. At the same time (perhaps paradoxically) the conference would repair the breach between President Karzai and the international community over mutual accusations of interference, fraud, and corruption.

But the Afghans had a different idea. They didn't want the conference to focus on their foibles (understandably, from their perspective) but rather on how they are going to address the growing insurgency. The Afghan government has been working intensively to prepare a plan to create a national Peace and Reintegration Program, a new effort backed by international funding to lure insurgents off the battlefield with promises of protection and economic opportunity. ISAF, which has stood up its own reintegration cell, is strongly in support of this effort, as are the Japanese and other governments that announced contributions to a new Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund.

Then Karzai took things a step further -- and took his hosts by surprise -- by using his speech to call for high level negotiations with the Taliban leadership that would result in permanent political reconciliation. Karzai has opened this door repeatedly before, and there have been several attempts to engage Taliban leaders seriously in talks. But activity in the last few months has been much more intense, including a meeting in Dubai between outgoing U.N. SRSG Kai Eide and representatives of the Taliban leadership on Jan. 6, and the removal of 5 former Taliban from the United Nations Security Council sanctions list this week.

The Afghanistan Conference in London this week was expected to be a just one more in a series of international talk-fests intended as a show of international solidarity with Afghanistan. Like the Hague, Paris, London, and Tokyo conferences before it, foreign ministers and envoys would gather to make vague speeches and announce their financial commitments to various programs. The difference, if any, in this case is that the conference was also initially intended to convince the world that the Karzai government was serious about governing well, about tackling corruption and addressing impunity that is causing the Afghan government to lose credibility with the Afghan people and the international community. At the same time (perhaps paradoxically) the conference would repair the breach between President Karzai and the international community over mutual accusations of interference, fraud, and corruption.

But the Afghans had a different idea. They didn’t want the conference to focus on their foibles (understandably, from their perspective) but rather on how they are going to address the growing insurgency. The Afghan government has been working intensively to prepare a plan to create a national Peace and Reintegration Program, a new effort backed by international funding to lure insurgents off the battlefield with promises of protection and economic opportunity. ISAF, which has stood up its own reintegration cell, is strongly in support of this effort, as are the Japanese and other governments that announced contributions to a new Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund.

Then Karzai took things a step further — and took his hosts by surprise — by using his speech to call for high level negotiations with the Taliban leadership that would result in permanent political reconciliation. Karzai has opened this door repeatedly before, and there have been several attempts to engage Taliban leaders seriously in talks. But activity in the last few months has been much more intense, including a meeting in Dubai between outgoing U.N. SRSG Kai Eide and representatives of the Taliban leadership on Jan. 6, and the removal of 5 former Taliban from the United Nations Security Council sanctions list this week.

This is the first time that a serious effort to engage the insurgents has played out on the world stage, and for the moment has raised as many questions as answers. It certainly made the London conference more exciting than expected. The discussions about debt-relief and targets for the Afghan National Security forces happened as well, and you can read the conference communiqué here

J Alexander Thier is the Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is co-author and editor of "The Future of Afghanistan" (USIP, 2009). He lived in Afghanistan for about 7 of the last 16 years, and travels there frequently.

J Alexander Thier, the founder of Triple Helix, was the executive director of the Overseas Development Institute in London and was USAID’s chief of policy, planning, and learning from 2013 to 2015. He is writing in a personal capacity. Twitter: @Thieristan

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