KABUL // More than eight years after the conflict in Afghanistan began, the United States and its allies have finally come up with what appears to be an exit strategy. No one at last week's summit in London was publicly calling it that, but the series of measures the international community pledged to take all amounted to a slow withdrawal plan. They included a US$140 million (Dh514m) reconciliation programme designed to encourage insurgents to lay down their arms, a target of having 171,600 Afghan soldiers and 134,000 police by October 2011 and the gradual transfer of security duties to the Afghan government.
The best case scenario for the US and its allies is that they can begin to draw down troop levels in July 2011, as the US president, Barack Obama, promised, with a view to numbers being further reduced in the ensuing three or four years. Any soldiers who remained after that would be described as having an advisory or training role to a relatively strong western-backed regime in Kabul. Where America goes, so Nato would inevitably follow and, under such a plan, European governments would feel they were able to justify the blood and treasure they have spilt here to their domestic audiences. The problem is that for this to work success will be needed on a number of fronts, all of which are extremely hazardous.
The most high-profile policy to come out of the London conference was a renewed focus on trying to buy off the Taliban with the offer of jobs, land and other incentives. It is an old scheme freshened up with big money and extra publicity and it will only be effective if, as Washington believes, the vast majority of insurgents are fighting because of poverty and minor grievances. Should some disaffected foot soldiers be wooed from the resistance, there is no guarantee that their allegiance to Kabul will be decisive. Paper-thin ties built on dollars will be up against loyalties rooted in religion and tribalism that have always won out against foreign invaders here.
That means senior members of the main insurgent groups will surely have to be negotiated with and there are tentative signs this could happen. Kai Eide, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, is reported by media to have had exploratory discussions with Taliban representatives in Dubai. Britain and the US have said that a political solution will be needed. On the surface, these are positive developments. Yet there is still no indication that the Taliban's ruling council is involved. Washington has dismissed the idea of talks with its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and even ignored a recent offer by the movement to strike a legal agreement not to let al Qa'eda operate in Afghanistan.
Both the Taliban and the militant faction of Hizb-e-Islami also continue to demand the withdrawal of foreign troops as a precondition for any peace deal - terms that will never be accepted by the US. As is often the case in Afghanistan, history provides some important lessons. The Soviets frequently met for talks with the Mujahideen, going so far as to agree to ceasefires with Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the main rebel commanders. It did little to improve their long-term prospects.
At present, then, any negotiations are just a small part of a much bigger picture. Removing five former members of the Taliban from the UN blacklist is equally insignificant unless more prominent and relevant names soon follow. Ultimately, the international community's entire strategy is based upon these fragile foundations. In addition, it needs Washington's troop surge to weaken the rebels and push them towards a political settlement, rather than broaden their support as a result of house raids and civilian casualties. It also requires Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, to tackle corruption at all levels, including among senior officials and the police.
For these reasons the best-case scenario is unlikely. Instead, the gradual transfer of security may commence as planned and so might the steady withdrawal of US soldiers. Unable to cope with an increasingly bloody and expensive conflict that cannot be won and that is highly unpopular at home, some time around 2015 the West will probably say the Afghan government is strong enough to fend for itself militarily.
After that there is a real chance of a civil war breaking out just as it did in the early 1990s. If this fate is to be avoided the London summit will have to be backed up with serious action. The last eight years have witnessed a succession of Afghanistan conferences held across the world. Their failures have left the country where it is today and time is running out. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org