(CNSNews.com) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plans to reconcile with elements among the Taliban will take center stage in Kabul Tuesday, when the world’s foreign ministers meet to discuss the country’s future.
The gathering comes at a critical stage in the war first launched in response to 9/11, with a climbing coalition death toll and polls in the U.S. and Afghanistan offering sobering messages for the Obama administration.
Karzai will be looking for foreign backing to finance the “reintegration” program which aims to lure up to 36,000 low-level fighters away from the Taliban over the next five years, by offering jobs and other incentives to those who lay down arms and renounce violence.
At the same time the Afghan president is exploring options for drawing into governing structures any Taliban leaders willing to stop fighting, abide by the Afghan constitution and end support for the group’s al-Qaeda ally.
Exactly who these leaders are remains undetermined, but Pakistan has reportedly been pressing Karzai to strike a deal with the Haqqani network, a faction heavily involved in anti-coalition violence in eastern Afghanistan, based in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal belt, and long nurtured as a strategic tool by Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will join foreign ministers from scores of other countries in Kabul this week, held talks with leaders in Islamabad on Monday aimed at bolstering bilateral ties.
She announced water, health and other civilian aid projects funded by a massive package – $1.5 billion a year for the next five years – approved last year and named for its key congressional sponsors, Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry and ranking Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.
The Kerry-Lugar legislation requires Islamabad to show measurable progress in fighting terrorism and militancy.
Pakistan is fighting an Islamist insurgency in and around its tribal belt, but has persistently resisted U.S. calls for military action to clean out Haqqani and other terrorist bases in North Waziristan.
In an interview with the BBC at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad on Sunday, Clinton confirmed the U.S. was looking into designating the Haqqani as a terrorist organization and indicated that Washington was not wholly satisfied with Pakistan’s support.
“We have increased our cooperation, deepened our relationship when it comes to fighting terrorism,” she said. “There are still additional steps that we are asking and expecting the Pakistanis to take.”
Clinton also warned that “should an attack against the United States be traced to be Pakistan it would have a very devastating impact on our relationship.”
The comment echoed one Clinton made after the foiled Times Square car bombing last May, when she warned of “very severe consequences” should a future attack in America traced back to Pakistan succeed.
Death tolls rise, public support falls
Tuesday’s meeting in Kabul, billed as the largest gathering of foreign representatives in the country since the 1970s, comes at a time of deepening concern in the U.S. and elsewhere over progress in Afghanistan.
After June marked the largest loss of life among international troops since the war began – 102 killed, 60 of them Americans – July has so far recorded a further 56 fatalities, including 39 U.S. personnel.
Civilian casualties are also mounting. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) reported Sunday that insurgents had killed 188 civilians since June 1, nearly 80 of them in the past two weeks alone.
A ISAF spokesman told a briefing Sunday that a message from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, intercepted at the beginning of June, ordered fighters to kill Afghan civilians working for foreign forces.
The instruction appeared to reverse a previous one, issued last year, which ordered fighters to minimize civilian casualties.
“This proves the Taliban are willing to ignore their own code of conduct when they sense they are losing influence and control,” said ISAF spokesman Brig.-Gen. Josef Blotz of the German army.
Opinion polls in the U.S. show growing unease in the way the conflict is going, and the administration’s management of the war.
In ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday, 43 percent of respondents agreed the war has been worth fighting, down from 52 percent last December.
Approval of President Obama’s handling of the war dropped to 45 percent, a decline of 11 points since April.
A recent Harris poll found that support among Americans for Obama’s management of the war had dropped to 29 percent, from 38 percent in January.
Fifty-five percent of respondents were not confident U.S. policies in Afghanistan would be successful.
Obama’s Afghanistan timeline continues to provoke debate. When the president last December announced that 30,000 additional troops would be deployed this year, he said the move would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”
The Harris poll found 19 percent support for Obama’s timetable, compared to one-quarter of respondents saying they should return home now.
Only nine percent of Republicans backed Obama’s summer of 2011 timetable, while 33 percent of Democrats took that position. The view that there should not be a timetable for withdrawal was held by 43 percent of Republicans and seven percent of Democrats.
(Critics have said the timeline may be emboldening the Taliban. Vice President Joe Biden conceded in an ABC “This Week” interview Sunday that the number of U.S. military personnel pulled out of Afghanistan next July “could be as few as a couple of thousand troops,” although he added that the number “could be more.”)
A new survey in Afghanistan is also cause for concern.
The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) think-tank polled Afghan men last month in two of the most unstable provinces, Helmand and Kandahar, and found that 71 percent of respondents believed the Taliban would return to areas cleared of insurgents if NATO forces withdraw and leave the areas solely under Afghan government control.
Sixty-five percent believed the Taliban and Mullah Omar should join the Afghan government.
And if the Taliban once again seized control of the country, 80 percent of the respondents believed al-Qaeda would return, ICOS reported.
The more optimistic takeout from the ICOS poll was that 55 percent of the Afghans polled said they believed that NATO forces and the Afghan government were winning the war.