London Conference Seeking Ways to Win War in Afghanistan

By Gregory Katz and Deb Riechmann | January 26, 2010 | 7:31 AM EST
London (AP) - How can the difficult war in Afghanistan finally be won? That is the perplexing question facing Afghan leaders and 60 foreign ministers when they meet at a London conference Thursday.
No one pretends the war is going well: Western casualties are up, public support in coalition countries is down, and ever-bolder Taliban rebels have successfully attacked the center of Kabul, power base of the weak central government led by President Hamid Karzai. Al-Qaida leaders, on the run for eight years, have regrouped, their tentacles grasping beyond their base near the Pakistan-Afghan border.
The conflict is at a crossroads, with America and its NATO allies sending 37,000 more troops in a bid to blunt the Taliban's momentum as the Afghan government seeks financial help with ambitious plans to "Afghanize" the conflict by taking over security duties in the next five years.
Amid gloomy reports from the battlefield, there are glimmers of hope -- with polls showing most Afghans now blame the Taliban, not Western forces, for the bloodshed and instability, a reversal from just a year earlier.
The one-day London conference, focal point of a substantial security operation, plans to endorse -- and possibly fund -- a series of financial incentives designed to convince Taliban foot soldiers to lay down their arms and join the political process. The reconciliation plan is backed by U.S. and British leaders, although Taliban leaders say it is doomed.
"The insurgency is not a monolith, it comprises many different groups which have, to a greater or lesser extent, co-opted foreign fighters, local tribes, those who are involved in the drug trade and mercenary fighters paid as little as $10 a day," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose government is co-hosting the event. "We know that the different groups feed off and support each other. But with the right political strategy and the right balance of military muscle and political outreach, we can exploit those divisions."
The Afghan government plans to offer jobs, vocational training and other financial incentives to Taliban soldiers willing to switch sides. The goal is to reach out to 20,000 to 35,000 insurgents -- but skeptics doubt whether large numbers would desert at a time when many insurgents believe they are winning. Some militants believe they can outlast Western forces, which may be called home due to budgetary restraints and ebbing public enthusiasm for the mission. President Barack Obama says he plans to start withdrawing some U.S. troops by July, 2011.
The conference is also expected to endorse a new timetable for expanding Afghan security forces and giving them control of various parts of the country as part of a plan to reduce western troop levels by the middle of next year if possible. The top diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will also discuss ways to channel more international aid directly through Afghan ministries while, at the same time, working to curb systematic graft and bribery inside the government.
The London conference, which may name a top civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, is designed at least in part to bolster two leaders in trouble.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, facing a difficult election campaign, hopes to bolster his leadership credentials, and Karzai -- damaged by electoral fraud and unable to win parliamentary backing for his Cabinet choices -- plans to demonstrate that his government still has strong international support.
There are some reasons for confidence even though the numbers of soldiers killed in roadside attacks has steadily increased in the last 12 months.
Analysts believe the troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama and new tactics aimed at winning over ordinary Afghans pushed by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, may blunt the Taliban's recent gains.
Michael Codner, director of the Military Sciences Department at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the additional troops may convince on-the-fence Afghans not to back the Taliban.
"It is quite likely the surge could bring a tipping point in the right direction rather than having it muddle along forever," he said. "The situation before looked pretty feeble and doomed."
Codner said the number of troops being added is adequate for the task they face.
He cautioned that public support for the war, at least in Britain, has dropped because there is little confidence in Brown's assertion that the fighting will help protect British towns and cities from al-Qaida attacks.
"There's a great deal of skepticism," Codner said. "That's because the mission is not clear. The government is saying it is direct security, that al-Qaida will set up there again if we don't do this, but unfortunately the public feels if we do these operations, we'll get an asymmetric attack at home, as in the July 7 bombings."
He was referring to the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London transit system that killed 52 people. The coordinated bombings by radicalized British Muslims were blamed by some on Britain's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Recent polling suggests that the Afghan population is less likely to embrace the Taliban than it was a year ago, said Michael Williams, a foreign policy specialist at Royal Holloway University in London.
"The polls show about 70 percent of the population blames the Taliban for the violence, and last year that was the reverse, they blamed NATO," he said. "The polls show 71 percent felt the future would be better than the present, so I think the public perception is more upbeat. The population has never switched to broadly supporting the Taliban."
Williams said the Taliban have not been successful in attracting substantial support from outside of the group's Pashtun base. But he said ambitious plans to transform Afghanistan into a western-style democracy will have to be scaled back to more realistic goals.
"It's not going to be Switzerland," he said. "A pretty good outcome would be a broadly stable country with a government recognized as legitimate by the people and able to enforce security across the country. It doesn't mean there wouldn't be a Taliban insurgency, but it should be manageable, with NATO and U.S. forces off the front line but probably still there in a ready reserve capacity for a few years."
He said some intractable problems would remain, including opium production and the presence of numerous warlords.
"Of course the government will be funded from abroad," he said. "It will not be self-sufficient in the near future."
Riechmann contributed from Kabul.
No one pretends the war is going well: Western casualties are up, public support in coalition countries is down, and ever-bolder Taliban rebels have successfully attacked the center of Kabul.