The London Conference on Afghanistan must ask whether Karzai is up to scratch

The London conference on Afghanistan this week may be too soon to answer how fit to govern Hamid Karzai is, but it is surely not too early to ask it.

The major stakeholders in Afghanistan meet in London this week to assess progress and plan for the future. The escalation of NATO’s military presence in the region, made up primarily of US troops, is already underway.

Gen. David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, recently emphasized the need both to conduct direct military operations against the Taliban and to negotiate with, and ultimately de-militarise, the insurgent group.

Both approaches will be challenging, particularly in light of a recently-released US intelligence briefing that describes the Taliban as “increasingly effective” and warns that “time is running out”.

The key to the London conference, however, is not the conduct and future of military operations in Afghanistan; rather, it is the political and civilian rebuilding effort.

That the military approach Generals Petraeus and McChrystal advocate can reduce violence is clear – a similar approach brought Iraq back from the brink of civil war in 2007; how long that peace can last in the absence of political progress is not.

The Karzai government is at the centre of this question, as Sir Nigel Sheinwald, UK Ambassador to the US, wrote recently; its handling of institution-building and economic development will ultimately determine whether there is a viable alternative to a NATO military presence.

The fitness of the Karzai government was called into sharp question again this week with the full disclosure of a series of cables from John Eikenberry, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, to President Obama.

That the cables, sent last November when the future of US involvement in Afghanistan was still under discussion, were critical of the Karzai government has been public knowledge since they were sent, but release of the text shows the cables to have been more damning than previously known.

The Karzai government has stumbled over the appointment of its Cabinet, with Afghan lawmakers twice rejecting Karzai’s slate of ministers and accusing him of political gamesmanship. These setbacks mar the already-challenging rebuilding effort.

Bolstering this process and developing a plan for the “civilian surge” that President Barack Obama mentioned in his December 2009 speech should be the London conference’s top priority.

Should the Karzai government prove an unfit partner in this effort, the NATO force could, in theory, seek to replace him by some means, attempt to work around his government through local entities and international agencies, or simply abandon him (and, by extension, Afghanistan) to fate.

The London conference is too early to answer the question of whether Karzai’s government is up to muster, but it is not too early to ask it.

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