'Big Tent Meeting' A New Outlook for Afghanistan

President Barack Obama came into office saying he was going to completely re-examine America's Afghanistan strategy. On Tuesday, the world is gathered in The Hague to do the same. Troops, money and Iran are all on the one-day agenda.

Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a politician through and through -- and one who radiates with the aura of the world's only superpower. He is fully aware of the weight his words carry. And few who speak with Holbrooke this week will come away doubting the historic nature of Tuesday's one-day Afghanistan conference in The Hague, Netherlands. Holbrooke has insisted that the "big tent meeting," as he has called it, will result in a complete overhaul of the Afghanistan mission.

Over 90 countries are on hand for the Afghanistan conference in The Hague on Tuesday.

Over 90 countries are on hand for the Afghanistan conference in The Hague on Tuesday.

Foto: AP

European voices are only all-too-eager to second Holbrooke. "It is an extremely encouraging sign that so many countries will be represented at this conference," said a top German diplomat. Indeed, close to 90 countries have accepted the invitation issued by the Netherlands, the United Nations and the Afghan government -- Pakistan, Iran and Russia, all of which are sending high-ranked diplomats, among them. For an entire day, the future of the Afghanistan mission will be up for debate.

Still, with the NATO summit beginning later this week in Kehl, Strasbourg and Baden Baden, few expect any concrete results out of the Tuesday conference. But one symbolic result is as good as guaranteed: a powerful sign of determination. "The participating countries want to demonstrate that this is an extremely important mission. For that, it is worth it to come together for a day," Dan Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Regional Priorities

The broad list of participants also emphasizes the new regional approach that US President Barack Obama would like to use in his Afghanistan strategy. His national security advisor, James Jones, hopes that the conference in The Hague will result in a new, collective discussion about regional priorities.

From the European point of view, the meeting called by Washington is yet another sign of the new foreign policy course being charted by the Obama administration. Instead of merely holding speeches at home and issuing unfriendly demands, as one official from the German Foreign Ministry put it, the Americans are now deliberately pushing dialogue -- with as many countries from the region as possible.

The change in tone extends further as well, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear to reporters travelling with her to The Hague. The Obama administration, she said, has dropped the used of the term "war on terror," yet another in a long series of moves intended to distance this president from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Furthermore, no country will be expected to pledge more troops to the cause. Represented by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany will once again emphasize its increased engagement when it comes to training Afghan police. Within just a few weeks, Berlin will send more trainers to the conflict zone, a plan that fits well with the new US plan for Afghanistan. Washington itself plans to send 4,000 additional trainers to Afghanistan to conduct three-month crash courses for new Afghan police.

Even more important, though, will be the discussion about money, even if the Tuesday meeting was never intended as a donor conference. But the US -- and the leadership of NATO -- hope for contributions to a fund designed to support Afghan security personnel. Some $2 billion (€1.5 billion) is the ultimate goal, so far though only $25 million (€18 million) has been paid in. Expectations are that the Europeans -- particularly now that the US has backed away from increased demands for troops despite sending 17,000 more of its own -- will come up with the rest. "The question will certainly be raised," Hamilton said.

A Small Sensation

The Europeans have seemed eager to show their good will. Just before the conference, the European Union agreed to increase its Afghanistan budget by €60 million over the next two years, much of that going to security for the upcoming presidential elections in August. The US responded by pledging an additional €40 million.

In the end, though, money won't likely be the most compelling aspect of the conference. That honor goes to the attendance of Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Mehdi Ahundzadeh, a small sensation given the ongoing conflict over Iran's nuclear program. The US has welcomed Ahundzadeh's presence, though there is not likely to be a direct meeting between him and Clinton.

Ahundzadeh previously served as ambassador in Berlin. He's a quiet man in his mid-50s, speaks excellent English and has a pleasant sense of humor. He often invited journalists and politicians to the embassy and did not shy away from controversy when discussing Iran's atomic ambitions.

The fact that Iran is sending Ahundzadeh, of all people, underscores Tehran's new strategy. To Western visitors in recent weeks, Ahundzadeh has presented himself as a friendly and open-minded partner for talks. Financially and logistically, his argument goes, Iran can be helpful in the region.

Negotiating with Moderates?

For some time now, Germany's armed forces have already been unofficially negotiating with Tehran about possible transport routes through Iran that could be used to supply German forces in northern Afghanistan. But it's also clear to diplomats in Berlin that Iran will expect something in return for any agreement. In Tehran, it is expected that any help it provides in Afghanistan will be paid back with a softer tone from the West on its nuclear program. Indeed, the issue is so contentious that German diplomats will not officially confirm that talks over resupply routes are even being held.

That's the basis from which Iran wants to negotiate -- even with the Americans. Tehran may have aided the Taliban in its battle against the United States, but the Shiite clerics in Iran make no secret of the fact that they don't have much regard for the Taliban's brand of Sunni fundamentalism. Tehran now fears that parts of the Taliban could become acceptable within the mainstream. Obama has even said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of negotiating with moderate representatives of the group. If that happened, Tehran worries, the major Sunni powers in the region could be strengthened.

Tehran is also following, with increasing unease, the Taliban's opium smuggling operations into Iran. Iranian border troops seize around three tons of Opium every day. And in recent years, 2,000 Iranian soldiers were reportedly killed in skirmishes with drug traffickers along the border it shares with Afghanistan. It is estimated that up to 2 million Iranians are addicted to drugs.

In other words, there are plenty of reasons to come to the negotiating table. And if the first mutual interests can be found, a true reinvigoration of the Afghanistan mission might not be far off.

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