More Bark than Bite Afghanistan Conference Yields Few Concrete Results

Representatives from 90 countries and organizations showed up in The Hague on Tuesday for a hastily assembled conference on Afghanistan. Concrete results were few, but the one-day summit sent a number of symbolic messages.

By in The Hague

When it comes to gifts, Hamid Karzai is taking whatever comes his way these days. Early on Tuesday morning, as the Afghan president entered the World Forum Conference Center in The Hague, a journalist offered him a chocolate egg. In response to reporters' questions about what he expected from Tuesday's Afghanistan conference, Karzai merely smiled and raised his thumbs. But when it came to the egg, he sent one of his aides to collect it.

The Afghanistan conference in The Hague yielded few concrete results.

The Afghanistan conference in The Hague yielded few concrete results.

Karzai, so it seemed, wanted something to calm his nerves as he arrived for the one-day meeting. And as it turned out, the chocolate egg was the last present Karzai would receive on Tuesday. On the contrary: For hours, Karzai was forced to listen as speaker after speaker described how dire the situation currently is in Afghanistan: The Taliban and al-Qaida are making gains; the power of the drug barons extends all the way into the halls of government; and corruption is more widespread than ever before. The message, in short, was clear: NATO's mission in Afghanistan is in danger of failure.

The backdrop for the Afghanistan conference in The Hague was imposing. Representatives from 90 countries and organizations made the trip despite the US having called the meeting just three weeks prior. Yet aside from commitments to do more, the results were few and far between. Everyone agreed that 2009 would be a "decisive year". Over and over it was said that "defeat is not an option." The sentence has almost become a motto for such international meetings on Afghanistan.

Political symbolism was the order of the day in The Hague -- with most diplomats expecting little else. The US used the opportunity to briefly present its new strategy for Afghanistan and to re-establish a more diplomatic tone with its allies. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized that, in contrast to the Bush years, the new atmosphere would be one of consultation rather than confrontation. She voiced her pleasure that the countries present welcomed America's new approach in Afghanistan.

Clinton, though, also urged the international community to do more. The country didn't just need troops but civilian aid as well, she said. Her words highlighted one aspect of Washington's new strategy. Countries unwilling to send combat troops should at least help the US with the expensive reconstruction of the country. "We should provide every army and police unit in Afghanistan with an international partner that can help with training and build capacity," she said.

Not much else happened in The Hague. It was a typical display of sluggish international diplomacy. The delegations reeled off their excessively long speeches at a tortuously slow pace, and most of them said the same thing. Virtually every country said it was prepared to boost its involvement in Afghanistan. Virtually no one made a concrete offer or promised more troops.

Even the eagerly awaited appearance of Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Mehdi Ahundzadeh was unspectacular. In a speech that was short on specifics, he said Iran could help stabilize Afghanistan and cited the narcotics trade from Afghanistan through Iran to Europe as one of the most pressing problems Iran planned to tackle. The appearance of the diplomat, who was once the Iranian ambassador in Berlin, was as symbolic as the rest of the summit.

Nevertheless, for the US, Iran's participation was a minor sensation. Clinton called it a promising signal. Her remark that the US envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, had met the Iranian politician sent a ripple of excitement through the US press corps. Relations between the two countries are so tense that even a brief, chance encounter on the sidelines of a conference suffices to make headlines. Holbrooke and Ahundzadeh had agreed to "stay in touch," said Clinton.

These are the kind of small signals that reveal, at least to insiders, the new tone in America's Afghanistan policy. In addition to the brief meeting with archenemy Iran, Clinton also spoke in favor of offering to speak with the moderate Taliban, a move intended to split them from the insurgency. Such a discussion would have been unthinkable under George W. Bush. Now it's just a question of how or when talks with these members of the Taliban can happen.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier seemed to be particularly impressed by Clinton's performance. The US had shown that there could be a "somewhat different future" for the international mission, he said, adding that Germany agreed with every part of this plan. According to Steinmeier, many other foreign ministers regarded the meeting in The Hague as important from a symbolic point of view. The presence of such high-ranking participants, said one German diplomat, had shown that the international community's deployment in Afghanistan was enduring and that was very important.

Germany announced two new projects for Afghanistan at Tuesday's meeting in The Hague. Berlin plans to spend another €50 million ($66 million) on equipping Afghanistan's armed forces and Steinmeier announced that Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück had already approved the contribution to the so-called Afghanistan Trust Fund. He also presented a project that will help improve the Afghan civilian air surveillance, something that should make air traffic easier in the country.

The conference in The Hague marked the starting point for the attempt at a fresh start in Afghanistan or, at the very least, a new strategy. The task at hand now is to turn the many promises into concrete projects. And it is certain that the new US administration will be pushing just as hard for this as the old administration did. Simply paying lip service will no longer be enough -- and that includes Germany.

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