Setting a Date for the Pullout Kabul Conference to Herald End of NATO Mission

Under tight security, the foreign ministers of NATO states are convening Tuesday in Kabul. Despite massive problems and a weak President Hamid Karzai, the military alliance wants to set a timeframe for the withdrawal of their troops -- a very ambitious goal.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch as people walk on a street in Kabul, ahead of the NATO Afghanistan conference on Tuesday.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch as people walk on a street in Kabul, ahead of the NATO Afghanistan conference on Tuesday.

By and Shoib Najafizada in Kabul

The last few months have been the bloodiest in the war against the Taliban and the Afghan government's performance remains disappointing. Nevertheless, a meeting of international foreign ministers in the capital Kabul on Tuesday is to decide on the end of the international military mission in 2014.

By then, according to the plan, all the country's 34 provinces will have been handed over to Afghan security forces. Local militia and police will have taken over responsibility for stability and security. That plan is laid out in the latest draft for the 10-page final communiqué of the Kabul Conference, agreed after lengthy negotiations. The meeting began on Tuesday morning.

But the document doesn't state how fast the international troops -- which currently total 150,000 -- are to be withdrawn. United States President Barack Obama announced in 2009 that he would look at the possibility of reducing US troop numbers. It is widely expected that Obama will start withdrawing troops, partly for domestic political reasons, and will thereby de facto usher in the pullout of all NATO forces.

Germany too wants to hand over the first northern province to the Afghans. At present the German army, the Bundeswehr, has 5,500 troops in northern Afghanistan. But sources close to the German military doubt whether the German or all the international troops will be withdrawn in full by 2014 -- logistical factors alone would render that barely possible, they say. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who arrived in Kabul on Tuesday morning, dampened hopes for an end of the whole mission by 2014. Even after the Afghans have assumed responsibility for security, there "will still be soldiers, civilian reconstruction helpers and police officers from the international community" in the country, Westerwelle said.

Precarious Security at the Conference

The draft of the final communiqué obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE is vague about whether the NATO mission will really end in 2014. Paragraph 17 states that the international community will continue to provide "the necessary support to increase security," and will continue to help train, finance and equip the Afghan army if necessary. Still, the mere naming of a date in itself sets an important goal, diplomats say.

The year 2014 therefore seems as symbolic as the whole conference. The withdrawal plan is not really new. At a meeting in London in the spring, the nations involved in Afghanistan had already envisaged this date, but given the rapid decline in support for the dangerous mission the determination to set a firm timetable for withdrawal is greater than ever. In pushing for a pullout, the old goals -- alongside beating the Taliban it used to be bringing democracy to Afghanistan and strengthening human rights -- are gradually being jettisoned.

In the run-up to the meeting, Western diplomats said the day trip to Kabul was a symbol rather than a conference. For the first time the nations providing aid and troops are meeting in the country itself. Tens of thousands of soldiers, police and secret service agents have transformed the capital into a ghost town. The guests will be raced through empty streets from the airport to the Foreign Ministry and back after a few hours. There won't be much time for discussion.

A reminder of the security challenge came on Monday evening when rockets were fired into the outskirts of the city. The police played down the strike. The Interior Ministry said rocket attacks were "normal" in Kabul.

On Tuesday, morning a loud explosion was heard in the north of the city. The Interior Ministry said children had touched an old landmine and caused it to explode. Three people were injured.

Measures for Reintegrating Top Taliban Leaders Remain Unclear

Security at the conference is a hot-button topic for the government and its authorities. If anything happens, transferring responsibility to the Afghans will appear to be an unachievable goal.

In Kabul, President Hamid Karzai is also expected to announce several programs aimed at improving the government's work and reconciling, domestically, with the Taliban. To help those programs, the West wants to create a fund that, through job-creation measures, promotion of training schemes and support for rural regions, will make it convincing for Taliban foot-soldiers to return to society. Germany is expected to provide a large share of the funding, with a pledge of over €50 million over the next five years. But it remains unclear what, if any, measures will be taken to reintegrate Taliban commanders and leadership.

The Aghans have different priorities. Sources within the government in Kabul say that Karzai's push to directly control 50 percent of the foreign development aid coming in to Afghanistan instead of the current 20 percent will be more on the front burner on the Afghan side than the Taliban reintegration programs. Despite concerns in Western capitals that such a step would only lead to additional aid money seeping away, the foreign ministers are expected to approve the plan -- with preconditions that Karzai must fulfil. The amount of money pouring into the country is immense -- since 2002, around $40 billion has been sent to Afghanistan.

If the draft of the closing statement is approved as currently written, then President Karzai and the NATO member states together will be setting ambitious goals. The draft text states that by 2011, the number of Afghan soldiers will rise to 170,000, and a further 134,000 should also be trained. Karzai, for his part, is aiming to coax 36,000 Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons in just five years -- a very ambitious target. Economically, he wants to raise state revenues, an almost impossible undertaking in a country in which almost every official makes a living through corruption.

But first the meeting has to take place. Logistically, an attack by the Taliban or further rockets fired at the city would be enough to force a quick end to the summit and send a disastrous message around the world.

But there are also problems in terms of the content of the closing statement, and on Monday night, it was unclear if diplomats would approve the language in its current form despite weeks of striving to come up with a document all could accept. They know that the time pressure of the conference creates maneuvering room for spontaneous changes. And a failure, as is always the case with NATO summits on the Afghanistan issue, is not an option in Kabul.


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