MUNICH -- U.S. President Barack Obama appears to have downscaled U.S. ambitions in Afghanistan.
At a high-level security conference in Munich, U.S. officials have talked about the need to pursue "achievable" goals and have limited their aims to the stability of the country. The emphasis appears to be moving to ensuring that Afghanistan "can secure its own future." There has been little or no talk by U.S. representatives about the future of democracy or the rule of law in the country.
On February 7, Vice President Joe Biden said the most pressing U.S. concern in Afghanistan is to deny a safe haven to terrorists, while saying that no strategy in Afghanistan can succeed without also addressing Pakistan.
The lawless mountains between the two countries are the main stronghold of the Taliban insurgency and are thought to provide sanctuary to Al-Qaeda militants.
The U.S. vice president called on the international community to help stabilize Pakistan's tribal areas, as well as the country's economy.
Afghanistan's and Pakistan's troubles with Pashtun insurgents, Biden said, are a security threat not just to the United States but "to everyone of you assembled in this room."
Biden said the United States itself will move from a "transactional" relationship to a long-term partnership.
Biden said Obama has ordered a "strategic review" of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan to ensure the goals there are "clear and achievable." 'Regional Problem Set'
This is a formulation that was repeated by James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, in Munich on February 8.
Obviously, we've learned over time that the problems in Afghanistan are not just uniquely confined to one country. It's a regional problem set.
Jones, NATO's former military commander, said Obama will pursue a determinedly regional approach to the problem, having appointed the veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Obviously, we've learned over time that the problems in Afghanistan are not just uniquely confined to one country. It's a regional problem set," Jones said. "And I think, strategically, coming to the realization that the region as a whole must be considered is extremely important."
Biden and Jones said the United States will be seeking both advice and assistance from its allies in the NATO-led ISAF stabilization force. The United States is expected to assume a greater military burden by bringing in an additional 30,000 troops over the next two years. European NATO allies are also expected to contribute soldiers.
Washington wants the European Union, the United Nations, and other international organizations to assume a greater and more well-coordinated role in Afghanistan's development.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, also present at the Munich meeting, called on February 8 for the United States and the rest of the international community to close ranks behind his attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban.
"There is no way that we can succeed the way we want to, in the right time, without some form of reconciliation," Karzai said.
He said all Taliban who "are not part of Al-Qaeda or terrorist networks" can come back to Afghanistan, participate in the upcoming presidential elections in August, and generally "live a normal life."'We Must Not Shrink'
General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, said in Munich that such reconciliation must be done carefuly and in full compliance with the Afghan Constitution. He also said those who choose not to participate peacefully in the process must be driven out or killed.
"We must not shrink from this," Petraeus said.
In what sounded at times like a campaign speech, Karzai praised the achievements of his government over the last few years. He recounted its successes -- with international assistance -- in extending the reach of education and health care and building new roads and other infrastructure.
Karzai said Afghanistan now enjoys "the most vibrant freedom of press among the most freedom-oriented [media scenes] in the world."
The Afghan president once again attacked the international community for failing to coordinate its aid efforts with the Afghan government. Karzai said that failure is partly to be blamed for the spread of corruption within Afghan authorities.
Karzai bemoaned the poor state of the country's police force. This was a point conceded by Jones, who said the United States and NATO have placed too much of their focus on rebuilding the Afghan National Army.
The Afghan president said poppy cultivation, although practiced on a massive scale, is in decline, predicting yields will fall by "20 to 30 per cent" this year.Heavy-Handed Tactics
Karzai said "terrorists" in Afghanistan are far from defeated, saying authorities in "at least" 10 provinces are contested by insurgents and that the government has almost no control over Helmand Province.
The Afghan leader put most of the blame for the revival of the Taliban at the door of the international community, which, he said, failed to reintegrate defeated fighters into Afghan society immediately after their defeat.
Karzai also blamed frequent civilian casualties and NATO's heavy-handed tactics for the growing popularity of the insurgency. He said Kabul is in talks with Washington and NATO to address the issue.
NATO officials say Karzai wants the alliance to sign a new comprehensive agreement with his government that would put clear limits on its powers.
U.S. officials at the Munich event offered no comments on the issue of civilian casualties.