The London Afghan conference got under way this morning with Gordon Brown's opening remarks in Lancaster House. We, the media, are huddled in a cavernous tent erected behind the Green Park underground entrance. Brown does his steady best to sound resolved and upbeat. NATO has committed an additional 9,000 troops since President Obama announced the U.S. boost. But an array of nonmilitary support is promised as well.
In addition to pledges of more help with economic development and governance, the 38 countries supporting the effort have committed to an international trust fund whose funds will be used to reintegrate the Taliban in Afghan society. None of this is news. It had all been announced already.
Official optimism faces a mighty challenge here. But if most expectations for the conference are low, at least the reasons for their being so are many.
Many hardened observers here agree with the assessment of Pakistani scholar Ahmed Rashid that too little crucial spadework was done before the conference. There will be endless talk of reconciliation with the Taliban, for example, but so far there has been no sign that many Taliban are interested.
It's hard to imagine why they would be when they think they're winning and that America's commitment to the Kabul regime has a deadline attached to it. (Many in Pakistan's military and security service see their own interests complicated by talk of deadlines: Why crack down on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda if America pulls out and the Karzai regime collapses and the Taliban reemerges at the top of the heap in Afghanistan?)
The question of deadlines is the elephant in the conference hall of Lancaster House. President Karzai is making it clear that he expects Western support to continue long beyond President Obama's targeted date for troop withdrawals in the summer of 2011. Karzai says that his government is doing its best to bring the Afghan military and police up to speed, but he's looking to Western leaders for long-term commitments of aid and other assistance. Squaring declarations of imminent troop withdrawals with assurances of long-term support will be one of the harder feats to pull off in this gathering .
Another goal of the conference -- regional stability and cooperation -- has already been jeopardized by the conspicuous withdrawal of the Iranian foreign minister. The official excuse is that Iran doesn't want to participate in a Western-sponsored Afghanistan conference when the United States and NATO are sending more troops into the fray and raising the levels of violence. The real reason, most likely, is that peace in Afghanistan is not in the current Iranian regime's best interest.
The man-on-the-street view is hard to assess, but optimism is not running high. When I passed through customs at Heathrow, the customs officer, a man of unspecified South Asian ancestry, weighed in with a harsh assessment when he learned where I was heading: "It's a waste of time," he observed. "Why try to civilize what cannot be civilized?"
-- Jay Tolson