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EU Ministers Publicly Upbeat, Privately Glum, On Afghan Prospects

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (left) chats with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Stockholm.
STOCKHOLM -- European Union foreign ministers have wrapped up a two-day meeting in Stockholm by sounding an upbeat note on Afghanistan.

After an in-depth discussion of a confidential EU strategy document for the country, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said significant progress has been made in the country since 2001 in fields such as education, health care, and the fight against the heroin trade, adding that the bloc is intent to "make things even better."

This, Ferrero-Waldner said, attests that the international community is on the right track.

"I would say on whole the thrust is right, what we have been doing," she said. "We are working on the military side and we are working on the civilian side."

Behind the scenes, however, morale is low. One diplomat present at the two-day meeting said the ministers' discussion of Afghanistan had left room for "no optimism or idealism." There were few if any rays of light during the discussions on Afghanistan, and the mood was occasionally further dampened by the wealth of depressing and occasionally grisly anecdotal evidence offered by individual ministers.

The unresolved aftermath of the August 20 elections weighed most heavily on minds.

EU officials say the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is struggling under the weight of having to investigate some 2,700 separate complaints, many of them very serious. The ministers today heard about EU observers who claim they have firsthand evidence of polling stations with just a few dozen registered voters returning tens of thousands of filled-out ballots.

Runoff 'Likely'

EU officials say a runoff between incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his leading challenger -- Abdullah Abdullah -- now appears "very likely."

Officials say a runoff could help relieve the mounting internal tensions in the country, where rivals have accused Karzai of having rigged the poll. But EU officials also note that a second round would be fraught with complications. The security situation is expected to be even worse in the autumn, as will be the weather.

A reported Taliban campaign of severing the inked fingers of first-round voters -- raised by some EU ministers -- could further undermine turnout.

But the worst-case scenario, EU officials fear, is Karzai claiming a narrow victory this month, only to see his winning margin disappear as the IEC works through the complaints.

The decreasing Afghan tolerance of foreign involvement is another worrying factor.

A NATO air attack in Konduz Province on September 4, which claimed up to 90 victims, at least some of them civilians, has complicated the situation further. The EU has called for a quick inquiry. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Ferrero-Waldner both called the incident a "tragedy."

The EU is broadly backing the idea of another "Afghan Compact," to be announced by the international community at a summit some time after a new government is in place, probably early in 2010. But officials privately express despair at the choice of venue, said to be Kabul. One senior diplomat said bringing more than 80 leaders and foreign ministers with their accompanying delegations to the Afghan capital could become a security nightmare.

The ministers also discussed revamping the longer-term EU strategy in Afghanistan.

A draft copy of the document -- seen by RFE/RL -- speaks about the need to better coordinate international aid efforts, improve the penetration of social and economic rehabilitation projects in the country, boost Afghanistan institutional capacity, and promote democratic reforms at large.

'Very Difficult'

Nearly all of the EU's goals and commitments presuppose the existence of a permissive security environment in the country, an assumption which goes against the grain of recent developments.

Ferrero-Waldner acknowledged that the security situation in Afghanistan is "very difficult." She said the EU's strategy rests on the hope that Afghan authorities themselves will take on an increasingly growing proportion of the responsibility for the country.

"More and more," she said, "we want to see the Afghans take on their own responsibility, both on the security side -- for instance, by military and then the policing -- and also on the civilian side, as I say for instance by having the capacity to really lead a ministry, to really lead local institutions. Because this is the only way you can build a state."

By all informed accounts, the Afghan national security forces are some way from being able to take the lead in the military field. Afghanistan's administrative capacity also remains poor.

A number of EU ministers took to the floor to castigate the authorities for widespread corruption. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was said to have been particularly scathing, telling colleagues of his frustration about a failed project to equip a hospital and staff it with French experts.

Kouchner, himself a doctor, said the local authorities had asked the French experts to leave as soon as the hospital was operational. Today, a few months later, Kouchner reportedly said, the hospital has been stripped of most of the equipment and no longer functions.

Asked about what concrete role the EU could play in such an environment, an increasing number of EU ministers this weekend suggested the bloc wants to try its hand at political reconciliation, and supports bringing moderate Taliban into the government.

But again, privately, officials admit that reconciliation -- if and when it takes place -- is likely to involve a very complex and often ethically questionable accommodation process on the ground, over which Western institutions will have little control.