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NATO Summit Notebook: Conferencing Afghanistan

LISBON -- It seems that the new Afghanistan (once supposed to be post-Taliban) was born of conferences mostly held outside the country. The first transitional government emerged from a conference in Bonn, Germany, where international diplomats arm-twisted rival anti-Taliban political and military factions into agreeing on a transitional authority and a roadmap on establishing permanent government institutions in the country. In subsequent months and years, many donor conferences were organized to fund and plan the state-building project in Afghanistan.

But despite the rhetoric and grand pledges made at such conferences, what actually determined the way forward was what happened in Afghanistan's remote valleys and teeming cities. With Washington distracted by the Iraq war until 2007, its European allies too paid lip service to an Afghanistan where the Taliban was making a dramatic comeback. While Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan facilitated that group's return, the lack of development alienated a large number of rural Afghans and the predatory nature of the warlord-dominated government gave many young men sufficient reason to take up arms.

The conferencing has continued apace since U.S. President Barack Obama moved into the White House in early 2009. This NATO summit in Lisbon is the third major international conference that I have covered in that time at which Afghanistan has topped the agenda, and there were others to which I didn't travel. The talk always is of increasing Afghan ownership, continued support, and recommitment to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

The grand narrative that the present conference will create is that of "Transition with a capital 'T,'" as a Scandinavian diplomat put it to me. The plan now is to train enough Afghan forces by 2014 so that NATO troops and allies in the International Security Assistance Force can manage a phased exit from Afghanistan. Like the plans laid out in earlier Afghan conferences, the prospects for this plan are mixed.

While NATO might make progress on the battleground, the Afghan political scene is more challenging. President Hamid Karzi is now publicly questioning the whole idea of the West's war against Islamic extremists. Afghanistan's often-predatory neighbors have yet to publicly pledge noninterference in Afghan affairs or denounce past plans of turning Kabul into a protectorate. While Kabul is actively promoting talks with the Taliban, NATO's military planners want to eliminate their field leaders to score a decisive blow.

I hope the next conference I attend on Afghanistan presents more promising prospects for the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.

-- Abubakar Siddique