As the Afghan war grows more unpopular around the world, President Hamid Karzai today tried to give the international community a sense of when it might be able to leave. For the first time Karzai circled a date on the calendar – 2014 –when Afghans "will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country."
He has laid out a similar goal before -- and he downplayed the announcement's significance in a press conference this afternoon -- but some 60 senior international diplomats attending a major conference here seemed to treat Karzai's statement as a watershed.
"With this conference, we mark the true beginning of a very fundamental transition," said Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General.
But the goal -- even if it is non-binding – is lofty. Almost every measurement of life in Afghanistan is on a downward trend compared to two years ago. Violence against both Afghans and international troops is peaking. And while the Afghan police and army will exceed recruiting goals, they are nowhere near ready to be autonomous.
Underscoring the challenges of training Afghan security forces, an apparent rogue Afghan soldier opened fire on his American trainers in northern Afghanistan as the conference was being held. Two American civiilians were killed in the generally quiet city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the military said.
The daily drumbeat of negative news has taken its toll on the mood of the international community. Today, European diplomats -- some of whose colleagues have lost their jobs over the deteriorating security situation here – expressed the hope that the conference would provide some political breathing room in their capitals.
For the United States, as fatalities rise to record levels, support for the war has dropped to historic lows -- only 43 per cent of Americans say the war is worth fighting, according to the latest ABC News / Washington Post poll. That has put pressure on the military to produce quick results, and it has increased political pressure on President Obama -- from members of its own party.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke on behalf of the U.S. here, acknowledged that the negative news had created deep doubts about the war. "Citizens of many nations represented here, including my own, wonder whether success is even possible -- and if so, whether we all have the commitment to achieve it," she said at the conference.
The international community has spent $40 billion on development, but poverty and joblessness remain widespread, and many people who were supposed to receive aid simply have not seen their lives improve since the war began.
The Afghan government argues that the international community is partially to blame. The government says it has only controlled 20 percent of the development aid; everything else has been controlled by the donor countries. Today's conference pledged to raise that percentage to 50 per cent within two years.