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.
Renewed International Support for AfghanistanBut today was designed to be about the international community's renewed commitment to Afghanistan after almost nine years of war. The communiqué the diplomats signed expressed support for the Afghan government's plan to reintegrate Taliban fighters into society. And perhaps most significantly, it pledged to give the government more control of billions of dollars in development aid.
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.
"The Afghan government is stepping forward to deal with the multitude of difficult challenges. And I have to say, some of their challenges have been made more difficult by the international community's intervention," Clinton said, departing from her prepared text to deliver the second sentence.
But Afghan officials admit that their own corruption has also contributed to development aid missing its target. Billions of dollars leave Kabul every year, and some investigators here believe it has been skimmed from development projects.
In return for increased control over foreign aid, Karzai promised to beef up his government's anti-corruption efforts, including prosecution of crooked officials and higher penalties for any government minister who fails to disclose his or her assets.
Afghanistan Citizens SkepticalKarzai has made those promises in the past. And indeed, many Afghans and NGOs expressed doubt that the conference would produce any more results than the previous eight conferences held about the war.
Amim, who goes by only one name, has lived in the center of Kabul since the fall of the Taliban. His house is still made of mud. His children still do not have any medicine. He still lives in the shadow of building projects. He makes $4 a day -- when he is hired as a day laborer – usually to clean out richer people's sewers.
Like so many Afghans, he says his life simply hasn't improved since the United States invaded Afghanistan and promised to uplift its 30 million citizens.
"All this help and money are coming. Where does it go? Who they are giving this money to?" he asks as he bends down in one of the two rooms in his home, the roof too low to stand up straight. He and his children sleep on thin mattresses that rest on a dirt floor.
"We hear the news all the time from the radio that millions of dollars have come to Afghanistan," he continues. "But I haven't seen any sign of it."
Today's conference was held under extraordinary security. For much of Monday and all day Tuesday, every street in central Kabul was closed to traffic. That's like closing down Times Square, and every street leading into it.
Insurgents did manage some minor incidents. But the largest attack was foiled.
Afghan intelligence agents raided a house in eastern Kabul, interfering with an insurgent plan to fire more than a dozen mortars at the conference, according to intelligence agents who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The agents, along with police officers, searched the home near Kabul's sports stadium and found one member of an insurgent cell. They forced him to use his phone to call other members of the cell and tell them to come to the house. When all six of them arrived, each was arrested, according to the intelligence agents.
The mortar's targeting system, which used GPS, was fixed on the foreign ministry, the agents said. The cell planned to begin firing the mortars after the conference began, and when local police responded to the scene, six gunmen wearing suicide vests planned to create a defensive ring, hoping to allow the mortars to continue firing.