As Americans grow increasingly skeptical about the war, their top diplomat arrived in the Afghan capital today under unprecedented security, hoping to help lead a major international conference that will turn over greater control of the future of Afghanistan to its own, struggling government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Kabul from Islamabad, Pakistan, where she unveiled half a billion dollars worth of development programs intended to persuade Pakistanis that the United States' interests in their country go beyond terrorism.
Her trip is designed to create positive momentum for the war in Afghanistan; trying to earn crucial support for US policy in Pakistan while transferring control of billions of dollars to the government in Afghanistan and boosting efforts to persuade insurgents to lay down their arms.
In a joint communiqué to be issued at the Tuesday conference – attended by more than 50 foreign ministers – the international community will pledge to spend most of its money here on Afghan priorities, rather than its own. In return, the Afghan government will promise to reduce corruption and increase accountability, setting benchmarks for achieving those goals.
Afghanistan's leaders have long complained that the vast majority of the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent here is controlled by foreign countries, who often use it to fund pet projects overseen by foreign companies. They argue that many Afghans have suffered as a result, and Clinton conceded as much today. "We have to do a better job of trying to more carefully channel and monitor our own aid, " she said.
But Western officials also argue that the Afghan government simply hasn't been ready before now to oversee the money.
"There has been a change," said Mark Sedwill, NATO's civilian representative, in an interview. "What we're seeing is more confidence from the international community that the Afghan government is ready for that leadership role and ready to make those commitments and able to deliver on those commitments, and that's what's really changed the [international community's] willingness to operate in this way."
Afghan Officials Plead for PatienceSimply changing who oversees development aid, however, is no guarantee that millions of disappointed Afghans will finally receive the opportunities they've been awaiting for nine years – a step that American officials believe necessary before the security situation can improve.
Afghans are deeply skeptical that their government can overcome widespread corruption, and equally skeptical that a conference can deliver any change. Tuesday's will be the ninth major conference on Afghanistan in as many years, and in some ways, the political momentum among foreign governments is worse than at previous events.
As more American troops die, the war has never been less popular in the United States. The United Kingdom, the second-largest contributor of troops, has begun to talk about a date by which it wants to leave. And European governments are under increasing pressure to stop spending money here.
Afghan officials are quick to ask for patience. They point out that this is the first of the conferences being held inside Afghanistan, and indeed, the first conference of this size hosted by Kabul since 1974, when Henry Kissinger represented the United States here. That alone, they say, is evidence that they have come a long way from the ruins of a government they inherited in 2001.
"The goal of the conference is to produce a new narrative to assure our international partners and our public that we can have success by December and sustain momentum through July," Dr. Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who has led the government's preparations for the conference, said in an interview. The dates are key. President Obama has said he wants to review the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan by December and begin withdrawing troops by next July.
"Obama has spent enormous political capital here," Ghani continued. "So our goal is to produce political capital for him."
The conference will also allow foreign nations, for the first time, to endorse an Afghan government plan to persuade insurgents to lay down their arms. And it will reiterate a promise made by President Hamid Karzai at his inauguration last year: that Afghan forces should be able to take control of their country's security by 2014.
Suicide Bomber Pierces Security BubbleBut long-term goals and development priorities do not have as immediate an impact on Afghan lives as daily security worries. And in some ways, the conference will be overshadowed by the steps the city has taken to try and keep the delegates safe.
Some 11,000 police and soldiers are guarding Kabul for the conference, Lt. Gen. Abdul Rahman, the Kabul police chief, said in an interview. Entire sections of the city were already closed on Monday morning, and after Clinton's arrival, virtually all of Kabul was shut down. Local television and radio channels advised people to remain indoors.
Alongside American troops and American civilian investigators, Rahman has created a new police headquarters on top of a hill overlooking downtown Kabul. Afghan police sit next to Afghan soldiers and intelligence agents in a busy American-provided control center tent. The air buzzes with radio crackle. Officers bark out orders for soldiers and police officers to follow on the streets at the bottom of the hill.
On Sunday, a suicide bomber pierced the massive security bubble that Rahman and his men created, blowing himself up in a neighborhood about two miles from the police command center. American and Afghan officials believe he missed his target and exploded prematurely as he was bringing explosives to another location. Officials were forced to acknowledge he succeded in bringing explosives into a secure zone.
Insurgents have successfully targeted past major events in Kabul, and Rahman acknowledges they will try to attack again.
"Perhaps there will be another attack," he says. "But I can say this. The guarantee that Kabul will stay safe is that every officer defending it will give his life in order to save it."