No Afghan spring

Commentary

The assasination attempt on Hamid Karzai should prompt a re-think of the international community's Afghan policy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's narrow escape from an assassin's bullet this weekend illustrates, once again, the precarious state of his country's reconstruction. Even though they failed at their assignment, the Taliban's would-be assassins have yet again shown that they can strike at the heart of the capital, infiltrate the Afghan security forces and endanger the lives not only of the President - upon whom so much rides - but also his international helpmates, who also narrowly escaped.

At NATO's Bucharest Summit, the U.S-led coalition had been working hard to advertise trans-Atlantic unity, helped by a French offer to send 1000-odd soldiers to the eastern parts of the country. President Karzai returned from the summit beaming, feeling that he had put paid to months of Western sniping following his rejection of British peer Paddy Ashdown as the UN's envoy. The eventual choice, Norwegian ambassador Kai Eide, had set about his tasks with considerable gusto.

But whoever wrote this script forgot to consider the Taliban and the real state of Afghanistan's reconstruction. After six years of warfare and a massive aid effort, the Taliban re-entered the fight. Using asymmetric tactics - suicide bombings, threats to the local population - it has forced many aid agencies to withdraw and development to cease in key districts. 2007 saw insurgents carrying out more attacks over a wider area and 6,000 people killed. Earlier in the year, the Taliban attacked Kabul's swishest hotel, killing six people and leading many NGOs to reconsider their work in the capital

President Karzai, meanwhile, is refusing to acknowledge that his government is facing more than foreign-born terrorists, deleting the words "counter-insurgency" in every document he sees. His government is shot-through with corruption; and a criminalised economy - of which opium is only one of many problems - has grown up around him.

With the next elections only a year away, the President has begun turning his attention to his own job security. Usually a shoe-in for the Pashtun vote and the support of the old Northern Alliance, he now fears he will get neither automatically and is gearing up for a campaign characterised by anti-Western sniping, Pashtun nationalism and, according to a senior international official who asked to remain anonymous, attempts at biasing the electoral process in his favour.

The worst thing that can happen after a failed assassination attempt is a panic, leading to rash decisions, which, in the calmer light of day, are seen for what they are. But in this case, it should serve as a wake-up call to put things right.

First, the international community must hold the Afghan government and itself to commitments already agreed - such as the vetting process for governors, police chiefs and other senior officials. Building workable and accountable institutions must trump placing relatives and loyalists in positions of power.

More than anything, in the next two years of institution-building means ensuring that the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are beyond reproach. The world community is at real risk of losing all political legitimacy in eyes of ordinary Afghans if the elections are dirty. An active diplomatic effort will be required to guarantee the credibility of the electoral process, including by ensuring a credible complaints mechanism.

Second, the UN must help the government re-launch outreach to the Taliban and other combatants. The Afghan government's cafeteria-style approach, whereby Taliban who offer themselves up are given parlay, does not work. It needs to be re-launched and focused on strategic "targets", i.e. mid-ranking "pragmatic" Taliban leaders. A package of financial and other incentives - including genuine security guarantees - should be developed. Such deal-making will be controversial but is necessary.

Political negotiations, however, must be conducted from a position of strength and cannot replace military action. European countries should commit to sending more trainers and civilians while lifting some of the 60 "caveats" which hamper their soldiers' effectiveness. The EU's police mission, universally seen as underpowered, must be radically rethought and perhaps augmented by the European Gendarmerie Force. A study should be carried out into expanding the Afghan National Army from its currently size of 70.000 to 200.000 - even it will become reliant on external funding for a decade.

Supporting a new strategy in Afghanistan should be a new approach to the region. There can be no lasting stability in either country until Afghanistan and Pakistan move away from mutual suspicion and policies of interference in each others affairs. This, in turn, means dealing with Pakistan-India relations. Recent developments in Pakistan could help.

The electoral success of mainstream secular political parties and the resounding defeat of Islamist groups are a major setback for the ‘Pakistani Taliban' and are expected to erode support for the militants, including Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives sheltering in the region.

To take advantage of this opening, however, the EU should appoint a wise men's committee, along the lines of the U.S. Baker-Hamilton commission, chaired by a prominent European, to develop a new EU approach to the region, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

All is not lost in Afghanistan. However, a new strategy, including strengthened relations with Pakistan, is required. When this weekend's attack took place the Afghan government were preparing for another international conference, this time in Paris. To turn things around, the Paris Conference must hold the Afghan government's feet to the fire while ensuring that the international community coalesces around a tightly prioritised strategy. Next week, a visit by a delegation of European parliamentarians to Kabul could helpfully begin this process.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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