VICE PRESIDENT Biden insisted again on Sunday that “we’re not engaged in nation-building” in Afghanistan. How, then, to explain the gathering in Kabul of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and 40 other foreign ministers for the Kabul Conference on Tuesday — the goal of which is to adopt detailed plans for the Afghan government to expand its authority, fight corruption and take over social and economic programs from foreign agencies? In fact the government of Hamid Karzai is undertaking a major new effort to gain control over the country, as well as the fight against the Taliban. Its success or failure will do much to determine the outcome of the Obama administration’s strategy — whatever that might be called.
The author of this not-nation-building plan is not Mr. Karzai, who has shown little inclination for such projects, but Ashraf Ghani, his former finance minister and opponent in last year’s presidential election. Mr. Ghani, a highly capable former World Bank official, has been working with the government to produce proposals and timetables for such essential tasks as strengthening the judiciary and increasing the effectiveness of government ministries. He hopes donor governments will respond by agreeing to channel 50 percent of aid through the Kabul bureaucracy within two years — compared with about 20 percent now. It’s a goal worth supporting: Mr. Ghani has already demonstrated, through initiatives like the National Solidarity Program, that Afghan-managed development can succeed.
Mr. Karzai, for his part, is expected to outline a timeframe for Afghanistan’s police and army to take responsibility for security by the end of 2014, allowing foreign combat forces to withdraw. That timetable looks too ambitious to many Afghans and Western military experts. But it does provide a glimpse of the reality behind the Obama administration’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops 12 months from now — a commitment that has done much to undermine the counterinsurgency campaign the president approved.
To his credit, in his interview with ABC News, Mr. Biden modified his previous declaration that “you are going to see a whole lot” of U.S. forces leaving in 2011, saying “it could be as few as a couple thousand troops” from among the 100,000 soon to be deployed. He also said “there is no daylight” between his position and that of the administration’s new Afghanistan commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus; we hope that means that the persistent civil-military bickering that preceded the abrupt departure of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has ceased. Gen. Petraeus stressed in testimony to Congress last month that any withdrawal would have to be “conditions-based” — or linked to the ability of the Afghan government and army to take over. In other words, not-nation-building better work.