Talks Begin On Way Forward In Afghanistan

Foreign ministers of NATO countries — plus dozens of others — including Japan, China and India are in London searching for ways to help stabilize Afghanistan. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hosting the event which is aimed at getting Afghanistan back on track. The last time a meeting of this size and scope was held was in 2001.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One key member of the administration who was not looking on at the State of Union speech last night was Hillary Clinton. The Secretary of State is in London. She's attending an international conference on Afghanistan. The foreign ministers of NATO countries are there, along with leaders of Japan, China and India. They're searching for a way to stabilize Afghanistan, and that's where Renee Montagne has been this week. She joins us to talk about what the diplomats hope to accomplish.

Hi, Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Hi, Steve, how you doing?

INSKEEP: I'm doing fine, thanks very much. Why Afghanistan, and why in London?

MONTAGNE: Well, the simple answer to why in London is that it's being hosted by Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And the conference is aimed at what you might say getting Afghanistan back on track after last summers' trouble, then -and troubling to the international community - presidential election.

The last time a meeting of this size and scope was held was back in December of 2001, after the Taliban had been driven out of Afghanistan, and it was held in Bonn, Germany. And at that time, the international community and Afghan leaders - and those leaders include some of the most powerful warlords of Afghanistan -they more or less anointed Hamid Karzai president. And at the time, the foreign partners divvied up the various jobs of rebuilding Afghanistan's broken institutions. And so today they will, you might say, renew their vows.

INSKEEP: Although, of course, the very need for this conference suggests that the rebuilding hasn't necessarily taken. Are these countries as committed to Afghanistan this time around?

MONTAGNE: Yes and no. A big reason for the conference is to get countries whose commitment to Afghanistan is now flagging fired up about bringing that country back from the brink. Of course, also on everyone's minds is how ultimately to get out, to move out. And one thing a lot of people are talking about, the big conversation here is reconciling with the Taliban.

Some Taliban commanders, of course, have, over the years, quit the Taliban. They've joined in the political process. That's been an option for a long time. Not much going on there, although President Karzai has long spoken of reaching out to lower-level fighters and commanders. But now it's people like U.S. and NATO commanding General Stanley McChrystal who are speaking up for the need to communicate with the Taliban more formally, more openly. You know, he wants his own counter-insurgency strategy to work, and part of that, as he puts it, is giving Afghanistan back to the Afghans.

INSKEEP: Does talking more formally mean negotiating with someone like Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban?

MONTAGNE: No. That is not on the table. Talk of communicating specifically rules out Taliban leaders, those connected with al-Qaida and those who are considered - the word is unreconcilable. But, you know, one thing that is being proposed for those they think that can be brought around - which, of course, is a lot of lower level fighters - is a multi-million dollar fund to create jobs and other incentives to bring these guys off the battlefield and back into civil society. And Steve, Japan is actually expected to contribute much of the money for that fund.

INSKEEP: Okay. So some money is coming, and some troops, as well?

MONTAGNE: Yes. It was expected that this kind of meeting would give political cover to countries like Germany and France, where popular opinion has been opposed to the war in Afghanistan, and increasingly so. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has already, in these last days, said no to more troops. But Germany, on the eve of the conference, did announce 850 additional troops, which is a sizable number.

INSKEEP: So that's what world leaders are doing. What about the man who's sovereign responsibility is supposed to be to govern Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai?

MONTAGNE: Well, Steve, President Karzai opened the conference. And one of the things that Karzai addressed in his speech is something he's been blamed for, and that's the incredible level of corruption in his country. Karzai promised to give teeth to a new anti-corruption body, also to make fighting corruption a key part of his second term. And there's also a plan floating around to tackle the problem of corruption generated and fueled by the hundreds of millions of dollars of development money that's been pouring into Afghanistan and will continue to do.

Karzai also this morning called on Saudi Arabia to play a more prominent role there. Saudi Arabia has hosted informal talks with the Taliban in the past. And Steve, these proposals come after a conference here in London held yesterday that was focused on another country the international community is concerned about, and that is Yemen.

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