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Kabul conference: Can Karzai take the reins?

Leaders from 70 countries gather in Kabul to see if Karzai can walk the walk.

Karzai and Clinton
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pose for a photo following a major international conference in Kabul on July 20, 2010. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: For running coverage of the war in Afghanistan and the summer's counterinsurgency campaign, including videos and regular reports from the field, read GlobalPost's Dispatches: Afghanistan blog.

KABUL, Afghanistan — After nearly nine years of frustrating engagement in Afghanistan, the foreign community appears eager to transfer responsibility to Kabul and go home. And at the Kabul Conference today, that seems to be exactly what is happening.

At the gathering of representatives from 70 countries, Western powers endorsed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plan to take the lead on security by 2014, according to reports and a draft of the final communique.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary general, qualified this endorsement, however, saying there would be no quick exit of troops, just a shift into a more supportive role.

As the international appetite for the war wanes, all players are more than ready to let Afghanistan take a greater role in designing its own future. The major question will be, is it ready to do so?

Ashraf Ghani, one of the main organizers of the conference, told the media he wants Kabul to have more control over aid dollars. He would like to reverse the proportions of aid money going through the Afghan government.

At stake is more than $13 billion dollars in assistance funds that Karzai wants channeled through his government, rather than given to contractors or NGOs whose priorities may not always match those of Kabul. In return, the international community wants to see clear signs that Karzai is at last turning into a reliable partner.

At present, just over 20 percent of assistance is given directly to Kabul; Ghani wants to raise that figure to 80 percent. This will be done in the name of “alignment” — bringing international aid into sync with Afghan government priorities.

But the Afghan government, as has been repeatedly pointed out, is one of the most corrupt in the world. And Karzai has made little progress on one of the main tasks set for him at January’s London Conference — improving transparency and accountability in his own back yard.

Participants in the Kabul conference, however, are not likely to hold Karzai's feet to the fire, according to Candace Rondeaux, the Kabul-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The time for hard questions and skeptical reasoning is over for the international community,” she said. “But there will be a lot of rhetoric around accountability and corruption.”

United Nations Special Representative Steffan de Mistura supplied some of the rhetoric in interviews with the media before the conference.

“From our side and from the international community’s side, there is a lot of pressure on the Afghan government,” he said. “It is now the time for the Afghan government to take more responsibility and be more accountable, meaning that corruption should be wisely controlled. Otherwise the money that the Afghan government wants to be channeled through them is not going to be allocated.”

But Rondeaux says that the tough talk is more show than substance.

“It is academic at this point whether the Karzai government is capable of spending the money effectively and transparently,” she said. “The international community is looking for the door.”

This is the ninth international conference on Afghanistan since the U.S.-led intervention chased the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001. In that time, the hopes of many Afghans have been dashed time and again, as the insurgency grows, corruption flourishes and promises made are seldom realized.