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London conference says: Bring (some) Afghan Taliban in from the cold

LONDON — They came. They talked. They agreed.  Foreign ministers from 70 countries met here today and an hour ahead of schedule agreed on the way to make Afghanistan finally work.  That is about as quick as it gets. 

To give you a frame of reference, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spent the previous three days in Belfast trying to break an impasse on the final piece of the Northern Irish political puzzle — with no result — and Northern Ireland's problems are nothing compared to Afghanistan's. 

Perhaps the speed of today's meeting was because the final agreement was so vague.  At a post-meeting press conference Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband explained the key points in these soundbites: "2010 is the decisive year." "A civilian surge to match the military one." "Upgrade of international community's relationship" with Afghanistan President Karzai.  Miliband only verbalizes in think-tank management speak, his summary of the event was "The biggest deliverable of all" coming out of today's agreement was "coherence."

What is pending delivery is the Taliban.  Those Taliban fighters who want to come in from the cold will be welcome.  "Reintegration and reconciliation" is the term of art used by the diplomats here, along with "expanding the political space." 

The conference agreed on finding money to put fighters to work and other means to provide security for their families then membership in the Taliban.

This sounds reasonable, and given the experience in Iraq, possible.  But among those addressing the conference was a group of Afhgan women representing 200 women's organizations: local co-ops, education groups etc.  They were concerned that inviting the Taliban in from the cold would spell doom for whatever progress has been made on women's rights since the Taliban were driven from power.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the issue insisting there would be a women's action plan.  She added that Taliban joining the reintegration program would have to renounce violence and Al Qaeda and endorse the Afghan constitution.  That document includes the U.N.'s declaration of human rights which includes equal rights for women.  It is easier to imagine a Taliban fighter putting down his AK-47 and turning his back on Osama then it is to think of him seeing women as equal.

Extraordinary: Afghanistan's major human rights issue sits on the greatest cultural fault line between West and radical Islam.  The success of the plan agreed today may not depend on the amount of cash dispersed to Pashtun tribal leaders ... but on their willingness to let their daughters go to school and then get a job.  Or on the willingness of America and its allies to turn a blind eye to continued female oppression in the dry valleys of Pashtunistan.

The next space to watch on the never ending Afghanistan story will be at a Loya Jirga, a national tribal council, to be held in the spring.  It will be interesting to see how many former Taliban leaders attend.