LONDON - How can the hard war in Afghanistan finally be won?
That is the perplexing question facing Afghan leaders and 60 foreign ministers including Canada's Lawrence Cannon when they meet at a London conference on Thursday.
No one pretends the war is going well: casualties are up, public support in coalition countries is down, and ever-bolder Taliban rebels have successfully attacked the centre of Kabul, power base of the feeble central government led by President Hamid Karzai. Al-Qaida leaders, on the run for eight years, have regrouped, their tentacles grasping beyond their base near the Pakistan-Afghan border.
The conflict is at a crossroads, with the United States and its NATO allies sending 37,000 more troops in a bid to blunt the Taliban's momentum as the Afghan government seeks financial help with ambitious plans to "Afghanize" the conflict by taking over security duties in the next five years.
The conference will see the unveiling of an ambitious plan to sap the Taliban insurgency by convincing some of its lower- and mid-level fighters to lay down their weapons in exchange for money, job training and other financial incentives.
It is not clear if the plan to persuade Taliban fighters who are not linked to al-Qaida to give up their weapons and join the political process - a centrepiece of the conference agenda - will be successful. Taliban leaders say the plan is doomed.
The Afghan government plans to offer jobs, vocational training and other financial incentives to Taliban soldiers willing to switch sides. The goal is to reach out to 20,000 to 35,000 insurgents - but skeptics doubt whether large numbers would desert at a time when many insurgents believe they are winning.
Karzai's government has tried several times to entice the Taliban leadership to the peace table - initiatives that had met with a cool reception from Washington and Ottawa.
Afghan envoys met last year with representatives of insurgent commanders in Dubai in talks encouraged by the Saudi government, which played a large behind-the-scenes role in trying to forge a compromise.
The emissaries reportedly approached Mullah Omar, the elusive spiritual head of the Taliban movement, as well as notorious commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. They sent observers to the meeting and stuck with their demand that all foreign troops must withdraw from Afghanistan before peace talks could begin.
Canada currently has about 2,800 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission supporting Karzai's government. The Canadian presence dates back to 2002.
Early in the mission, the Conservative government in Ottawa dismissed negotiations with the Taliban. More recently, Canadian officials have left the door open to negotiations provided insurgents lay down their weapons.
Canadian cabinet ministers have said peace overtures were the responsibility of the Afghan government. Behind the scenes, however, Afghan officials complained that the attempted negotiations received no international support.
Some militants believe they can outlast western forces, which may be called home due to budgetary restraints and ebbing public enthusiasm for the mission. President Barack Obama says he plans to start withdrawing some U.S. troops by July 2011. The Canadian military's combat mission in Afghanistan is also scheduled to end in 2011.
The London conference is expected to endorse a new timetable for expanding Afghan security forces and giving them control of various parts of the country as part of a plan to reduce western troop levels by the middle of next year if possible.
The reconstruction effort is getting a boost.
NATO named Mark Sedwill, who was Britain's ambassador to Kabul, to be its new civilian representative in Afghanistan on Tuesday. He will be charged with administering reconstruction projects and act as a civilian counterpart to the military commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans to boost its troop strength, in order to provide more training for Afghan forces, and to nearly double Germany's reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, increasing it to $605 million per year from $310 million.
Despite gloomy reports from the battlefield, there are glimmers of hope - with polls showing most Afghans now blame the Taliban, not western forces, for the bloodshed and instability, a reversal from just a year earlier.
"The conference will be a major opportunity for Afghanistan to explain to the rest of the world our plans for reconciliation and reintegration," Karzai said in Turkey on Tuesday. "Afghanistan is in the frontline of the war on terror. The Afghan people are giving daily sacrifices in this struggle."
Cannon, who will represent Canada, said: "Holding this conference demonstrates the international community's will to work with the new Afghan government to deliver a co-ordinated political, civil and military effort to counter the insurgency and provide good governance and development for the people of Afghanistan."
The diplomats will discuss ways to channel more international aid directly through Afghan ministries while, at the same time, working to curb systematic graft and bribery inside the government.
Analysts believe the troop surge ordered by Obama and new tactics aimed at winning over ordinary Afghans pushed by McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, may blunt the Taliban's recent gains.
Michael Codner, director of the Military Sciences Department at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the additional troops may convince on-the-fence Afghans not to back the Taliban.
"It is quite likely the surge could bring a tipping point in the right direction rather than having it muddle along forever," he said. "The situation before looked pretty feeble and doomed."
Codner said the number of troops being added is adequate for the task they face.
He cautioned that public support for the war, at least in Britain, has dropped because there is little confidence in Brown's assertion that the fighting will help protect British towns and cities from al-Qaida attacks.
"There's a great deal of skepticism," Codner said. "That's because the mission is not clear. The government is saying it is direct security, that al-Qaida will set up there again if we don't do this, but unfortunately the public feels if we do these operations, we'll get an asymmetric attack at home, as in the July 7 bombings."
He was referring to the July 7, 2005, attacks on the London transit system that killed 52 people. The co-ordinated bombings by radicalized British Muslims were blamed by some on Britain's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The long-range goal is to transform Afghanistan into a relatively stable country with a functioning, credible government and no camps or canyons where al-Qaida's fugitive leaders can hide and plot.
The likelihood of immediate success: next to nil.
Even if things work out, it will take several years at least for poorly paid and loosely trained Afghan security forces and police to be ready to take control of their country, bled dry by on-and-off warfare for the past three decades.
LONDON - How can the hard war in Afghanistan finally be won?