Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Image Credit: Reuters

Turning a new page on the US-led plan to stabilise Afghanistan was the aim of Thursday's international conference in London. The event saw Afghan President Hamid Karzai, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in their opening statements, unanimously appealing for global support to stabilise the country.

Karzai took the opportunity to address global concerns about his government, notably the issue of corruption and the widely held view that his administration is incapable of ruling Afghanistan.

At first glance, the plan to rehabilitate Afghanistan's warring Taliban militants looks like a fresh initiative to end the bloody conflict. The idea of attracting militant foot soldiers to become involved in government provided and internationally funded rehabilitation effort sounds like a well considered next step.

This would complement the plan announced by US President Barack Obama in December to send 30,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan this year on top of more than 70,000 already there before they begin withdrawing in July 2011.

But much needs to be done to flesh out the details if this plan is to play a key role in securing a long-overdue peace.

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There are many unanswered questions, but the essential ones are as follows. To what extent can Taliban foot soldiers be separated from their leaders and involved in a new peace initiative? Will this initiative be sustainable, or will former militants go back to their old ways? What will be the fate of top Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar, who has evaded capture or killing in spite of concerted efforts by the US since the New York terrorist attacks?

There are undoubtedly no easy answers to these questions, but they cannot be easily ignored. It is impossible to tell how many foot soldiers will opt to return to the mainstream.

Part of the problem is that the US is widely believed to be preparing to leave Afghanistan within two years. Therefore the US is seen as a short-term player, while the influence of the Taliban leaders will remain. For anyone seeking to stabilise Afghanistan, the core challenge is reversing this popular view and replacing it with the notion that the influence of the US is here to stay.

To allay such apprehensions, it may indeed be vital to include some of the Taliban's top tier of leaders in a negotiated approach leading to a settlement. The movement's top leader, Mullah Omar, still shows complete dedication to supporting Al Qaida and has given no indication of a willingness to negotiate. Indeed, ahead of the London conference, a Taliban statement effectively rejected the event, showing that they are hardliners who refuse to negotiate.

However, this could be a pre-negotiation ploy, seeking the best possible terms for the Taliban to re-enter Afghanistan's mainstream politics. To that end, it is vital to continue pressing for a more open and public dialogue between Karzai and representatives of the Taliban leadership, beyond any clandestine contacts. Indeed, the road to a final settlement in Afghanistan will undoubtedly be rocky. Part of the turbulence associated with that process is set to come from the Taliban's top leaders haggling to secure the best possible terms for their eventual return to the mainstream, similar to the experience of such situations in other parts of the world.

Boost the economy

Much of the future outlook surrounding this long-drawn-out conflict will depend on the ability of the world's powers to provide a major boost to a dilapidated Afghan economy. The US and its Nato allies have already spent billions of dollars on the war effort, but they may have missed a trick: some of these funds should be diverted to the benefit of the people of Afghanistan.

Though late in the day, the plan to persuade Taliban foot soldiers to put down their weapons and rejoin mainstream society could be the missing link between combating militancy and tackling economic distress. However, the effort will only be successful if it is backed by a vigorous push to rejuvenate the economy of Afghanistan, benefiting others besides those directly involved in militancy-related causes.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.