For a country that had been neglected by the outside world for so long, Afghanistan has not been short of friends since 2001. In June, the French government will host the fifth international conference dedicated to the country’s reconstruction. The conference is a “last-chance” saloon for Afghanistan and donor governments. If the international community does not re-prioritize goals and rethink its funding strategy, failure beckons.
After six-and-a half years of warfare and a massive aid effort, the struggle to bring stabilize Afghanistan continues, as shown by the recent assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai.
Throughout large parts of the country, security remains tenuous. Terrorist incidents show that the Taliban and the estimated dozen other insurgent groups have now re-entered the fight. Using asymmetric tactics – suicide bombings and threats to the local population – they have forced many aid agencies to withdraw. 2007 saw at least 6,000 people killed, most of them civilians.
Power, meanwhile, is held not by President Karzai’s government, but by local military commanders, who have differing degrees of loyalty to the central government and whose ability to control subordinates is often limited.
In the areas where the central government can make a difference, its actions have often been slow and open to charges of corruption. As a result, the government has lost the support and confidence of most ordinary Afghans.
To put things back on track, the Paris Conference in June needs to re-think the world’s support for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. The event will be attended by over 80 governments and organizations, including key funders: the US government, European governments and many regional partners like India and Japan.
First, the Paris Conference must achieve a tightening of the development agenda. Too much money and time has been spent on too many projects. In this, the Afghan government is less to blame than its international helpmates, who are only too happy to remain uncoordinated and focus on a myriad of sectors and programmes.
But from now on, the Afghan government will need to focus on a few sectors. Core areas of focus should be: security, police-and-justice reforms, education and health, trade and agriculture.
The conference should not be about upping the amount of money pledged, but ensuring that funds go to the right priorities. The accountability mechanism that really works is the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which has the necessary accounting and auditing standards built into it: donors should pool their money into this.
Second, the international community must hold the Afghan government and itself to commitments already agreed – such as the vetting process for governors, police chiefs and other senior officials.
Building workable and accountable institutions must trump placing relatives and loyalists in positions of power. Ensuring that the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are clean and fair will be a critical test of the government commitment to good governance.
To this end, the Conference must reverse the trend which has seen the shrinking of funds for transparency-enhancing initiatives. In a fragile democracy, it is important to support several ways of holding the government to account. Donors should fund support civil society and media to develop the necessary capacity to act as ‘watch-dogs’. Leaders must also issue a strong statement that building accountable, non-corrupt institutions matter. And donors should ask the Afghan government to put its entire budget and all its contracts and licenses/ tender deals on-line.
By now, it is clear that there can be no lasting stability in either Afghanistan or Pakistan until the two countries move away from mutual suspicion and policies of interference in each others’ affairs. This, in turn, means dealing with Pakistan-India relations.
The Paris Conference should inaugurate a series of initiatives to improve relations in the region, and put money behind development in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Appointing an Assistance Envoy, like the role Tony Blair plays in the Middle East, would be a start.
All is not lost in Afghanistan. However, a new strategy, including strengthened relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is required. To turn things around, the Paris Conference must hold the Afghan government’s feet to the fire while ensuring that the international community coalesces around a tightly prioritised strategy.
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