In meetings with international donors and journalists ahead of the 20 July Kabul Conference, Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal narrated an anecdote to illustrate the mismatch between the short-term aid being offered to his country and the sustainable projects that it needs. The site of the tale was an unnamed village in Marjah district of Helmund, recently the site of Operation Moshtarak, a long military operation to clear the area of insurgents. Soon after the operation, says Zakhilwal, villagers in the area were offered cash as a form of quick relief. Instead, they refused the money and asked for sustainable projects.
Whether the story is apocryphal or not, Zakhilwal’s tale underlines both his own dilemma and that of his country. Unlike the villagers of Marjah, Afghanistan and its finance minister are unwilling or unable to turn down money coming from international donors, no matter what shape it is in or how many strings might be attached. Zakhilwal’s story also demonstrates the larger challenges of the ‘Afghanisation’ that the Afghan government and the international community are trying to achieve, albeit with different goals, needs and outcomes in mind. Projected as a major step forward in the process of establishing Afghan control over the process of reconstruction of the country, the Kabul Conference was expected to discuss ways and means to transfer control of security, governance and development into Afghan hands. Key to the conference was the notion that, in the process of transition, the aid money should come under greater control of the Kabul government.
Currently, 80 percent of the aid money flowing into Afghanistan is spent directly by the donors – that is, outside the government budget. This, says the finance minister, erodes Kabul’s sovereignty, authority and ability to govern effectively. Most donors point to corruption within the government to justify spending money directly. Kabul officials have retorted by pointing out that the bulk of the corruption takes place outside the government – in the contracts and sub-contracts given to commercial firms contracted by the donors themselves. An astonishing USD 3 billion was legally taken out of the country between January 2007 and February 2010 – a sum, Zakhilwal points out, that is several times that total amount received by the Afghan government in that period. While some donors such as the ADB, World Bank, UK and the Scandinavian countries have now started routing money through the government, the single largest donor – the US – spends only five percent of its aid money through the government.
Though the principle of routing aid money through Kabul’s budget was accepted as far back as the Paris Conference of 2008, and reiterated again at the London Conference in January this year, it was never implemented. In fact, the imaginative reinvention of facts on this issue through rhetoric has been part of a consistent pattern of the international community. On the issue of aid alignment, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, led the way earlier in the year. In his quarterly report on Afghanistan in March 2010, Ban drew attention to the fact that the Afghan government had ‘urged the international community to increase contributions made through the Afghan budget to 50 per cent of its total contributions to the country over the next two years.’ He further said, ‘The participants in the London Conference supported the ambition of that goal, but did not explicitly commit themselves to it’ (emphasis added). By June, the secretary-general was looking afresh at the same facts: ‘The London Conference commitment to progressively channel financing for development through the central budget remains critical for a country in which almost 80 per cent of development assistance does not flow through the Government budget.’
In the event, the communiqué that emerged out of the Kabul Conference yet again made no commitment, restating the international community’s ‘strong support for channelling at least 50% of the development aid through the Afghan government’s core budget within two years’. Instead, the communiqué referred to Kabul’s ‘current limited capacity for the transparent absorption of funds’, and the need to enhance this. Ahead of the conference, realising that support for rerouting aid was rapidly vanishing, the Afghan government had already proffered an alternative scenario that would allow donors to make a real commitment – directing 80 percent of spending towards the Afghan government’s priorities within two years. But this too got the same rhetorical treatment: donors expressed their ‘readiness’ but made no commitment.
The issue that was embraced with greater alacrity by the international community was the transfer of control of security. Afghan forces progressively taking over security will allow the international community to start withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan or at the very least from the front lines, where there have been mounting losses. The communiqué stated the commitment of the Afghan government to a phased exercise that would lead to Afghan forces leading all operations by the end of 2014, with the aim of announcing the beginning of this transition by the end of 2010. The implication of this commitment was quickly made clear by British Prime Minister David Cameron. The withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, he stated, could start as early as next year, and ‘in 2015 there are not going to be combat troops, or large numbers of British troops, in Afghanistan.’
The international community’s assertion that it expects Afghan forces to be ready to start taking over security by the end of this year is belied by the extraneous arrangements it is making. In a move that was resisted by President Hamid Karzai and pushed in successive face-to-face meetings by the new US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, the US has finally succeeded in getting Afghanistan to accept the demand for setting up irregular armed forces, called either a Public Police Protection Force (by its supporters) or a militia (by its critics). While these might operate under the supervision of the US-led Special Forces for the time being, their authority, clout and backing are likely to make them a law unto themselves. Once the Special Forces withdraw, this could prove a lethal combination for a country still struggling to establish structures of governance.
On the issue of governance, the Kabul Conference remains little more than a plan about a plan. Rather than coming up with rigorous policies and projects to which the donors could be asked to direct their attention, the communiqué reveals that in most sectors the plans are yet to be made. An electoral-reforms strategy and an infrastructure fund will be initiated within six months; within twelve months legal-aid services will be improved, justice-sector strategies aligned, statutory basis for major crimes-and-anticorruption tribunals established, and civil-service reform strengthened. Undoubtedly some of these decisions are time-bound, but many of these deadlines are about establishing frameworks and policies rather than actual implementation.
The emphasis on prioritising Afghanistan’s needs through this conference would have been a welcome step had it not been repeated several times in recent years. The process was begun as far back as 2006 in London, where the Afghan government launched the Afghan National Development Strategy. Refined, concretised, defined and fleshed out over the following three years, the document was adopted in Paris in 2008. However, to mitigate the charge of repetition, the co-chairs of the Kabul Conference, the UN and the Afghan government, named the current conference the beginning of the ‘Kabul Process’.
So, did the Kabul Conference highlight the real priorities from among the plans and programmes? Think again. Though the Conference communiqué states that the detailed National Priority Programmes have been supported by the international community, the document goes on to state that the ‘framework of the Afghan Government’s National Priority Programmes’ will be finalised by October 2010, suggesting that the priorities are not yet in place.
As important as what went into the conference was what did not make it onto this smorgasbord of ambitions, hopes and promises. Women and children made it into one paragraph of the communiqué, in a general reiteration of women’s rights. Yet again, the concrete outcome was to prioritise benchmarks for implementation of a national women’s strategy dated 2008. Incidentally, at the London Conference in 2006 it was stated, ‘by end of 2010, the National Action Plan for Women (NAPWA) in Afghanistan will be fully implemented.’ Interestingly, while the communique called for review of Afghan laws that were not in compliance with the UN Convention Against Corruption, there was no mention of any similar review for compliance with Afghanistan’s commitments to international conventions on gender equality and protection of women’s rights. More shocking perhaps was the omission of any mention of transitional justice, the attempt to hold accountable the perpetrators of past war crimes. Though UN Secretary-General Ban mentioned the need for ‘accountability for serious violations of human rights – those happening now and those that took place in the past’, the issue of transitional justice was conveniently overlooked in the communiqué, despite a concerted campaign by a coalition of civil-society groups who have defined a coherent approach to the issue over the past two years.
Still, to minimise the achievements of Afghanistan in organising this conference would be to belittle enormous efforts. The fact that the event passed without incident – albeit Kabul citizens were restricted from free movement for two days – was no mean achievement. More than 70 countries and their delegations arrived, attended and left Kabul with seemingly no major glitches. But it would be a mistake to confuse organisational arrangement with substance. Perhaps the one concrete outcome came immediately ahead (and outside the crowded agenda) of the conference, when some heavy leaning by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed through the long-awaited trade-and-transit treaty between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which was widely welcomed by most delegations. This is now expected to pave the way for allowing road transport through to the Indian market, though doubtless the devil will lie in the details of the agreement.
Despite the breathless expectancy of the media in India and Pakistan, there was no bilateral meeting between the two Southasian powers on the sidelines of the Kabul Conference. Instead both delegations used the occasion to make oblique references to each other’s role. The Pakistan foreign minister, S M Qureshi, insisted that there was no reason for new formal or informal regional arrangements, because the status quo was working well – an astonishing statement in light of the fact that there has been little or no regional progress. Undoubtedly this is an attempt to keep greater control over any political process unfolding within Afghanistan, especially that involving reconciliation of the Afghan government with insurgents groups including the Taliban. A strengthened regional approach would erode the leverage the Pakistan government can exert on a bilateral basis. On his part, Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna repeated the Indian stand on the need to deal with the sources of support, sustenance and sanctuary for extremists from outside Afghanistan – apparently not noticing that the communiqué had already ‘applauded the joint efforts by Afghanistan and its regional partners’ in this regard.
If this begs the question as to what the Kabul Conference was all about, then the answer was already available from the UN special representative in Afghanistan, Staffan di Mistura, who declared ahead of the event that holding the conference was in itself an achievement. Having set ‘a crowded calendar of events’ this year as an end in itself, the international community can now declare that the Kabul Conference has fulfilled its purpose. However, the last word on the conference might have come from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the managing director of the World Bank. Addressing the Kabul Conference, she said, ‘I propose that we think long and hard before having more conferences until we are sure of seeing more results.’