Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Déjà Vu at Kabul Conference

I wrote a piece today in the Huffington Post on the conference held in Afghanistan. I have posted it below, but I encourage you to also visit the site by clicking here or on the title.

Déjà Vu at Kabul Conference

Today, Kabul played host to over 40 foreign ministers and other international leaders representing the broad coalition of the "unwilling, but we can't abandon Afghanistan" group of countries. This event -- the ninth such conference in nine years (but the first in Afghanistan) -- ended with a typical long communique representing an abstract agreement reached by the parties. Here is an excerpt from the front of the document:

The consensus of the nation is being translated into a vision through a concrete program of action for the renewal of the state.

This sentence is emblematic of the wonkish if not vacuous nature of the agreement. Afghanistan has become an intellectual playground and industry for politicians, the media, military, development agencies -- and the list goes on. Yet the result has been failure. It is harsh, but unfortunately it is the truth. The Kabul conference was yet another example of déjà vu. The same people. The same process. The same platitudes. No new ideas means it is impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Over the past nine years, nine such conferences have been held: Bonn 2001; Berlin 2004; London 2006; Rome 2007; Paris 2008; Moscow 2009; The Hague 2009; London 2010; and Kabul 2010. There have been some positive outcomes from these conferences, most principally the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) drafted in 2005 and revised in 2008. Yet, too often these events have served as glossy photo-ops that gloss over the real and grave challenges that Afghanistan presents to the international community. June was the deadliest month on record for NATO forces since the beginning of the conflict. Each successive year the communiques issued have emphasized the need for security. Today, President Karzai's plan for a 2014 'transfer of military leadership' was endorsed by the countries present at the conference. It is hard to see why this agreement will have the requisite effect of shifting momentum from the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan.

Another outcome of the conference is the continued donor support for the country. Since 2001, an entire Afghanistan industry of various sectors has come together in Kabul based on foreign aid. The Independent covered this well in a comprehensive article last year.

The high degree of wastage of aid money in Afghanistan has long been an open secret. In 2006, Jean Mazurelle, the then country director of the World Bank, calculated that between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of aid was "badly spent." "The wastage of aid is sky-high," he said. "There is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal."

The thousands of foreign aid workers, consultants and others receiving part of the largesse, do have an impact for sure. Yet, it is more and more difficult to justify spending $30,000 per month (at least) to pay, house, and secure a foreign aid worker, who has limited movement and in the end limited impact. Moreover, a significant amount of aid goes towards abstract ideas such as gender mainstreaming and aid effectiveness. It isn't that aid effectiveness for example isn't a good idea. Quite simply put, hiring another UN coordination officer is just not the answer for more effective aid.

Afghanistan continues to be mired in tremendous conflict, still ranked 6th on Foreign Policy's failed states index, with the lowest GDP per capita outside of sub-saharan Africa. The 31-point communique released after today's Kabul conference will not solve this situation. The answer then is not to cancel all financial support for the country or withdraw all military forces. It is, however, necessary to reposition completely the failed strategy so far. Instead of focusing on the minutiae of intellectual aid projects, funding should be diverted simply to large-scale infrastructure projects that will bring tangible results to the Afghan people, including boosting employment (away from the Taliban): roads, electricity, schools and hospitals.

Militarily? The solutions are not so clear. What is apparent is that the Afghan population and especially the plurality Pashto population, are becoming more sympathetic to the Taliban. An increased US presence has not been working to strengthen control over the country. Ultimately Afghans need to take the lead, and local security needs to be the focus of training. Separate the war on terrorism from security and stability in Afghanistan. The US should continue, as Fareed Zakariya pointed out, to chase the remaining international terrorists remaining in the country, through special forces, and other surgical strikes. Yet, it should extricate itself and empower completely Afghan forces to secure their own cities, with only rearguard support. As difficult of a prospect that this is, it is the only way forward.

Today's conference, unfortunately represented more of the same for the future instead of a sharp break with the past, and that can only mean continued disappointment in Afghanistan.

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