Afghanistan Needs More Than Conferences

My blog post for CNN.

The one-day Kabul Conference concluded last week with reiteration of promises made by the international community. There was nothing very new – except the fact that insurgents could not succeed in firing any rockets that day in Kabul, contrary to previous such events. Though the conference was given much coverage in the international media, Kabulis didn’t have any expectations about the meeting. Heavy security prevented any untoward incident and foiled some plans by those arrested a day before the conference.

All foreign ministers and representatives were given four minutes each to speak. And it was full of repeated words of promises. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai organized the Kabul Conference. I liked some of the speeches, including the four minutes of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who talked about decentralization of power in Afghanistan as a factor toward solution of conflict. Many of the speakers praised the Karzai administration and had a strong belief in his government as if everything will go smoothly.

The only critical speech came from the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Dr. Sima Samar, who expressed concern on the process of Taliban reconciliation and criticized the government for the state of human rights in Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan will take responsibility of security by 2014. It was more like a wish than a pledge. And what if Afghan National Security Forces are unable to take control by then? Karzai also demanded more control over the aid from the international community, up to 50 percent. But according to a recent media report published in Daily Outlook Afghanistan – the newspaper I am affiliated with – most of the ministries could only spend 70 percent to 80 percent of their annual budget for last year due to lack of capacity and mismanagement. Lack of capacity and mismanagement are the causes. Although the reports and presentations looked impressive at the Kabul Conference, the fact is that the practical situation is way different.

All spoke of good governance, but nobody talked specifically about the huge corruption in Kabul. Karzai said he will fight against administrative corruption. But there have not been any practical achievement of this since he was re-elected in a controversial vote last year.

A recent report said $4.2 billion in cash has gone out of Kabul International Airport, most of which has been brokered into safe accounts and luxury villas of Dubai. The fight against corruption was top priority of Karzai while taking the oath for a second term. In the first weeks of his new term, there were some symbolic moves. Soon after the Cabinet formation, a new anti-corruption task force was established, but with no achievement so far.

The U.S. media and Congress should pressure the Obama administration for accountability and transparency of the Karzai government in Kabul. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had once – during the controversial presidential election count in Kabul – said the U.S. civilian aid to Afghanistan in the future will be tied to reform in governance. The international community should pressure the Afghan government for more responsibility and accountability. There has to be serious efforts against corruption.

All the plans and projects presented at the Kabul Conference were within the framework of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. But this entire strategy needs a full review. The international community should ensure that development aid should also go to peaceful areas. The places with military presence have received the entire development budget, but the most peaceful areas have been neglected. And troubles are increasing now in central and northern peaceful areas.

After the Kabul Conference, state media said the international community supports Karzai’s reconciliation efforts with Taliban. Karzai called the insurgents “angry brothers” at the peace jirga in June. But he used the term “our common enemy” at the Kabul Conference.

The “reconciliation efforts” are complex and unclear. And most importantly, there is not a national consensus on this. Political leaders from other ethnic groups in Afghanistan are already leaving Karzai. For instance, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh has started a grass-roots campaign against Karzai’s approach in “reconciliation” efforts. Important ethnic political figures such as Haji Muhammad Muhaqiq and Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum already have turned away from Karzai, and they supported him in the presidential elections.

The U.S. is victim of wrong steps taken in 2001 and later. Afghanistan has been a complete failure during the last decade. Change of command or fancy conferences will not bring success, but a fundamental change in the whole process and strategy might.

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