Handle with care: A fragile Afghanistan in Tokyo

By Omar Samad on July 18, 2012

Ten years after the first Afghanistan reconstruction conference was held in Tokyo in 2002, Japan will host a second donors' gathering on July 8 to formulate a strategy to ensure the sustainable development of Afghanistan beyond 2014 - the date set for NATO's withdrawal. Tokyo 1 took place at a time of high hope, a clean slate, and enthusiasm for engagement, but almost no assessment of the gargantuan rebuilding task to be undertaken in a country devastated by more than two decades of warfare. There also was no insurgency to worry about. Tokyo 2 is happening at a time of uncertainty and donor fatigue, but at least the stakeholders now have a vast (and expensive) database to work with. However, the most conspicuous feature Afghans and donors will face next week and beyond, is the fragility permeating the Afghan security, political and economic sectors. Furthermore, the Taliban are now viewed as a real threat to stability.

This is not to say that Afghanistan, a country with a strong society and a weak state, is about to collapse or be engulfed in civil war, as some dramatically predict, but it is to highlight the very real concerns that Afghans have about their predicament, knowing that too much money (and generosity) resulted in less than desired outcomes on all three fronts. Not only are there serious lessons, especially in regards to contracting and prioritization, to be learned about the international side of the engagement since 2002, but also about the Afghan absorption, management and accountability sides as well.

Although the Afghan economy's growth rate has hovered around an average of 8% per annum for the past nine years, income per capita has tripled to more than $520, life expectancy and child and maternal deaths have improved considerably, more than 8 million children have access to education, domestic revenue has increased eight-fold since 2002, and the country's telecommunication and energy connections are impressive, there is still angst about an unresponsive government, a donor-led economy, and a nagging insurgency.

The Afghan ministerial delegation, led by then-interim chairman Hamid Karzai, headed to Tokyo 1 with a short wish list to present to a receptive community of donors, but it did not prioritize key sectors like agriculture, power and water, or institution and capacity building. The main focus was on road building. It took nearly five more years to focus on agriculture and power. The emphasis this time around should be on infrastructure, institution and human capital buildup

Initially, the footprint adopted for rebuilding and securing Afghanistan was light and small. With the re-emergence of Taliban militias from their cross-border hideouts by 2005, and a realization that the impoverished nation needed a more robust effort to make up for two generations of destruction and lack of development in all sectors, a heavier footprint and grander financial investment became necessary to make a difference.

As aid and troop inflows reached new heights by 2010-11, economic, political and public opinion expediencies in major donor nations resulted in a strategic about-face to lower expenditures and start the withdrawal process - some would argue prematurely - anchored in hopes that a half-cooked reconciliation process aimed partly at re-integrating the Taliban would be easily reached. In a country where more than 95% of the local economy is dependent on military spending, American development aid alone has been cut nearly in half this year, from $4.1 billion to $2.5 billion.

Today, as donors gather in Tokyo 2 to pledge once again to support the Afghan economy beyond 2014, Afghanistan stands at a precarious crossroads, either leading toward business-as-usual, a path to serious reform and overhaul, or worsening conditions.

There are two critical goals:

1. Avoiding a repeat of the early 1990s collapse of the communist regime, partly as a result of money supplies running dry from Moscow;

2. Avoiding a repeat of the last 10 years in terms of weak strategizing, weak coordination, less-than-adequate prioritization, mismanagement, waste, graft, nepotism, impunity, and fraud. The fact that after all these years, Afghan state institutions are still having major difficulties with the expenditure of their development budget is a sign of structural dissonance, low capacity, and weak middle-to-upper management skills. Unprofessional auditing systems have given rise to political manipulation.

The immediate remedy is not just about channeling a greater percentage of foreign aid through government channels (although that has to be a consideration), it is about competent leadership at the helm of weak institutions who can restructure and assure fiscal discipline by adopting result-oriented strategies.

The trust factor has eroded so deeply between government and the public, and between the donors and Afghan authorities, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to initiate real reforms, fight corruption (starting at higher levels) and adopt better governance practices. The rebound requires a major effort on the part of the Afghan government to implement widespread consultation and participatory decision-making in order to rebuild confidence.

It is expected that discussions at Tokyo 2 will also focus on regional integration and cooperation. While Afghan security challenges are fed by neighborhood players, all efforts should be made to prevent an economic relapse post-2014 and facilitate a democratic and peaceful transfer of power.

As Afghanistan aims to exploit its underground mineral wealth and oil and gas reserves - to a large extent subject to relative peace and stability - and serve as the regional linkage for the "new silk road," it will be incumbent upon the authorities to adopt laws on access to information, and set up credible watchdog functions, and for all sides to follow strict rules pertaining to transparency, accountability, and environmental and cultural sensitivity.

In the Afghan context, reform requires political will, a competent and committed team, as well as a belief in good governance and rule of law, in creating effective partnerships across international, communal and private, public alignments, and in designing smart and sustainable projects that take into consideration the needs and rights of communities, including women, girls, and minorities.

The Afghan government will reportedly make a request for almost $4 billion of annual aid until 2025, and will agree to sign off on a "Mutual Accountability Framework" spelling out obligations on all sides.

Tokyo 2 needs to make use of best practices and agree on what constitutes a priority program. Donors also need to assure sustainability of all projects proposed by the Afghan side as part of the more than 20 programs that will require funding. There will be a requirement to put in place functional follow-up mechanisms and track established benchmarks.

While the international community takes yet another step to affirm its long-term commitment to Afghanistan -- following the Chicago NATO summit in May and the Bonn 2 conference last December -- Afghanistan will need to give assurances that it is adopting a reformist agenda that not only would enable all transitions to succeed but would make Afghanistan more self-sufficient within a more stable region. Together they need to reduce the risks inherent to fragility.

Omar Samad is Senior Afghanistan Expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. Formerly, he served as Afghanistan's Ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009). He was spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry between 2001-2004. The views expressed here are his own.



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