Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

A meaningful Afghanistan conference needs civil society involvement

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

It apparently has been decided that the next international Afghanistan conference is to be held on 28 January in London. It might be followed by a second one in spring – perhaps March or April – in Kabul. But the latter is far from clear.

The UK – with the Prime Minister under immense pressure of a public opinion asking what British soldiers are dying for in Afghanistan and elections forthcoming – and the US, with no less domestic pressure, want to limit the conference’s agenda to a single issue: security sector reform and, linked to this, handing over (more) responsibility for security to the Afghan National Security Forces. This is in line with President Obama’s recent statement that he wants to get the Afghan ‘job’ done – although it has been added from Washington that this rather refers to an ‘exit strategy’ than to an ‘exit timetable’.

The chosen sequence, however, contradicts both the ideas of President Karzai who wants the first gathering held in Kabul – not least to boost his legitimacy by a new show of international support (after all the congratulations for his election) – and, more importantly, needs of the Afghan population. This includes to be asked which these needs are.

(Meanwhile, the President’s spokesman Humayun Hamidzada still said at a press conference on 24 November that Afghanistan will hold a conference on corruption in the near future that would also address reconstruction and development with Afghanistan’s major donors: ‘We are planning a major conference in Kabul to lay out our plan for the next five years.’)

In fact, if something meaningful should come out of this conference for Afghanistan itself, the chosen sequencing is the worst possible. It would have been much more logical to hold a smaller conference, possibly on the level of special envoys, in Kabul first that would kick-start an inclusive inner-Afghan consultation process about what should be discussed on the following larger, high-level conference in spring, as proposed by the UN and others.

Such a process would link the Afghan government’s agenda with the specific needs and expectations of the Afghan population in a new tarun(contract) between the Afghan government and the population. This could have been coupled with an updated, weeded-out, better prioritised version of the Afghanistan Compact agreed upon in London – which, by the way, is still valid till February 2011. It would be counterproductive to invent something completely new for London II. But this approach has been dropped now in order to play to British and US home audiences and it is not clear whether this decision still can be revised.

Amongst other things, the current timing spoils the chance that donor countries can watch first how President Karzai tackles the implementation of his many if unconcrete promises made in his 19 November inaugural speech and how his new cabinet initially performs. This would have given them a larger leverage for refining benchmarks or introducing some targeted conditionality, if needed, which, by the way, would be welcomed by many Afghans. Indeed, for many common citizens and NGO workers in Kabul and Uruzgan – which I visited recently – ‘corruption, corruption, corruption’ is an issue. They only do not like – somewhat contradictory – how ‘the foreigners’ bring it up.

This brings us to the point that even a too early London conference could still integrate elements of an inclusive consultations process. It would be better, though, that it would not be considered the last word but rather a starting point that step by step brings the Afghan government – and the international community – closer to the Afghan population again.

How can this be done? Instead of hearing speeches of some dozen international delegations, the London conference should devote a significant part of its time (or an additional day, both preferably before the government-level talks start) to listening to representatives of Afghan civil society. In contrast from previous conferences – from Bonn to The Hague –, they should sit at the main table and not be confined to venues in a secure distance with minimal time allotted to present their ideas. And governments should make sure that high-ranking people listen to them, not just desk officers who, at most, can take notes.

Even if the remaining time is short, civil society representatives that do not only speak for themselves or their particular organizations can still be determined. The international community – in particular the UN and the European Union under its current Swedish presidency – should take urgent steps and allocate resources for it.

Possible implementers are umbrella groups like the Afghan Civil Society Forum, ANCB, ACBAR, the Afghan Women’s and the Human Rights Network with their country-wide networks or the group of NGOs that recently compiled the report ‘The Cost of War’ together with Oxfam – preferably in cooperation with each other. Their member groups as well as ‘traditional’ civil society (local shuras etc.) could be invited on the provincial or at least the regional level by the UNAMA offices there, to trigger the process. In these meetings, priority issues to be discussed in London and delegates could be determined for a gathering in Kabul that, in turn, would send a delegation to London that is not hand-picked by the host country. This staggered process would ensure that not only Kabul-based groups speak for the whole of Afghanistan.

Conceded: Such a procedure might not be fully representative and inclusive in the rush up to 28 January. But it would be more representative and inclusive than just having a delegation of an Afghan government which is not exactly backed by a majority of Afghan voters.

Leading Afghan civil society organizations have record of fruitful cooperation with donor countries. Their participation as an equal partner could add a dimension to the urgently needed accountability – both by the Afghan government and by donor governments – in the implementation of programmes and projects. This should be coupled with bringing in existing and incoming elected bodies from the district (or even municipal) to the national level, for example in the form of regular hearings on issues decided in London or still pending from earlier gatherings. Furthermore, the international community should urge the Kabul government – and have it guaranteed at the forthcoming conference – that the oversight role of provincial councils (and of district councils when elected) is raised to a meaningful (and not just symbolic) level in Afghan law.

Secondly, this civil society participation would help to start a necessary broader all-Afghan consultation process on issues like the fate of the upcoming parliamentary and district council elections, the future political system of the country and the framework for a dialogue with armed insurgents. Only at the end of such a process, the Loya Jirga proposed by the President would really make sense.


Conference International