The tone makes the music, we say here in Germany – ie: it is not only what you say but how you say it. Despite plenty of efforts by the organisers, four German political foundations, to make the 34 elected Afghan delegates to the Bonn Civil Society Forum feel comfortable there were a number of dissonances on its day one. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig reports from the former German capital.
Probably the least problem was that the auditorium in Beethoven Hall was more than half empty, although it definitely did not look nice. Security concerns might have contributed to a restrictive invitation policy. Then, the Pashto part on the banner with the conference’s slogan brimmed with misprints. More importantly, Hans-Gert Pöttering, MEP and chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, lengthily greeted the most prominent German guests, former defence minister Peter Struck and German AfPak envoy Michael Steiner and the other foundations and present ambassadors and other ‘excellencies’ before finally turning to the Afghan guests although they were supposed to be the star guests of the meeting.
Also some of the well-intended messages sounded hollow or contradictory. All German speakers emphasised that Afghanistan’s civil society is a ‘success story’ and that supporting and strengthening it is particularly important facing the ‘reduction of the international presence’ in 2014. Steiner, extensively praised by Pöttering for his passion for Afghanistan and its civil society, left after his own speech. Probably he already had met the civil society representatives, but if conferences as this one are as much about gestures as about content, this was not sensitive.
Steiner also claimed wrongly that such a conference would not have been possible ten years ago, during Bonn 1, because Afghan ‘civil society was destroyed by the Taleban regime’ – while in fact there had been a parallel civil society conference in Königswinter in 2001, organised by the Böll Foundation with support from SwissPeace and Citha Maass of SWP in Berlin and although Barry Salam, one of the two speakers of the delegation who also will read the its message to the foreign ministers conference on Monday, had made clear before that there very well was an Afghan civil society during the Taleban time and that it had effectively run the country, from what was left of education to humanitarian work. (Well, there were also the UN and international NGOs.)
Last but not least, Steiner’s line of argumentation that after 2014 ‘we cannot justify our civilian engagement anymore with the argument that have troops on the ground’. If that was the official argument for it, it is no wonder that, as ex-minister Struck put it, ‘the German people become more and more distanced from the situation in Afghanistan’.
As so often, the analysis part was the clearest when the civil society reps took the floor: that the international community has focussed ‘on persons rather than institutions’ in Afghanistan and that, as a result, the country is ’controlled by powerful people who in the end of the day derive their power from [positions in] the government’ [a somewhat blurred criticism of warlordism] and that ‘we need to change Afghanistan into a country that runs on systems, responsible and accountable’; that there is ‘stronger violence in poverty than in terrorism and drugs’ and a lack of proper jobs for the youth; that ‘the civilian aspects of transition’ are ‘more important’ than its military ones. And as a female delegate from Maimana put it: ‘When there are institutions in Kabul, do not assume that they exist all over Afghanistan. If you heard how it looks like outside of it, you would cry.’
At the same time the picture painted was a bit too rosy at occasions, surely driven by the attempt of not telling a too negative story, as here: ‘Today we live in a country which is a progressing democracy, despite all challenges.’ As defence minister Wardak, also many in civil society want modern equipment for the ANSF, including an air force (but also more human rights training for them), while criticising that these forces will be financially unsustainable after 2014.
Some of the messages, or what Steiner called ‘requests’, were powerful: on talks with the Taleban, transition, civilian casualties and transitional justice. ‘Any peace deal that leads to the violation of basic rights [… or] the damaging of the road map towards democracy […] will lead to more disturbances and war. We also want a more responsible handling of the war […] because of civilian casualties. […] The rights of Afghan victims need to be respected; we keep forgetting about transitional justice and about remembering the people who suffered’. Enteqal needs to be ‘assessed once more’ and civil society included in this ‘on all levels’ and that ‘although the international community has lost its patience with us a bit [the Bonn2 conference] is a unique opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to stay not only militarily, but also in the civilian [sphere] so that there is no return to the dark ages of the past’.
Suraya Parlika was the only one who touched on problems in the political system in a more detailed way: that ‘democracy, pluralism and the freedom of the media’ must be defended, SNTV changed into proportional representation and that there is a lack of ‘strong political parties’ and that the international community had neglected democratic civil society and political organisations. She also spoke in favour of creating ‘civil society networks’ in the region and cautioned high hopes on mining ‘as long as there is no ‘responsible government’. Their demand for international community support for civil society remained very general, without concrete ideas.
Many other ‘requests’ also were submitted in a language that will make it easy for politicians to say: ‘But we are doing this already.’ This is not to say that there was nothing new yesterday – we often have argued, and continue doing so, that the problem in Afghanistan is that while the analysis often is accurate conclusions drawn from it are not implemented.
Steiner’s response on Taleban talks was the most clear and interesting one: ‘We don’t just want peace, we want a principled peace, not one at all costs’. ‘Fundamental principles for the peace process’ must be that it is ‘Afghan-led, [and that] it cannot be done by someone from outside’, that the process ‘must be inclusive’ and that ‘it doesn’t help us if one part of Afghan society agrees with another part of Afghan society. […] We need an agreement in which all parts of Afghan society recognise themselves’. He also defined what had once been called ‘red lines’ (he did not use that term): on the Taleban side, an agreement must entail a renunciation of violence, cutting of ties with al-Qaida and respect for the current constitution, including its ‘rights part and of course the rights of women’. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s independence must be endorsed by the region. Finally he stated that ‘only a peace process that respects these principles will be supported by the international community. I think there is a consensus [on this] in the international community.’
On another topic, the German envoy said that ‘it is also important that the Government of Afghanistan is increasingly responsive’ to its country’s civil society. There still is room for improvement: Fahim Hakim, the facilitator of the civil society elections and AIHRC commissioner, was not able to hold his scheduled speech in Bonn yesterday. He was absent, and there was no official explanation given. But it transpired that the presidential office had blocked his participation, as retaliation to what it sees as his manipulation of those elections. Organisers insisted however that everything was done properly and transparently but that some who lost in the election found their defeat difficult to take.
The proposal of the evening was to make the civil society steering committee that had organised the elections for the Bonn civil society forum and the drafting of the message to the governmental conference a permanent body, offer it as a oversight mechanism to the use of foreign funding and to demand the disclosure of all contracts. It did not come from the Afghans, though, but from an international participant. But will Afghan civil society dare to occupy the JCMB?
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020