Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Bonn2 and Civil Society: An Afghan election and German events (amended)

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

One week to go to the international Bonn 2 conference, and even less to the Civil Society Forum (CSF) on 2 and 3 November. The first delegates and representatives of Afghan civil society organisations (which is not the same) are trickling in, also for a whole string of events directly linked – or in opposition – to the main governmental conference with around a hundred delegations that taking place here in Germany. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig gives an overview of what is happening in the host country.

Two developments are to report from the Afghan side. First, the 34 delegates for the Bonn CSF have meanwhile been elected in Kabul (see the list of participating organisations here). They are almost evenly divided between women (16) and men (18) as well as between the provinces and Kabul and include some known faces but even more lesser-known ones (see the full list here).
From amongst this group, the two participants who will present the organisations’ statement to the governmental conference on 5 December have already been chosen: Selay Ghaffar – she works fort he Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) – and Barry Salaam, a well-known Afghan journalist who works for Radio Good Morning Afghanistan. (The other delegates will attend the conference at observers, sitting on a gallery – a slight improvement to earlier conferences.) Secondly, the ‘Message of the civil society’ to Bonn 2 to be presented at the governmental conference has already been published on 23 November but not been picked up broadly by the media. (You can read it here, and we will look at the two developments more in detail in a separate blog.)

The following para has been amended on 1 December:  A group of civil society organisations, calling itself the Civil Society Jirga, had tried to build up pressure through the Afghan government to add four extra delegates from their ranks to the civil society forum in Bonn but has not succeeded. (We had earlier said that the four had been added to the 34-member delegation.) But claims that this jirga had been excluded from the electoral process in Kabul have been rejected by organisers – they report that people from the jirga had been present at the two meetings on 20 September and 20 October during which the delegates were elected and the statement for Bonn was drafted. One of them had indeed run as a candidate but failed to win a sufficient number of votes. So, the campaign about the alleged lack of transparency and inclusiveness of the civil society election seems to be more an issue of personal vanity. It would not be surprising, though, if the official Afghan ‘state delegation’, as it is called now and the composition of which still seems to change on a daily basis, might include people from the civil society jirga.

Bonn2-linked civil society events in Germany started on 10 November when a group of Europe-based NGOs launched its position paper ‘International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn: Priorities for action’ (read it here) in Berlin. The authors include VENRO (the umbrella organisation of German developmental NGOs which also has an Afghanistan Working Group with 14 organisations that are active in the country, see here), ENNA (the European network of NGOs working in Afghanistan which has no German member, the link to it here) and 18 individual international organisations, including Action Aid, DACAAR, Madera and Oxfam. VENRO, acting as the host, says in its own press statement on the occasion that the ‘withdrawal of the Bundeswehr and other international troops from Afghanistan must not be a withdrawal from responsibility for the war-ridden country’, that a future international engagement needs to be focussed on the needs of the Afghan population and that ‘we need to participate in building-up a self-confident civil society and to back our partners on the ground over the long term’. It also supports the demand of Afghan CSOs, and women in particular, to be included in Afghan-led peace initiatives.VENRO also has supported the election process for the Bonn CSF delegates in Kabul but opted out of a direct role in organising the forum itself, apparently in order to avoid being too closely identified with a government-financed process and to keep the option open to be critical about it. In cooperation with the German-based journalists network, it further organises a workshop on 30 November/1 December in Bonn, bringing together Afghan and international media people with the focus on taking stock of where Afghan media stand today, how to strengthen its independent media and which role the latter can play to promote civil society (see the programme here).This point came up already at the 23 November conference in Berlin organised by Heinrich Böll Foundation, which mainly brought together its Afghan partners and dedicated one panel to the development of Afghanistan’s media. There, Najiba Ayubi, the director of the Killid media group, said that there were 47 TV and 150 radio stations in Afghanistan currently ‘most of which call themselves independent’ but ‘not a handful of which really were independent’. She said that ‘tanzimi media’ were becoming stronger, that the government – which opposes the transformation of state broadcaster RTA into a public broadcaster since many years – still controlled 86 media outlets and that the Ministry for Information and Culture, ‘under the pressure of the mullas’, tried to increase ‘censorship and limitations’ for the media in general. Ayubi also criticised how government agencies stull restrict access to information to journalists and that women still face many obstacles if they want to work in this field. International support to independent media, she said, basically stopped in 2006.

As an illustration of, in particular, Afghan’s men’s ambivalent position, a representative of Tolo TV’s production unit showed clips of a male audience almost flipping out to the song and dance of a female artist while former Herat governor Ismail Khan, under shouts of ‘Allah Takbir’, condemned entertainment programmes like ‘Afghan Star’ as an insult to the ‘blood of the martyrs of jihad’.
Other HBS partners present at the conference included the Afghan Civil Society Forum, one of the seven large umbrella groups that participated in the delegate selection for Bonn (represented by Aziz Rafiee who had been co-chairman of the first Bonn civil society conference in 2001 and also in Berlin 2004 but has not been elected to the CSF in Bonn this time), the AIHRC (Soraya Sobhrang and Fahim Hakim who also acted as facilitator of the process in Kabul that led to the election of the 34 CSO delegates for Bonn) and Kabul-based 8 Sobh daily (Sanjar Sohail). Former UN SRSG Tom Koenigs, now a Green Party MP and head of the German Bundestag’s human rights committee, can be counted among them, too – HBF is close to the Greens.

It was Aziz Rafiee how made two important points. First, he stated, that ‘more democracy is the only solution’ for Afghanistan’s many problems. This is very much in opposition to what many Western policy makers believe when confronting their countries’ failure in the ten years involvement in the latest Afghanistan intervention. He was shocked, Rafiee said, when one Western ambassador to his country spoke out in favour of an ‘acceptable dictatorship’ for his country. (It was UK Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, and it was mentioned in one of the wiki-leaked cables, read the full story here). I have to add that I heard this said also in public quite often, and was equally shocked when coming from foreign officials. A number of Afghans also mentioned this, usually referring to the good old days of presidents Daud or Najibullah – where I suspect that they refer to rulers with a strong hand ‘who got things done’ rather to a dictatorship as such.Secondly, he came over with the most striking evaluation of what has been achieved, and what not, during the past ten years in Afghanistan. ‘This s a failed state’, he said, ‘but it is the best state we ever had.’Guest speakers at the HBS conference also included AAN members (Amb. Vendrell and myself) but I spare you the details of what has been discussed on our panel because you can listen to the full debate yourself in an English-language life stream (click here and scroll down to ‘Audiomitschnitt…’, in a green bar; don’t be confused by the introductory remarks to Panel 1 which was in German).

Attempts to develop a joint position of German development organisations and peace groups (many of the former origin from the latter) that is both critical and avoids the somewhat simplistic demand of ‘troops out now’ have failed in the run-up to Bonn. As a result, VENRO (and its European partner organisations) avoid a clear ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to a troop withdrawal while the German peace movement mobilises for a central demonstration in Bonn on 3 (with busses coming in from many German cities), its own congress on 4 and more protests (including with a protest ship on River Rhine) on 5 December (more info here). It has secured the participation of ubiquitous former Afghan MP Malalai Joya who already should be touring Germany (no media reports found yet, though) and other activists from the left wing of the Afghan political spectrum who also advocate for a full and immediate Western troop withdrawal.

Crisis Action, an international NGO with an office in Berlin, hosts another Afghan delegation that is campaigning, in cooperation with ACBAR and a coalition of 120 other organisations, for ‘sustained levels of civilian-led, humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan, building on the fragile achievements of recent years, but refocusing efforts on boosting the quality of services rather than just creating visible infrastructure’ (see the ACBAR report on the issue here). They also share the demand of Afghan CSOs ‘that Afghans of all backgrounds and representatives of civil society can play a meaningful part in any process to secure a long-term settlement to end the conflict – including women, who have often had little say in the past – while ensuring that respect for human rights and justice are central to any agreement’ and to ‚take further measures to ensure that all those involved in the Afghan conflict (international forces, Afghan security forces and armed opposition groups) uphold their obligations to prevent harm to Afghan civilians’. Their slogan: ‘Afghanistan ten years: Time to get it right’.

Not really civil society but interesting anyhow, Hanns Seidel Foundation (of the Christian Social Union party, the small Bavarian sister of Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU) had invited an interesting delegation comprising of three ex-Taleban (Zaeef, Mutawakkel and acting HPC chairman Mujahed), two Pakistani Pashtun politicians (Mahmud Khan Achakzai from Pakhtunkhwa Milli Akram Shah) and the Pakistani armed forces spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas. Amongst other commitments, they had a presentation at German Bundestag (from which I cannot quote because it was on background). But I had the opportunity to talk to them privately, and from this two points emerged that I found important to know. First, Mujahed confirmed that all activity of the HPC had indeed been stopped by the Afghan government after the killing of Ustad Rabbani, and that the council expects to get instructions what to do, based on the government’s apparent decision to talk to Pakistan. Secondly, Mutawakkel – who is not on the HPC, like Zaeef – does not believe that the Rabbani’s killing should be misinterpreted as a ‘no’ to any talks on the part of the whole Taleban movement, given that the circumstances of the killing, and the fact who exactly perpetrated it, are far from clear.

To round up the picture (although I might have missed other activities),Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft (the German Atlantic Association) organises, financed by the German ministry for development, an ‘Afghanistan Student Conference’ in Bonn with young people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and ISAF countries who meet experts from politics, the military, business and academia to discuss long-term options for Afghanistan, including ‘Promoting Reconciliation – Devising an Inclusive Political process to accommodate all Afghan Political Forces’ (more info here).

The most positive development with regard to Afghan civil society participation in Bonn 2 is that governments – both the German and the Afghan one – did not succeed in keeping the CSOs on arms length from Bonn as initially planned. The original idea was to have a meeting in summer in Kabul, both fare away both geographically and time-wise from what capitals consider to be the main event. This has been prevented by the pressure that had built up amongst Afghan civil society itself over this year reflecting its wish to be heard when the future course for their country is debated on the international level. Moving the Bonn CSF so close to the main conference is welcome but should have been normalcy in the first place.

Now it is up to them to the Afghans make their voice heard, despite what looks like efforts for a strict choreography. The 2-day Bonn CSF actually only gives two half days time for that vital debate. It is dominated by speeches of government dignitaries – like German special envoy Michael Steiner and former Defence Minister Peter Struck (there will be also a speech by Fahim Hakim from the AIHRC) – and the following panels are chaired by Germans, not Afghans (find the programme here), all four only give between 75 and 90 minutes time. That’s really not much. Apart from this, participants have been invited to a 2-day introductory seminar in Kabul before their departure organised by German GIZ (formerly GTZ) where, as rumours have it, they will be sworn in on a not too critical line.

Reading the prepared message to the Bonn conference, I fear that its very constructive tone opens the possibility for governments to simply conclude: we are already doing what they demand. But one can only hope that governments study this statement a bit more carefully because it emphasises other aspects than governments do (in practice): civilian aspects of the transition over its military aspects, human security over military security and a political solution (human rights conditions-based, though) with the insurgents. It also criticises the establishment of ‘quasi and parallel security setups (Arbaki, local police and security companies)’. Furthermore, there are a number of points on which the international community’s emphasis has weakened over the past years, like on the transitional justice action plan, the ‘culture of impunity’, ‘democratic processes and institutions’ and ‘a participatory system of governance’.

Surprisingly for me, the civil society representatives emphasise their role in the provision of social services but not their role in speaking out for those Afghans they are providing these services to in many areas where there is no government and who usually are not represented in the governmental institutions. A bit more self-assuredness would have helped, but maybe we hear more in Bonn, including more about what civil society can contribute through which concrete measures and mechanisms.

You will be able to follow the civil society debate in Bonn on live stream, both in English or German, on this link.


Bonn Germany