For weeks I have dismissed the Kabul conference as yet another conference – as something diplomats do, when they don’t know what to do. It was, as usual, preceded by a merry-go-round of pre-meetings and document-drafting-sessions and discrete enquiries (who is coming from your side? are you pledging?), which made it look like simply more of the same. But now I am not so sure; things in Afghanistan are different this time. And the Kabul conference may turn out to be more than just a distraction.
On the surface, the conference is the third step in a process that includes the increasing handover of responsibilities to the Afghan government and the implementation of a plan to deal with the Taleban, the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan (APRP). The event is preceded by the London Conference and the Peace Jirga, and will be followed by the parliamentary elections – although there is some nervousness that a messy election might harm the narrative of progress – and another conference, this time in Tokyo. The concrete outcomes of the Kabul Conference will probably include some kind of endorsement of the APRP and a commitment to fund, qualified commitments to fund the other 23 priority programs, calls and pledges to channel more aid money through the Afghan government, and the announcement of a timetable for the handover of responsibilities, in those provinces where the Afghan government and security forces are considered ready.
The conference is also one of the steps meant to signal a normalisation of relations between the President and his international backers and to persuade Western public opinion that there is a plan and a partner. But two main dynamics have changed over the last year: there has been a breakdown of trust between the Afghan government and the international donors, and there is a pervasive feeling – among the Afghan population, Western constituencies and international policy makers – of being stuck, and in quite an uncomfortable and dangerous place.
Of course during the conference, protocol will be upheld and the speeches will be friendly and upbeat enough and the communiqué will be full of pledges of partnership and some of the participants may believe them. But President Karzai has not forgiven the internationals for the humiliation of the 2009 election, nor has he forgotten that he is not a partner of choice. And the internationals are – privately – deeply uncomfortable with an expanding intervention that does not seem to be going anywhere. And they are treading very carefully, priding themselves in having salvaged a difficult relationship, but courting a president who no longer trusts them and does not necessarily want them to succeed.
So they will politely welcome the 23 priority programs. And they will pledge funds for the APRP despite its obvious flaws, and they will express optimism that it will help turn around the insurgency. They will commit to a process of transition, with a slight sense of hopeful relief. And they will mention – in a serious tone – the fight against corruption, and the achievements of democracy, and human rights and women’s rights, and red lines and transparency and inclusiveness. As if statements can protect.
It is clear, the handover to a deeply problematic government, in the midst of an insurgency, is not going to make things alright. But there seems to be a resignation that this government will not be reformed. That the peace process will have to be a Karzai-brokered deal. That the population does not really have a stake or a say. That the international community no longer has a responsibility to not leave the country in a mess.
I think there has been a shift. It has been going on for a while, but it will be consolidated and reaffirmed in the various agreements and statements at the conference. The international actors have painted themselves in a corner. There is very little real leverage left. Their role is to be outsmarted and to be made to pay – even more than in the past. In the hope that that will allow them, at some point, to leave.
(*) A small example of decreased international leverage and increased government assertiveness. A background note on the conference, posted on the MFA website, describes good governance as one of the government’s priorities. The para discusses corruption (and in fact nothing else) and its prioritisation in this way:
“The issue of corruption has been of great concern to [added in tracked changes: the Afghan government, Afghan people and the] international partners. In order to provide assurances that the reports are exaggerated, while at the same time showing our commitment to further strengthening good-governance and combating corruption, we have prioritized this sector within the Afghan government for the next five years.”
The text then describes various anti-corruption bodies and calls on the international community to support them with financial and technical assistance and to further increase the transparency and effectiveness of aid assistance.
There is not even a pretence of a prioritisation of the fight against corruption, no acknowledgement of the scope and nature of the problem, and practically no room left for international leverage to effect improvements where it counts (sound appointments processes, sanctioning of bad performance and abuse of power).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020