Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

London Conference (1): Calling for Afghan ownership and Afghan leadership

Martine van Bijlert 3 min

The London conference has come and gone. World leaders gathered to try to create a sense of momentum and partnership and to persuade sceptical audiences that there is a plan and an end in sight. There were several messages, but the one that was drowned out in the media coverage surrounding on what to do with the Taleban, was the message of Afghan leadership and Afghan ownership.

The message is not new. It has been pushed for years by both the Afghan government and the international community (I don’t like using the term “international community” as it suggests a coherent body where there is none, but used in the same sentence as “Afghan government” – which suffers from a similar problem – I guess it’s okay).

The position of the Afghan government is roughly twofold. On one hand there is a deep frustration over the lack of control when it comes to project designs and the allocation of resources (often involving small armies of contractors and external advisers). The issue was raised from the very beginning: as early as 2002 the transitional government had an Afghanistan Assistance Coordination Authority (AACA) that sought to streamline the unorganised flow of aid and programmes. And the complaining government officials have a point. Projects and policies are shaped by timelines, budget cycles and internal politics that have very little to do with the country’s needs or even with the programmes’ stated goals. Failed ideas are recycled. Money is wasted. And for those who care about implementation and service delivery and sound government this is extremely frustrating. But that is not the whole of the government, not by far.

The other voice within the Afghan government calling for more Afghan leadership and Afghan ownership is the more dominant one and it basically says: hand us the money please, we will sit through your endless meetings, we will pretend to co-draft documents, we will agree with the objectives, and we will join the pretence that we are in charge, as long as somehow you hand us the money. And that is how a lot of the work is done. The concept of Afghan leadership and Afghan ownership is vigorously pushed by international actors, with the UN in the lead, but in practice it tends to involve an “Afghan face” and token responsibilities while holding on to the important political and financial decisions. The rhetoric however continues to emphasise a relationship of support for the local lead.

This mix leads to some very real tensions, particularly on the local and the mid-level. It is very difficult to have serious consultations with government counterparts who have been appointed by payment or patronage and who have no real interest in the intricacies of the job – as all mentors, advisers, well-meaning PRT staff and anyone else who has been expected to “work in support of the government” will confirm. And so there is, as a result, a great deal of artificialness in the relationships between international and Afghan government counterparts. It becomes a play-act with both sides going through the motions of stated mutual respect and with very little room for real discussion on objectives, limitations and trade-offs – as you would normally do in a negotiation between parties with differing agendas. (It of course doesn’t help that the internationals partnering with the government often have their own versions of cluelessness and incompatibility with the job. And although many Afghan government officials remain very polite, you can be sure that they have their own eye-rolling sessions after meetings are over).

Don’t get me wrong. There is an absolute need to take each other serious as counterparts. And there should be much more listening to what sensible and experienced Afghans have to say; they have far too long suffered ill-conceived plans and condescending meetings. But in the current patronage-based government you cannot make yourself hostage to the whims of whoever happens to have been given a government chair to sit on, whether he or she is a governor or a minister or a head of a directorate. You cannot continue to sit through meetings in cooperative mode without discussing what the real issues are: violence, corruption, abuse of government positions, but also civilian casualties, contracting practices and wastage of aid money. And you cannot limit yourself to government officials only in the search for credible local partners.

It has been said many times, but maybe not loud enough: an Afghan lead does not necessarily mean an Afghan government lead, and Afghan ownership does not mean owned by the government – or by individual officials – alone.

I believe Karzai was right when he said during his speech at the London conference“To make our joint efforts successful we must base our plans and actions on the demands and aspirations of the Afghan people.” But I disagree with him that “the aspirations and demands of the people of Afghanistan today can be summarised in four simple words: Afghan leadership, Afghan ownership” – at least not in the way those four words are currently understood.

I would put my bets on four other simple words: peace, security, justice and livelihoods. And to achieve any progress in these areas we need to have more serious relationships and we need to make sure we have them with the right people.



Afghan leadership Afghan ownership Government London conference Taleban


Martine van Bijlert

More from this author