Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The Brussels Conference on Afghanistan: Between aid and migration

AAN Team 12 min

The Afghan Government and the EU will co-host the Brussels conference on 5 October 2016. A couple of side events will take place on 4 October, and a high-level dialogue on migration is scheduled for 3 October. Around 70 countries and 30 international organisations will come together in the Belgian capital to review the achievements and vision of the Afghan government and renew their commitments to Afghanistan. This is the eleventh international donor conference on Afghanistan, since 2001. Ahead of the gathering, AAN answers some key questions about the conference and Afghanistan’s foreign aid dependence.

The Brussels conference will be the eleventh donor conference since the 2001 US-led intervention in Afghanistan.The Brussels conference will be the eleventh donor conference since the 2001 US-led intervention in Afghanistan.

1. What is the Brussels conference about?

The Brussels conference is an international donor conference where the Afghan government is expected to share its vision and track record on reform, and where the international community is expected to signal sustained political and financial support to peace, state-building and development in Afghanistan (for more details see the Afghan Government’s official website on the Brussels conference and the EU announcement).

The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, will open the conference, and the Chief Executive of Afghanistan Dr Abdullah Abdullah will conclude it. The event will be co-chaired by Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Salahuddin Rabbani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan and Eklil Hakimi, Minister of Finance of Afghanistan.

At the conference, the Afghan government will present reports assessing its performance to date, as well as documents outlining its plans. The assessments will include a list highlighting the National Unity Government’s achievements and a report on the so-called SMAF benchmarks (relating to the Self-Reliance through Mutual Accountability Framework agreed in 2014. (For more details see the answer under question three).

The government’s plans include its new five-year strategy, titled the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF) that replaces the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) that expired in 2013. It will also present its fiscal strategy and its vision for budget reform and its development priorities, including on poverty reduction and social inclusion.

There will also be five new National Priority Programmes (NPP): the Citizens Charter Programme, which will replace the National Solidarity Programme; the National Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme; the National Urban Development Programme; the National Infrastructure Plan; and the National Comprehensive Agriculture Development (the documents will be uploaded here). For the next four years the government envisages eleven National Priority Programmes (NPPs): five new ones and six that will be ongoing. This is a major decrease from the original 22 NPPs (more about this under the question three). The government describes the eleven NPPs as “outcome focused thematic programmes” that will guide the government’s resource allocation and will guide ministries towards “collective problem solving.”

The Afghan government is also expected to propose a downsized set of 22 benchmarks, or what it calls “refreshed commitments.” In 2014, the Afghanistan government and the international community agreed to thirty-nine commitments under the SMAF (for details see here). After the government presents its progress against these 39 commitments at the conference, some of which have been achieved, it will suggest a new set of 22 commitments for the forthcoming period.

International financial commitments made at the Tokyo conference in 2012 were projected until 2016, and so the Afghan government will be seeking new funding pledges. It is expected that at the Brussels Conference, the Afghan government will secure commitments until 2020. The Afghan government is seeking the same level of annual assistance as in Tokyo (around 3.9 billion US dollars per year) for the next four years.

2. What are the donors’ expectations of the Brussels conference?

As co-host, the EU is probably the donor with the highest expectations. Ambassador Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin, the EU Special Representative to Afghanistan, told AAN:

We hope that the Brussels conference on Afghanistan will signal two key changes in the international approach. The first pivot is to change the narrative from winning the war to winning the peace. The second pivot is to have regional actors take more responsibility for Afghanistan’s peace and stability.

Ambassador Melbin explained that the there would also be a shift in the international approach towards Afghanistan: “In 2014, we had the triple transition which could not bring a fragile Afghanistan towards peace and stability. We are now finalising a triple decision package: a conditions-based force level presence, the Warsaw summit and the Brussels conference to finance security and development until 2020.” He added that: “More of the same will not create new results. We must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The triple decision package gives Afghanistan four more years to stabilise, while Brussels will help align our collective political, security, economic, development and regional efforts towards building the conditions for a lasting peace in Afghanistan.”

Next to these major expectations stands the fact that very few European donors have declared their contributions yet. For many donor countries, the key issues remain: the elections, the peace process, regional cooperation, mutual accountability and aid effectiveness. And on these issues, the Afghan government has only very modest achievements to report. Another major concern for many donors is related to aid effectiveness and the continued Afghan demands for increased on-budget support, given the persistent budget under-spending by the government and rampant corruption in the country. Some countries are pushing for greater conditionality on their aid disbursement and are requesting more result-oriented language in the conference communiqué. These misgivings, alongside the desire to have a successful yet substantive conference, mean that many commas and brackets in the joint communiqué are still being discussed.

The peace deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami (see AAN analysis here) and the limited progress on electoral reform (the electoral decree has apparently been passed, although not yet gazetted, and the selection committee for the Electoral Commission appointed) will presumably be presented by both sides as proof of progress. There is a general assumption that international support will remain at the current or near current level (3.9 billion US dollars a year).

3. What were the previous international conferences on Afghanistan about?

The Brussels conference is the eleventh high-level, international conference co-hosted by the Afghan government and international actors since the 2001 US-led intervention in Afghanistan.

The first international conference on Afghanistan was organised in Bonn in December 2001. Here, Afghan and international representatives agreed on the provisions of the interim authority, which was tasked to organise an Emergency Loya Jirga (see this dispatch by AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig, who helped organized the jirga) and a Constitutional Loya Jirga within 18 months after that (see Ruttig’s account of this event here).

In January 2002, the Tokyo conference on Afghanistan saw the international community pledge over 1.8 billion US dollars to rebuild Afghanistan in 2002, and over 3 billion US dollars for the years after (see AAN’s Kate Clark reporting here).

Then following what some called the end of the Bonn process, the Berlin conference on Afghanistan was held in April 2004. At this conference the participants welcomed the newly adopted Afghan constitution, noting the “substantial progress” achieved since the Bonn Agreement of 2001. Multiyear commitments were made for the ‘reconstruction and development’ of Afghanistan totalling 8.2 billion US dollars for the fiscal years 1383 – 1385 (March 2004 – March 2007), including a pledge of 4.4 billon US dollars for 1383 (March 2004 – March 2005).

In January 2006, at the London conference, a first set of benchmarks were adopted based on what was called the Afghanistan Compact. This overarching conference document identified three areas of activities: Security; Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights; and Economic and Social Development. Under each of these thematic areas, a number of benchmarks and target timelines were defined. Additionally, key principles of aid effectiveness between the international community and Afghan government were agreed, including to, among other things, to, “increase the proportion of donor assistance channelled directly through the core budget, as agreed bilaterally between the Government and each donor” (see annex two of the Afghanistan Compact available here). In April 2006, the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB), involving the government of Afghanistan and its international supporters, was established and tasked with the strategic coordination and monitoring of the implementation of the Afghanistan Compact and the interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy (I-ANDS).

In June 2008, at the Paris conference, co-hosted by the French Government, the Afghan Government and UN, the international community pledged an additional 21 billion US dollars to Afghanistan. The conference reaffirmed the Afghanistan Compact as the agreed basis for cooperation, as well as a new commitment to support the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) for 2008-2013. However, some participants at the Paris conference voiced their concerns saying that “international donors had to radically change their mind-sets about how to promote development and security in Afghanistan.”

In 2009, after the Den Haag international conference, co-hosted, as in Paris, by tripartite chairs, the communiqué emphasised that “effective, well-funded civilian programmes are as necessary as additional military forces and training programmes.” The participants agreed to significantly expand the resources and personnel devoted to civilian capacity-building programmes, and pledged to improve aid effectiveness, in line with the June 2008 Paris Declaration.

In 2010 there were two major international conferences, in addition to the Lisbon NATO summit where the plan for a phased handover of security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghan security forces (inteqal) was announced.

At the 2010 London conference on Afghanistan, it was agreed that Kabul would gradually take over responsibilities for running the war and running the country, over the next five years (see also previous AAN reporting).

In July 2010, as agreed in London, the Kabul conference was held at which mutual progress on commitments was reviewed. Under the motto ‘Afghan owned and Afghan led’, President Karzai launched 22 National Priority Programmes grouped in six clusters and asked for 15 billion US dollars in pledges (see also AAN previous reporting here; here; and here).

While new programmes and agreements have been negotiated ahead of every new conference, progress has remained elusive, as noted by AAN’s Thomas Ruttig in 2010:

A glance at the recent international conferences exhibits vague and unknown progress, even by the rough statistics. For example, in 2006 the government of Afghanistan introduced the Afghanistan Compact at an international conference in London. The Afghanistan Compact was a comprehensive plan to address some of the basic and fundamental social development and governance priorities of the Afghan government and its people. However, right after two years of the Afghanistan Compact, another plan was introduced at the Paris Conference and that was the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. Again two years down the line, Afghanistan sees almost no significant signs of the implementation of the ANDS on the ground. It is worth mentioning, that the Comprehensive Strategy concluded at the Hague Conference last year too has remained unachieved so far.

In Lisbon, on 20 November 2010, the nations that contributed troops to ISAF issued a declaration (Lisbon Declaration on Afghanistan) announcing what they called ‘Afghanistan’s Transition’ – the gradual withdrawal of foreign forces and their replacement by Afghan ones. This transition to full Afghan security responsibility and leadership was to begin in early 2011 “following a joint Afghan and NATO/ISAF assessment and decision” and aimed to have the ANSF “lead and conduct security operations in all provinces by the end of 2014” (see also comments by AAN’s Thomas Ruttig ahead of the Lisbon summit here, a discussion of the phased handover here for an overview on NATO summits on Afghanistan see AAN reporting here).

In July 2012, Afghanistan’s donors pledged 16 billion US dollars for the country’s economic and development needs at another international conference in Tokyo (see a UNAMA report here and a slightly more critical reporting by AAN here). The Tokyo pledges were made in response to the Afghan government’s strategy document titled Towards Self-Reliance; a strategy for “sustainable growth and development” through the National Priority Programs (NPPs) seeking to focus on economic growth, revenue generation, job creation, and human development. The conference further agreed on a new set of benchmarks in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF).

Although, according to Afghan Ministry of Finance figures, 57 billion US dollars had already been disbursed in development aid between 2002 and 2010, with very varying results, the pledges and money continued to come to a country with very weak rule of law, virtually no mechanisms to control corruption and growing insecurity in large parts of the country. (For more details, see also AAN’s e-book Snapshot of an Intervention. The Unlearned Lessons of Afghanistan’s Decade of Assistance 2001–2011 and a recent SIGAR report Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan)

In December 2014, the tenth international conference on Afghanistan was held, again in London. This time the then new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, presented a new reform programme entitled “Realizing Self-Reliance: Commitments to Reforms and Renewed Partnership.” The conference was not an explicit pledging event. Moreover, the National Unity Government had not been able to do much by that point, as it had been unable to agree on its cabinet. The conference communiqué thus simply stated that “the International Community reiterated its commitment, as set out in the Tokyo Declaration, to direct significant and continuing but declining financial support towards Afghanistan’s social and economic development priorities through the Transformation Decade.” (See AAN reporting on London conference here). Ghani’s government at the Senior Officials Meeting held in September 2015 introduced a new document, the Self-Reliance through Mutual Accountability Framework (SMAF), which consolidated both its new reform agenda and the previous TMAF benchmarks, laying out a set of a 39 benchmarks.

4. What else is happening in the margins of the Brussels conference?

On 4 October 2016, there will be two official side events. The first, a high level event entitled “Empowered women, prosperous Afghanistan,” will include two panels. The first panel, “Promoting Afghan Women’s Rights,” will focus on the political and human rights dimensions of Afghan women’s empowerment, in particular the efforts to support women’s participation in political decision-making, including peace talks, the security and justice sectors, and the Government’s commitment to implement the National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (NAP 1325). Ongoing efforts to protect and enforce women’s rights will also be discussed, including progress on the implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law (new AAN analysis is forthcoming, past dispatches on this controversial law can be found herehere and here). The second panel, “Socio-economic Empowerment of Afghan Women,” will discuss the importance of women’s participation in the economy. At this panel, the Afghan government will launch its National Action plan for Women’s Economic Empowerment (NAPWEE), which focuses on providing economic opportunities for poor rural women. The event will feature a high-level opening session, including speeches from President Ashraf Ghani and Irina Bokova, Director general of UNESCO.

A second high-level event on 4 October will be on “Regional Integration and Prosperity.” This event, which is on invitation-only, is expected to set next steps for regional economic cooperation projects that can attract the resources of Afghanistan, regional partners and the wider international community, and to get regional countries more engaged in Afghanistan.

An EU-Afghanistan dialogue on migration will take place on 3 October 2016 – over a quarter of a million Afghans migrated to Europe in 2015 and 2016 (see AAN reporting on Afghan migration here, here, and here). At this high-level event, it is expected that Afghan government and the EU will agree on the Joint Way Forward agreement on migration. However, the outcome document is still being discussed with the main sticking points at the time publication, not yet agreed. If the document is not signed before Brussels, this may well result in additional pressure on Afghanistan and rather strong language at the conference from some of the donor countries, who may well abstain from further development aid pledges, until the readmission agreement is signed.

In-addition to the official events, there will be several side events hosted and organised by various civil society organisations. For example, Transparency International will launch a ‘TI Scorecard Report’ on the performance of the Afghan government on its anti-corruption commitments over the last two years, to help, it says, set priorities for the next three years. 

5. How has the Brussels conference been reported on in the Afghan media?

In the Afghan media, much of the reporting on the Brussels conference has focused on the National Unity Government’ achievements (or lack of achievements) and the strategies it plans to present at the conference. There has also been criticism on the government’s failure to curb corruption, improve security, and create jobs.

Much of the recent reporting in the Afghan media was informed by the Minister of Finance’s briefing to the Wolesi Jirga on 19 September. It focused on the government’s new Afghanistan National Development and Peace Framework that would be presented in Brussels, as well as the five new national programmes (see for instance here).

A day before, Tolo News quoted the spokesperson of the Ministry of Finance, Ajmal Abdul Rahimzai, as saying that the “Afghan government is trying to become self-reliant and to end reliance on international aid through increasing its revenue.” Tolo News also quoted some MPs who had argued that Afghanistan would not become self-reliant, nor would it receive international aid in the future, if it failed to present proper plans at the Brussels Summit.

There were expressions of doubt over the sincerity of the National Unity Government, describing the presented achievements and plans as only window dressing, aimed at attracting international aid.

On 22 September 2016, Tolo News, for instance, quoted Sayed Ishaq Gillani, head of Hizb-e-Nuhzat Hambastagi Milli party, “Fighting is going on in many parts of the country, corruption has not been eradicated and they [the government] do not have anything to present to the Brussels Summit. They have to respond to the people’s questions, [but] how they want to convince the people is not known.” Ahmad Wali Massud, head of the Massud Foundation, was quoted as saying, “For two years they have not done anything and the country is going into crisis. Because of the Brussels Summit they say that we will do this and that. But I am sure they will not do anything as they have not done [anything so far].”

On 25 September 2016, Mandegar Daily wrote:

Nowadays, the presidential palace is taking measures and showing that it is striving for betterment of the situation; inter alia, there is attention to implement the political agreement, the electoral law is being discussed, the peace agreement is signed with Hekmatyar and then campaigns are carried about all of these. Also, there are talks of increase in revenue and that the government has prepared five documents to present to the Brussels conference, as well as there are talks of programmes and plans at the national level, but at the end nothing will be done in practice.

Mandegar Daily went further, saying that “preparation of a long list of achievements that is going to be presented at the international conference at the time while such achievements have not been made in the country at all, [is aimed] to maintain his [President Ghani’s] hold of power and to deceive the public opinions at the national and international level.”

Ahead of the Brussels conference, the media listed unfulfilled promises made by the president and his government. For example, on 21 September 2016 Hasht-e Subh daily wrote that while the president is meeting the Western standards when it comes to strategies and programmes, “the reality is that the dossier of Mr Ghani’s unfulfilled promises is thick.” And on 6 August 2016, Hasht-e Subh wrote, “The government has to start the electoral reform as soon as possible, and to form a commission to draft amendments to the constitution and to publish the parliamentary and district council election calendar. When these actions are taken, the government’s stand in the Brussels conference will be strengthened.”

Comments on the Brussels conference by politicians and MPs indicate that they mainly see the conference as a token of continued engagement that could bring good governance about and a source of continued financial aid to Afghanistan. As for the nature of the aid, some members of parliament believe international donors is now going to commit money to major infrastructure projects. “The international community will provide infrastructure aid to Afghanistan,” said Abdul Qadir Zazai, an MP from Kabul, on 18 September 2016, on Tolo News, “if the Afghan government succeeds to convince the international community at the Brussels Summit.” Nisar Haris, a member of the Meshrano Jirga (upper house), said, “We have not received [such] aid to build our infrastructure over the past 15 years.”

For more background see AAN’s thematic dossier bringing together some of AAN’s recent reporting on the main conference topics.


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