The Kabul Conference has ended, the foreign ministers have left, the roads have reopened for traffic. Most Afghans seem unimpressed. Several of the ‘big speeches’, and probably quite a few of the ‘smaller’ ones, impressed upon the audience that it was actions, not words that would ultimately count. They are of course right and I am sure the Afghan population agrees. But the words at the conference aimed to weave a new narrative which has very little to do with the realities of Afghanistan. Several things stood out starkly: the discussion of plans and policies as if there was no war going on, an optimism that economic development and effective government are within reach, and a level of ambition that was not, in any way, tempered by the realities of implementation.
President Karzai opened the conference on Tuesday by inviting the participants “to elevate our vision above the din of the battle (…) and to focus on our noble goal.” So for the rest of the speech, the audience was transported to an imagined country and an imagined partnership, where plans and programs are not undercut by a war not going well, not undermined by a government that is eating up its own resources and credibility, and not complicated by an ‘international community’ that is pulled in all directions by domestic concerns.
President Karzai is an engaging speaker when he improvises, but he is not convincing when he reads speeches drafted by others. So on Tuesday there was no embellishment, no frivolity, no jokes or personal touches. Instead he reproduced a text that was crowded and dense, and that clearly showed the hand of Ashraf Ghani – Karzai’s early days’ Minister of Finance and one of the main organisers of the conference. The speech is said to have mentioned all 23 national priority programs (which is undoubtedly true and it probably mentioned several sets of sub-priorities as well). It was an amazing mix of hyperbole and jargon, and it had very little to do with Afghanistan.
It also had very little to do with the real priorities of those in government. It is rather a reflection of the kind of artificial action that is catalysed by an upcoming conference. The wide range of sectors and actions mentioned in both Karzai’s speech and conference communiqué were the result of the efforts of ministries and joint working groups that had been working for months to meet the deadline of yet another high-level gathering. Because this is what conferences do: they force ministries and working groups to come up with written plans and strategies where otherwise there would probably be none. They create an artificial sense of momentum and achievement. And they provide an opportunity to rewrite the narrative.
The result was an eclectic mix of value chains, public-private partnerships, government reform through “golden handshake” and scholarship policies, checks and balances among the three branches of the state, anti-corruption legislation, the adoption of a One UN Programme, and promises to ensure the highest standards of accountability and transparency. The conference communiqué had even more: a “whole of state” approach and a “whole of government” path, a Public Financial Management roadmap, an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Secretariat, a concrete plan of action for the renewal of the state, an inter-ministerial coordination mechanism under the cluster approach, and – my favourite – the rolling 100-day action plans.
All of this is part of the “Kabul Process” – the term newly coined at the conference – which has been backdated as having started either at the Paris conference in 2008 (according to Ban Ki Moon) or at Karzai’s inaugural speech in November 2009 (according to the conference communiqué). This process, that will keep government officials and diplomats rather busy, basically boils down to three strands:
The first strand is the gradual transfer of security responsibilities at the provincial level, as described in “the Inteqal paper” (which was endorsed by the conference but not published) – inteqal means transfer in Dari and is the codeword for the transition process. The first transfers of security were planned to take place in early 2011, based on recommendations by a Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board (JANIB) and after endorsement at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Lisbon in November 2010, but that timetable now seems to be slipping.
The JANIB, according to the paper, will assess the situation in the provinces in terms of security, governance and development. This will include whether the ANSF have the capabilities “to contain residual and potential insurgent threats”, whether there is adequate public confidence that the local government can deliver rule of law and basic government services, and whether there are adequate development conditions such as basic infrastructure and local participation in national programmes.
The second strand is the increasing alignment of donor assistance behind the government’s National Priority Programmes. The conference participants are aiming for at least 80% of all development aid in two years time (the addition of the word “development” is important, as a considerable part of the assistance in Afghanistan comes from military or stabilization budgets).
But more importantly to the Afghan government is the third strand: increasing the proportion of aid that is directly delivered to the Afghan national budget. That should reach at least 50% in two years time. The donors have committed to help address the government’s limited absorption capacity while the Afghan government needs to present detailed “costing and implementation plans” and a “national priority programme framework” by October 2010.
The Afghan government has moreover pledged to undertake – it doesn’t say implement – “all necessary measures to increase transparency and accountability and tackle corruption.” However, the agreed measures are procedural in nature and consist of legislation, policies, strategies, methodologies and committees. Even the promised continued structural reform of the public administration (including simplified appointment procedures for senior civil servants) and the implementation of the Sub-National Governance Policy boil down, in practice, to procedural and administrative interventions that will not touch how the government is run.
No one can blame Afghans for being underwhelmed. And diplomats on the ground also seem aware of the precariousness of the agreements and of the narrative of transition that they are supposed to support. But their governments will probably still decide to pour far too much money into programmes that will have little (or indeed, a negative) impact on the ground – in exchange for reports of quantifiable results: so many insurgents reintegrated, so many recruits trained, so many councils established, so much money spent. Many senior Afghan officials have worked with NGOs or contractors for years, and those who have not have learnt quickly. They know that what a donor really needs is a narrative and a paper trail – project documents, regular reports of progress, written financial accounts, and something that suggests monitoring activities – and those are not difficult to deliver on. The rackets, the scams and the swindles have been going on for years and they are only likely to increase, as many feel that this might be their last turn at the table and are determined to make the most of it.
The “Kabul Process” is only one of three dynamics which are now picking up steam. There is the counterinsurgency strategy, led by General Petraeus, that aims to push the insurgency into a position of weakness and disarray, win over the population and convince the press corps and the home audiences that the tide is turning. Its professed aim is to strengthen the government and the security forces and to protect the population, but it relies largely and increasingly on informal forces, local power holders and Special Forces operations.
Then there is the “Kabul Process” led by the foreigners’ favourite technocrats, which aims to provide a framework for spending and transition, and it is discussed as if the war and the dominance of patronage networks are nuisances of little relevance.
Finally, there there is the Afghan political arena dominated by Karzai and his networks; where a possible political settlement with the insurgency is suggested, but with no clarity whatsoever on what this would look like and how this interacts and conflicts with the other efforts. So, for instance, should you really be taking out mid- and high-level insurgents with whom you may want to talk (if there ever is a serious process); and who decides which ones to target and which ones to leave; and, more fundamentally, are they “disgruntled brothers” (Karzai at the Peace Jirga) or are they “our clear and common enemy” (Karzai at the Kabul Conference)? Moreover, what is the value of pledges in the fields of greater government efficiency as long as fighting the insurgency takes precedent and as long as government positions are treated as favours, gifts and bartering chips – including in a possible political deal.
The Kabul Conference presented the fantasy narrative of a process of transition which will be gradual, thoughtful and transparent. The reality, however, is that whatever actually happens, is likely to be hurried, messy and over the heads of the Afghan population.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020