Wither Reconstruction of Afghanistan?
Weekly Pulse
June 23-29, 2006
Since the fall of the Taliban regime and conclusion of the Bonn agreement in late 2001, Afghanistan has made a number of strides. It has a functional government, with an elected President and a Parliament. However limited, these and the institution of judiciary have started to perform their functions gradually since the Bonn process began. All of this could not have been accomplished without due international support, especially within the framework of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

At the London Conference on Afghanistan’s future, held in January-February, the international community pledged $10.5 billion in new reconstruction aid to strengthen hobbled institutions in Afghanistan. However, unlike the past donor conferences, the London Conference shifted a greater burden for the country’s fate to the Afghan government, focusing more on alleviating the sufferings of ordinary Afghans.

The London Conference produced a key document called the Afghanistan Compact, which laid down the framework for continued international engagement with Afghanistan over the next five years in three vital areas of activity; security, governance (including human rights and rule of law), social and economic development and counter narcotics.

An Interim Afghan National Development Strategy (IANDS) was also approved at the Conference. The two documents followed the completion of the Bonn agreement, under which the presidential and parliamentary electoral process was completed.

Out of the $10.5 billion committed at the London Conference, $1.1 billion was pledged by the United States alone. However, if we recall the total amount that was committed by the international community for Afghanistan’s reconstruction during the Tokyo and Bonn donor conferences in 2002, it was almost the same as has been pledged by the London Conference.

What followed after the pledges was not satisfactory, as, citing security reasons, the European Union, for instances, was not that forthcoming in meeting its commitment. In Afghanistan’s case, more important than individual international financial pledges is whether they are eventually met or are translated into actual reconstruction of the country.

Needless to say, a lot remains to be accomplished in the area of reconstruction. The reconstruction process has failed to maintain the critical momentum that the Afghan government’s landmark report, Securing Afghanistan’s Future: Accomplishments and the Strategic Path Forward, appeared to generate when it was launched at the spring 2004 Berlin Donors Conference.

Unfortunately, the project of state building in Afghanistan is predicated on the notion that national-level institutions are most suitable to offer basic public services to Afghan people. Consequently, UNAMA has thus far strived to consolidate the central state institutions, utilizing the bulk of international assistance. This is something that contradicts the traditional norms and pattern of governance in Afghanistan, characterized by highly decentralized and fragmented power structures and the precedence of localized support networks.

Moreover, the security situation continues to be volatile. The overlapping threats of the Taliban-led insurgency, warlordism, an emergent drug mafia, and general criminality have created a difficult environment with which to advance the state-building project. It is an irony that over four and a half years after the fall of the Taliban regime, millions of Afghans still live as refugees in Pakistan and Iran, or as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) inside the country. The refugee and IDP problem is perhaps the best indicator of the rather slow pace of Afghan reconstruction.

While Iran has more or less tackled the refugee problem by pushing scores of Afghan refugees into western Afghanistan, often in violation of the International Refugee Law, Pakistan does not seem to have compromised on its principled stand of hosting these refugees for religious and ethnic reasons. As long as Afghanistan’s security predicament prevails, it will be difficult for the refugees to return home.

Conversely, the continuing insecurity in the country’s eastern and south-eastern borders may generate additional bouts of Afghan refugees for Pakistan, as has been the case successively since the pullout of Soviet forces from Afghanistan back in 1988. And as long as Pakistan has this refugee population, the issue of the alleged cross-Duran Line infiltration of Taliban will remain relevant.

At the end of the day, therefore, what Afghanistan needs is a successful reconstruction process—from building roads and bridges to overhauling the judicial sector to the security sector reform (SSR). However, in each case, the performance of the government of President Hamid Karzai and UNAMA has been less than satisfactory.

Take, for instance, the SSR process, which has five pillars, each supported by a lead donor country: military reform (United States); police reform (Germany); judicial reform (Italy); the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants (Japan); and counter-narcotics (United Kingdom). The achievements of the process—roughly 28,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and 50,000 police trained, 600 judges trained, over 62,000 soldiers demobilized, and a 21 per cent reduction in poppy cultivation area—convey the image of success.

However, these figures obscure the real picture of a process that was slow to begin and continues to stumble. For instance, although the area under poppy cultivation was significantly reduced during 2005; a 22 per cent increase in crop productivity narrowed the decline in opium output from the previous year to just 100 metric tons.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) has performed well in its initial operations, showing itself to be a competent and disciplined force. However, it still lacks the capability to undertake complex missions without the support of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Coalition forces led by the US. The Afghan National Police (ANP) service continues to be poorly trained, predominantly illiterate, endemically corrupt, and highly factionalized.

The government’s Demilitarisation, Disarmament, and Rehabilitation (DDR) programme, supervised again by UNAMA, has also not shown the expected results. In fact, DDR is plagued by the same factor as the Karzai government’s much-publicized drive to reduce poppy cultivation and drug trafficking has. For the latter to succeed, the farmers have to be offered a credible substitute crop for cultivation. In the absence of that, the international community cannot hope to drastically reduce poppy cultivation.

DDR’s success also requires that the security environment in the country improves to the extent that people voluntarily decide to surrender arms and seek peaceful careers. It is primarily due to the rampant insecurity in the country—and the fact that the writ of Karzai’s government remains largely confined to Kabul and its surroundings, or to some major cities—that the phenomenon of warlordism continues to haunt the destiny of the Afghans.

The Interim Afghan National Development Strategy has to focus on local job generation so that the refugees and IDPs can find work. It has to generate new sources of livelihood for poppy cultivators. And, obviously, over 10 billion dollars more of international assistance, as pledged by the London Conference, will not make any difference, if the amount is not well spent at the grass-root level. Consolidating only the centralized state authority will be counter-productive, as the past experience suggests.