Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Only engage

The international community must heed the wishes of normal Afghans

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The main reason for the international intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was to destroy the terrorist networks operating there. What followed required a large amount of effort and resources for ‘nation building’, to achieve lasting peace and stability after the Taliban terror and Mujahideen madness that went before. The reconstruction process, as agreed at the Bonn Summit, was Afghan-led from the very beginning. Afghans have de jure decision-making power, albeit with the direct assistance of international powers.

Nation building is in principle about political development or transformation. A functional government and, for a place as devastated as Afghanistan, extensive economic and social development, are prerequisites. Cultivating people’s trust and confidence in the new institutions of governance is also crucial for ensuring the sustainability and stability of such new democracies.

Although most Afghans know that conditions are better now than during the decades of conflict, and acknowledge that the government is gradually constructing a basis for good governance, there is nonetheless growing concern over the worsening security situation as well as general disheartenment with new governing institutions. The new National Assembly is seen as unrepresentative, and its elected members, along with some government ministers, are considered to be more concerned with helping themselves than helping their constituents. There is vexation over the unimpeded power of warlords and others known to have committed grievous crimes.

Far too many young, educated Afghans no longer see a viable and safe future for themselves and their families. Sadly, hope is turning into despair over the pace of progress, the lack of economic opportunities, official corruption and nepotism and the lack of justice and rule of law. Such despondency can create the conditions for conflict, undermine the legitimacy of governing institutions and damage the reputation of the international community.

NATO, which is a key component of the international community’s engagement in Afghanistan, is mandated to assist the Afghan authorities in providing security and stability which paves the way for reconstruction and effective governance. The British military deployment, through NATO, in the southern provinces of Helmand and Khandahar has proved extremely dangerous and difficult, leading to the loss of 78 British lives since 2001, with attacks by insurgents at their highest level since the invasion.

The increased insecurity and violence in Afghanistan, especially the south and east of the country is making it virtually impossible to carry out development and reconstruction activities. In such circumstances, it is not possible to win over those much vaunted ‘hearts and minds’. At least 230 Afghan civilians have been killed by western troops this year and the situation is fast undermining support in the fight against the Taliban. And in Kabul, the security situation has deteriorated over the past 18 months as evidenced by the increasing number of suicide bombings.

Linked to the feeling of economic insecurity for many Afghans, particularly the south and east, is their involvement in the drug economy. The 2007 opium harvest rose to a record 8,200 metric tons from 6,100 tons last year with Helmand province being the biggest producer with 50% of the whole Afghan opium crop. There was a north-south divide with the centre-north of Afghanistan, despite massive poverty, reducing and diminishing the cultivation of opium. As the UN Office for Drugs and Crime stated, this showed that opium cultivation in Afghanistan was no longer associated with poverty and that the drug economy is being used to provide the funding for weapons, logistics and militia pay for the Taliban. But there is no clear and agreed strategy for tackling the illicit drug problem in Afghanistan.

The international community could have done more and done it much better. The estimated annual cost of the US coalition in Afghanistan in the early years was between $ 11-15 billion whereas the multi-annual pledges (made at Tokyo) were only $4.5 billion. Given that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and was a major terror threat to us, it cannot be right that it received, per capita, one of the lowest levels of international support when compared to other post-conflict places. And far too much (particularly US) donor funding does not end up on the ground, but is channelled back to the international community. And it must stop the tacit support for corruption in the aid system. The contract awarding processes, for example, must be fully transparent.

It is crucial we have a dialogue with the people of Afghanistan. The international community and the Afghan government must do a better job of explaining the reconstruction and development strategies, and the government’s responsibilities to the people and how it can be held accountable, as well as encouraging ordinary Afghans’ active participation. Such engagement is crucial to achieving any further progress in this strife-torn country, and to the principle of nation-building in general.

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Dharmender Singh

has worked in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Palestine supporting the strengthening of government institutions and capacity within the civil service.

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