February 01, 2010

London Conference Agrees Future Course for Afghanistan


29 Jan 10

The crucial 70-nation Afghanistan conference held in London yesterday has, as expected, facilitated agreement on how to move forward in Afghanistan.

IHS Global Insight Perspective

Having been held as the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, the conference facilitated a new commitment between the Afghan government and the international community.

But what is crucial is how this plays out on the ground in Afghanistan. Given the extremely complex context of conflict there this may be hard to achieve. For now, the Taliban have rejected the conference and vowed to increase their fight against coalition troops and the Afghan government.

With coalition troop and civilian casualties at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan, and government effectiveness far from achieved, 2010 will be a difficult year for the country.

The international community and the Afghan government in yesterday's crucial Afghanistan conference in London charted the way forward in Afghanistan, outlining in some detail civilian and military strategies that now await implementation. As expected, the conference revolved around a comprehensive set of issues that are thought to lie at the heart of the conflict there, including the emphasis that the Afghan government should take over more responsibility, security, and issues of development and governance, including anti-corruption efforts.

The Afghanistan conference, whose attendants included the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and which was hosted by U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown, took place after months of careful reconsiderations of how to move forward in Afghanistan. Over the course of 2009 the international community has become increasingly worried about the political and security situation in Afghanistan, with the Taliban now controlling the largest shares of territory since they were routed from power in late 2001 and inflicting unprecedented numbers of civilian and coalition troop casualties. Furthermore, Karzai's legitimacy has suffered tremendously as last year's presidential polls were marred by violence and fraud, further undermining his declining popularity levels as he largely failed to efficiently fight the country's numerous problems during his first tenure. As such, the conference was mainly thought to revamp and streamline international efforts in Afghanistan, and to showcase broad support for the Afghan government. Not least, stronger support for the Afghan government, and more responsibility for the same, is hoped to mean that foreign troops could soon begin leaving the country, with the building up of a viable Afghan security force being one of the cornerstones of the international community's exit strategy. Such hopes may have been dashed early into the conference when Karzai said that the engagement of the international community in Afghanistan may be necessary for another 15 years.

While the agreements reached at the conference are unprecedented in scope and in principle a cause for cautious optimism, it may be an entirely different matter to implement the same. During the conference, external voices from across the world have begun to criticise strategies that are being drafted "far away from Afghanistan", with one of the most pronounced critics being outgoing United Nations (UN) special representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide. More worryingly, the Taliban have dismissed the conference as likely to be a failure, while other crucial neighbouring countries like Iran did not even participate. Thus, it will be critical to see and monitor what will be the effects of the new-found consensus between the international community and the Afghan government on the ground.

The key tenets of the agreement that is enshrined in the final communiqué include the following:

In the communiqué it is stressed that the conference "represents a decisive step towards greater Afghan leadership to secure, stabilise and develop Afghanistan", with Karzai vowing to "build on commitments set out in his inauguration speech" while the international community also renewed its commitment to aid Afghanistan in this regard; Clinton also stressed that this does not constitute an exit strategy;
The international community will "maintain its long-term commitment to Afghanistan";
There will be a follow-up conference in Kabul in late 2010, where the Afghan government "intends to take forward its programme with concrete plans for delivery for the Afghan people";

The international community "committed to providing the necessary support to the phased growth and expansion of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) in order to reach 171,600 and 134,000 personnel by October 2011";
Conference participants also "welcomed the plans of the Government of Afghanistan to offer an honourable place in society to those willing to renounce violence, participate in the free and open society and respect the principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution, cut ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, and pursue their political goals peacefully", referring to plans to integrate Taliban into mainstream Afghan society. This is to be achieved in part by convening a Grand Peace Jirga before the Kabul conference, and Karzai also said that Saudi Arabia's king Abdullah had a role to play. The international community will fund such efforts;

Priority in the national development strategy is to be given to "accelerated progress on agriculture, human resources development and infrastructure";
The need and resolve to revamp civilian efforts in Afghanistan;
The need for the government to increase its tax and customs revenues;

The resolve of the international community to channel up to 50% of aid through the Afghan government over the next two years, although this is made conditional on "the Government's progress in further strengthening public financial management systems, reducing corruption, improving budget execution, developing a financing strategy and Government capacity towards the goal";
Greater trans-regional co-operation; and
Reiterations for the need of the Afghan government to fulfil its promises with regard to anti-corruption measures.

Outlook and Implications

On the face of it, the Afghanistan conference has delivered what it had promised—a renewed commitment between the international community and the Afghan government—and it indeed sets the terms for the implementation of the new civilian and military strategies. However, a successful implementation of the same may be harder to achieve than agree on. Given the extremely weak and divided Karzai administration, the government's lack of control over large swathes of the country's territory and population and the raging Taliban insurgency it appears that Afghanistan is in for an extremely difficult year ahead. To be sure, Afghanistan's state effectiveness will remain impaired by Karzai's perceived and real need to appease the demands of too many actors, many of which are mutually irreconcilable, which in turn will inevitably affect the degree to which the strategies agreed upon at the conference can actually be implemented. Thus, while any agreement reached can be seen as a further boost to the newly found sense of co-operation between most actors involved, it is not at all clear to what extent it will be able to shift things to the better on the ground.

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