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Reviewing the past, assessing the future: an interview with Aziz Rafiee

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Aziz Rafiee, Managing Director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum

Caroline Bertram: It has almost been ten years since the Taliban in Afghanistan were ‘overthrown’ and the engagement of the international community began. Afghanistan has established an elected government and is preparing to ‘stand on its own feet’ for the time that will follow the allied forces’ withdrawal in 2014. However, concerned criticism overshadows the media and speaks of ‘failure’ and ‘incoherent strategies’ in the past development efforts in the country. What is your assessment of the developments, where do you confirm this criticism and where do you see achievements?

Aziz Rafiee: There have been many areas of achievements. One cannot compare the Afghanistan in 2002 to the one in 2011. The achievements both in terms of quantity and quality are remarkable. The level of people’s awareness and participation in socio-economic as well as political developments, the increasing number of educated and graduate students, the new university and school curricula, the infrastructure for development, the economic growth, the revival of the agriculture sector, the freedom of media and expression, and many others are the known examples one can easily think and speak about.

The thousands of kilometers of road rehabilitation and construction, more than 13,000 schools, more than 10,000 clinics and hospitals, more than 150 radio channels, more than 32 TV channels, thousands of newspapers, magazines and other publications are the quantitative figures that Afghanistan have never had in its history in the past. In three years we will have more than 6,000 post graduate students returning from abroad to the country. This figure is almost higher than the number of graduate students from the famous Kabul University in Afghanistan. 

We would have had more achievements if we had established a coordinated approach towards all the development plans. In other words, a joint and coherent Afghanistan development plan throughout the process was missing. Most of the plans were made based on the desire of the international actors rather than the local or national demands. The first ever promise of the international community, the capacity, was not delivered in the past ten years. The Afghans’ empowerment that should have paid more attention to almost remained un-tackled.

Over the past 10 years, several international conferences have taken place to discuss issues of rehabilitation in Afghanistan and the role of the international community. In January 2010 a ‘new strategy’ was developed to aim more at supporting and protecting the Afghan people and intensify the training of Afghan security forces than fighting the Taliban. Four years ago (Interview with HBF on June 6, 2007) you were warning about the dangers that would arise if military strategies were not revised in future. Can you observe a change in strategy and positive impacts on the civilian situation in Afghanistan?

However long it has taken for the international community to revisit its strategy, we believe there still time to focus on priorities. One has to be cautious when talking about the military development situation. The more we maneuver around the policies and tactics, the insurgency and the militants change them faster. As an example we can point to the increasing recruitment of soldiers that has created a window for the insurgency to deploy their agent soldiers within the government troops.

Besides, the Afghanistan security has turned to business in the region, for our neighbors in particular, to gain money and ask for political gains from the west. The highly expensive and so called joint or agreed-operations between Pakistan and US can be mentioned as good examples.

Having said this, people in Afghanistan are concerned about the capacity of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) to maintain peace and security after the withdrawal of the international forces in 2014.

The second Bonn Conference is coming up in winter. What, in your opinion, are the pressing issues that need to be addressed this year? And what do you expect from the outcome of this conference? Is there a willingness within the Afghan government to include civil society in the development of the country and will their voice be heard on the conference?

Of course the governments have already announced that this is going to be a political conference chaired by the Afghan government. The thematic areas that will be discussed at this stage are the transition, the international commitment for Afghanistan beyond 2014 in the light of peace, reconciliation and reintegration programs, and security.

Moreover, this conference is going to be chaired by the Afghan government. Still, there is uncertainty on how the Afghans and the civil society will be represented in this conference. Beside the limited resources, the civil society is decided to take a strong part prior, during and after the conference advocating the demands of the people.

Do you see a participation of the Taliban during the Bonn conference as feasible or even necessary? Does the death of Osama bin Laden have an impact on negotiations with the Taliban?

As a political act, yes, it is important to include the Taliban in talks. However, I am not sure if the Taliban will join as they have maintained their positions on their legitimacy and precondition almost the same as before. The Taliban are also under strong influence of the regional intelligence and may not be permitted to act independently here.

Could you describe the role of the neighboring countries (Pakistan, India, Iran…) on the development in Afghanistan?

As it is obvious, the neighbors in Afghanistan are very influential. They are all worried about the future, their positions, the access to resources via Afghanistan or simply their share, their economic gains and lose; their political and geographical security. The strategic depth of our neighbors and the presence of international community have created an irresolvable conflict. Perhaps the best solution to this might be a more regional solution and inclusion as well as economic partnership between the regional countries.

What do you think needs to be done for Afghanistan to gain the strength it needs to sustain itself from 2014 as a secure state with a future perspective?

The first thing is to build up the capacity or in simple words: to empower the Afghans to become the leaders and owners of their country. This can only be done through an organic partnership not only with the international community but also with regional actors and neighbors of Afghanistan. The Afghans have already shown their talent of learning from and coping with challenges. This needs to be better coordinated and harmonized with development and democratic institution building. In addition to this, special attention to set up a functioning judiciary can help shortening the gap of trust between the government and the people and to open the window for rule of law and good governance.


Interview taken by Caroline Bertram



Afghanistan 2011 - 10 Years of International Engagement

After ten years of international involvement in Afghanistan, a second conference will take plan in Bonn this December 2011 to discuss the country’s future. Since 2002, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has actively supported the development of civil society in Afghanistan and has promoted exchanges between the German and Afghan public. The following dossier provides a venue for comments, analysis and debate ahead of the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan.