It was a long day that offered unusual and surprising perspectives on Afghanistan and the international engagement in the country. During the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation’s conference “10 Years after Petersberg: Where does Afghanistan stand today?”, a female member of the Afghan parliament, the former Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the former head of the National Security Directorate of Afghanistan and one of the most important Afghan journalists presented their views of the current problems that the country is facing. A set of broadcasting examples showed how popular Afghan television conveys a new atmosphere of freedom and promotes a more critical perspective on the society and its role models. One panel dealt with the unsolved regional issues. A lot of Afghans participated in the discussions with the presenters and speakers - among them a group of students from Erfurt.
The last panel addressed the plan to withdraw the international troops by 2014 that will be the central focus of the foreign ministerial Afghanistan conference held on December 5th in Bonn. The panel was chaired by Barbara Unmüßig, president of Heinrich Boell Foundation.
What are the future perspectives for Afghanistan? Is the international community’s assertion of continued civil engagement credible?
Fahim Hakim, the Deputy Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission spoke of “enormous progress” Afghanistan has made after decades of war – especially in the fields of education, communication, media and infrastructure. After a long time, legitimate democratic institutions are reemerging in his homeland, he said. But besides the successes there have been failures too: corruption, a national economy marked by drug money and war, insecurity, injustice and impunity are wider spread than before. Shortcomings regarding jurisdiction as well as the party and electoral system need to be overcome. Too many parties are fighting against each other so that they can hardly play a constructive role, Hakim elaborated.
Afghans want to lead normal lives without having to depend on military support from abroad, he said. But to make this possible, all the stakeholders still have a lot of work to do. Still today, in Afghanistan there is a lack of capacities, of professional approaches and of real political will. But an exit strategy can only be successful if basic and human rights are recognized. The political space for civil society and human rights activists must not be further restricted. Afghan people have to be able to trust their government who has to carry out state duties.
No withdrawal for the sake of withdrawal
Several times during the evening session the fatal consequences of the departure of the western community from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of soviet troops in 1989 were mentioned. The power vacuum that had been created led to the longstanding civil war of the warlords. It was eventually brought to an end by the takeover by the Taliban in 1996. A withdrawal for the sake of withdrawal would be a strategic disaster, Hakim reasoned, because it would encourage the Taliban and their regional supporters to continue with their acts of violence. No one is against negotiations with the insurgents, he said, but it is a risky game. Values and principles should be in the foreground of any negotiations and regarding the freedom of opinion there should be no compromises made.
Michael Steiner, Germany’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, explained the German definition of responsible withdrawal. The situation in Afghanistan – despite the mentioned successes – is still not rosy and the responsible people have “in the past often painted too rosy a picture”. Steiner expressed dislike against the term ‘exit strategy’ that Hakim had used because it implied that Germany would be avoiding its responsibilities. But Germany will stick to the promises made in 2001, Steiner said. He also expressed his hope that the other states will also guarantee their commitment at the upcoming Bonn conference. The international community mustn’t leave behind “ruins of engagement” in 2014. But Bonn might be the last opportunity for binding commitment, because the international attention is increasingly drawn to other issues, he pointed out.
Stop fighting - continue aid
Steiner acknowledged that in 2001 there had been illusions, but today things were seen more realistically: The main objective was to create sufficient stability and to ensure the recognition of fundamental human rights. The schedule until 2014 was realistic too, he said. The Bonn conference would address three strategic questions: The question of transition, of solidification of Afghan sovereignty and of the prevention of an economic collapse after the withdrawal of the 140 000 international troops on whose presence 90 percent of the Afghan gross national product depend. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), too, will cease to exist after 2014. But civilian aid for infrastructure, education and the health sector as well as the training of police personnel and armed forces has to continue for the next ten years at least. Finally, the regional potential of Afghanistan as a hub between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent has to be aroused. Up until now, the cooperation between the regional stakeholders is in great need of improvement, Steiner said.
Frithjof Schmidt, the deputy Parliamentary Party Leader of Alliance 90/The Green Party, indicated that there is an unpleasant yet crucial issue that is discussed by the international community when they talk about the time after 2014: The subsequent build-up and deployment of the 300 000 Afghan armed forces will cost 4 to 6 billion dollar per year that Afghanistan will not be able to raise on its own. The fear is great that this will be at the expense of sustainable development in the country. Also alarming is the creation of local militia operating outside the realm of regular armed forces, he asserted.
Negotiate – but with whom?
There is no military solution to problems with the insurgents, Steiner maintained. Therefore, a political process that will lead to negotiations is needed. These negotiations will have to be structured and goal-oriented, transparent and inclusive. The Afghan constitution and its enshrined human rights, including women’s rights, could not be put up for negotiation. In an Afghan led process – as it is intended – the international community would have to accept that opportunities for interference are limited, he added later. So far it has not become clear how the individual conversations that have been hold to date can end in real negotiations. Some intelligence agencies have been fooled by wrong emissaries and meddlers. Unfortunately, the neighbors are also still interfering. And in the end it could proof that the opponents are not capable of making politics. Taking the first step needs a lot of courage.
Hakim explained that on the side of the insurgents no real contact person could be identified until now. He pointed out that as soon as the government manages to restore the people’s trust through good governance, its negotiating capacity would be strengthened because it would be less vulnerable.
Fazel Rabi Haqbeen, Program Director in the Kabul office of The Asia Foundation, which on a regular basis conducts a large public survey on the life of Afghan’s, supports the negotiation process as initiated by the Afghan High Peace Council. Haqbeen maintained the view that the assassination of its leader Burhanuddin Rabbani in September was a major blowback. The violence in the country is imposed from the outside, he said, and it does not comply with the traditional values in Afghanistan. He also emphasized the importance of making negotiations transparent and to make religious leaders heard, too. He argued for the international community to trust the Afghans, who would do the right thing.
Civil society has the floor
In June, a consultation process was started that encompasses a broad spectrum of civil society members, in which Hakim was a leading participant. Its aim was to formulate recommendations for the foreign ministerial Afghanistan conference in Bonn and to nominate 34 delegates that will also travel to Bonn where they will participate in the Afghanistan Civil Society Forum on December 2nd and 3rd. Two delegates will also take part in the foreign minister’s conference.
Hakim thanked the German government for supporting this initiative. Steiner praised the help that the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation together with other German political foundations has provided in organizing the forum. The two young Afghan delegates that he had met in Astana, Steiner said, had impressed him greatly. Frithjof Schmidt expressed the hope that the young generation of Afghanistan could contribute to positive developments in the country – as it has happened in the Arab countries.