The largest international conference ever convened in Kabul is set to get underway on July 20 amid greatly diminished expectations.
During its planning stages, the Kabul Conference was expected to establish “a new social contract” between the Afghan government and people, as well as advance the process of the “Afghanization” of the stabilization process, with the international community handing increasing control of reconstruction initiatives over to the Karzai administration. Now, according to recent comments by UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura, success should be measured simply “by the fact that it is taking place.”
Afghan officials had been calling for international donors to funnel at least 50 percent of aid through the Kabul government within a period of two years. Currently, the Afghan government is responsible for administering only about 20 percent of international assistance. According to diplomatic sources, donors flatly rejected the Afghan government proposal long before the opening of the Kabul conference. Officially, however, the proposal will remain on the table.
Unable to expand its hold over aid money, Afghan officials are now pushing for a realignment of aid prioritization, under which 80 percent of donor money would be devoted to government-preferred projects. The Afghan government’s template of projects and proposals to be presented at the conference would provide the basis for donor spending.
Though Afghan officials and major Western donors are still touting the conference as an event that can provide a boost for the democratization process, Afghan non-governmental organization representation at the conference appears to be minimal. Organizers, including the Afghan government and the United Nations, say the top priority was to accommodate foreign diplomats, including 70 foreign ministers. Women’s groups have been especially critical of the process, holding their own conference on July 17-18 to emphasize their exclusion from the donor gathering.
With plans and policies still being fleshed out, the international community unwilling to reroute its funding, and sections of Afghan society feeling excluded, the concrete outcomes of the Kabul conference are likely to be limited.
The two aspects of the conference that may get clear and unequivocal support from Western attendees are the issues of security transition and reconciliation. Participating diplomats from troop-contributing countries are keen to work out a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troop contingents. Thus, diplomats seem willing to embrace the Afghan government’s timetable for taking control of the security sector. For the same reason, the Afghan government’s policy of reconciliation with former combatants is also likely to receive an endorsement from visiting dignitaries, as, theoretically, it could help end the conflict.
However, as a recent report by Human Rights Watch pointed out, concessions and compromises with the Taliban or other insurgent groups may erode the civil rights of Afghan women. Evidence documented by HRW from Taliban-controlled areas has shown that women are being actively harassed, attacked, threatened and even killed for trying to play an active part in public life. Local human rights groups are calling for more accountability rather than forgiveness and reconciliation.
So far the conference has offered little evidence it will succeed in bringing ordinary Afghans into the political process. In a statement issued on the eve of the Kabul Conference, Oxfam, the international aid agency, expressed concern that despite the conference’s aim to pen a “new social contract” between the Afghan government and its people, ordinary people could be left on the sidelines of policy-making debates.
“Getting information about the conference has been like pulling teeth. Is it about power? Is it fear?” said activist Mehbouba Seraj, who is also a candidate for the parliamentary elections, echoing the Oxfam statement. “They talk about bringing together the people, the government and the NGOs. Do they even know what that is? The government has become ‘us’ and the rest of Afghanistan has become ‘them,’ and it is us versus them. It is not just women. The whole of Afghanistan is marginalized.”
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.