What really happened at the London Conference on Afghanistan? Sadly, not much. There was a real sense of déjà vu — much the same has been said in Bonn, Tokyo, Kabul, Berlin, London, Rome, Paris, and the Hague — and these conferences all seem divorced from the real facts on the ground.
These events are, of necessity, political pep rallies for Western domestic audiences who are anxious to see their governments "doing something" about Afghanistan and addressing their concerns about the Karzai "government."
During the conference, President Karzai unveiled a six-point "Action Plan" designed to turn around the situation in Afghanistan. But how much "action" is really behind the political façade of his six-point plan?
1. Peace and Reconciliation
President Karzai announced the Taliban Reintegration Plan, with the stated aim to "offer an honorable place in society" to those insurgents willing to renounce al-Qaeda, abandon violence and pursue their political goals peacefully and in accordance with the Afghan Constitution.
This plan seems hastily pulled together to attempt to give the London Conference a focal point. There was mechanical support for the initiative and very little genuine political enthusiasm from Western leaders: just $140 million has been pledged for the first year.
This is surely a case of "the devil is in the details." There have been mentions of paying Taliban a flat fee to switch sides (later denied by Interior Minister Mohammed Atmar), or offering socio-economic opportunities such as jobs or training. There is no clarity and so far only confusion.
What jobs are these reformist Taliban to be offered? Unemployment levels in Afghanistan run at around 40 percent. Since neither the Afghan government nor the international community have yet been capable of providing enough jobs for law-abiding young men in Afghanistan, how can a Reintegration Fund suddenly create sustainable employment for tens of thousands of former insurgents? Or would they be welcomed where there are job opportunities: in the Afghan National Police or Afghan National Army? Surely, this would be a formula for infiltration of the ANA and ANP by the Taliban, especially given the existing problems with vetting recruits.
As for paying the Taliban to switch, the figures provided so far are not significant: $140 million for the first year will not achieve much. Current U.S. military intelligence estimates indicate that there are around 30,000 Taliban fighters across Afghanistan. Even if the Reintegration Fund was only able to reach half of these insurgents, there would be at most $1,000 paid to each Taliban member who switched. Once administrative costs, are factored in, this figure will drop even further. What is to stop a Taliban fighter from taking the money and then "relapsing," and returning to violence?
Another expected, but still largely aspirational, goal was President Karzai’s insistence that Afghan security forces would "lead security of our country within the next five years all over Afghanistan." Unaddressed were the significant desertion and drug addiction rates in the security forces, which are still alarmingly high. In late 2009, it was estimated that 10,000 out of the 94,000 Afghan soldiers who had been trained so far — 10.6 percent — had simply disappeared. Fifteen percent of the Afghan army, and up to 60 percent of the Afghan police in Helmand province, are estimated to be drug addicts.
3. Good Governance
Expanding the reach of the central government while reforming its institutions to be accountable and effective is another worthy aim set out in Karzai’s speech. However, there is no indication how this will come about. Significant portions of the country have a limited or non-existent government presence, and some areas are completely controlled and governed by the Taliban. The government’s reputation for bribery and inefficiency has led many Afghans, and members of the international community, to simply bypass it.
In Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, the Shinwari tribe has agreed to fight against the Taliban but will be paid $1 million, directly from the U.S. government. The aid will avoid the local government, with whom the Shinwari are also furious for their corruption and inability to provide basic services. One of the tribe’s elders declared that: "We have absolutely no faith in the Afghan government to do anything for us. We don’t trust them at all."
Karzai also stated in his speech that the parliamentary elections now scheduled for September will be "free and fair," calling for the international community’s assistance to be "impartial, technical and constructive," a back-handed complaint against the role of Western allies in responding to the fraud in last August’s presidential election. Given that the Karzai-appointed head of the Independent Election Commission remains in charge of the election process, we should mark the notion that the parliamentary elections would be of a different sort as aspirational, at best.
Inside Kabul itself we see the dysfunction of the political process. Karzai has not been able to complete his government, as the Parliament has failed to confirm his proposed Cabinet members. Yet the Speaker of the Parliament, Mohammed Qanooni (a member of an opposition political party and a Tajik) was not invited to the London Conference, despite the need for the Karzai Government and the international community to build a functioning political relationship with the Afghan Parliament and opposition party members.
Tackling graft will be the "key focus of my second term in office," according to Karzai. Much has been made of his supposed commitment to fighting corruption, which the UNODC estimates at comprising 25 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP. Karzai continues to talk of corruption as if it is being undertaken by someone other than his own government and his own appointees.
Additionally, in an interview with the BBC’s John Simpson just a few days before the London Conference, President Karzai insisted that the UNODC report on corruption level was "simply fabricated."
In London, Karzai called for an "end to the culture of impunity" — again as if this was being carried out by actors outside his government. Yet last July it was Karzai himself who pardoned five senior drug traffickers, one of whom was related to his election manager, and he has supported the mayor of Kabul despite his conviction on corruption charges.
All of this makes his bold declarations on corruption and the rule of law sound incredibly hollow, and merely part of a stage production for the international community.
5: Regional Co-operation
The need for a regional solution to Afghanistan’s crisis is another lofty, aspiration. In reality, the interests and the capabilities of Afghanistan’s neighbors are too divided to make this a meaningful solution. Iran’s last-minute absence from the London conference underlines this point, as does the continuing hostility between Pakistan and India. And are we including Russia and China? What exactly does this " regional co-operation" point mean, how will these regional players be brought in?
6: Economic Development
Pledges to build Afghanistan’s private sector and improve the country’s infrastructure have been heard again and again over the past eight years. However, Karzai’s speech did not mention one of the most central economic issues to Afghanistan — opium trafficking.
The absence of a new approach to opium production underlines the fundamental problem with the London Conference. The event produced a lot of bold promises and fine words, but there is a concerning lack of detail on all of these points. The Karzai "government" continues to dismiss the problem of corruption as a Western invention; the "international community" insists on the need for reconciliation with the Taliban and then fails to provide the necessary funds.
And what of the grinding poverty of the Afghan people themselves, the lack of food aid in the South, the growing camps of displaced families, and civilian casualties at their highest level ever last year?
This type of "hold hands and hope for the best" conference has happened before, at all of the 10 international conferences on Afghanistan held over the past 9 years. In which capital will we meet next year to re-affirm, once again, our "commitment to Afghanistan"?