Five Key Priorities for the London Conference on Afghanistan

As the London Conference on Afghanistan continues, here are some priorities for the attendees to consider.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) holds a press conference with President Karzi of Afghanistan in the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 29, 2013. British Prime Minister David Cameron made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, backing talks with the Taliban after his top general said the West missed a chance to strike a peace deal 10 years ago. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL/POOL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 4, 2014, David Cameron and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will co-host the London Conference on Afghanistan. The conference offers a unique opportunity to secure continued support from the international community for Afghanistan’s long term development and stability.

Over the last decade, Afghanistan — working with its partners in the international community — has made commendable strides in expanding access to public health services and education and promoting human rights. Yet stark challenges remain. Afghanistan is threatened by externally-supported extremist militants and a narcotics industry that continues to grow, despite massive attempts to eradicate it. It suffers from weak institutions and widespread corruption, and the government struggles to raise revenue from its anaemic economy, so it is deeply reliant on foreign aid.

Faced with both remarkable achievements and imposing challenges, Afghanistan — and the decade old state-building initiative — is at a critical juncture. With the right steps, Afghanistan could emerge as a successful example of democratic state-building and peace-building among post-conflict countries, or it could slide back into poverty, fragility, and oppression. The success of the conference  should be measured by progress on five key priorities: a reformed framework for renewed aid; a consensus to improve security, a credible programme of action to eliminate corruption; new policies to boost economic productivity; and ambitious targets to ensure young people and women can fully participate in Afghanistan’s economy, politics, and society.

At the London Conference, Afghanistan and its supporters in the international community must agree to a new agenda for prosperity and stability.

The five priorities for this agenda should be:

  • Route foreign aid through the government budget and national systems. In the last decade more than three-quarters of external support went to projects that operated independently of the Afghan government. This has undermined rather than supported the development of the government institutions that Afghanistan so badly needed. Afghanistan needs continued aid until it becomes self-sustaining, but the international community and Afghan government should agree to specific targets for channelling aid through national institutions.
  • Secure a consensus on regional security cooperation. This will require agreement between Afghanistan and its neighbours and concerted initiatives to prevent the spoilers. The extremist militants of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network continue to pose major threats to the life and security of Afghans. In the first six months of 2014 alone, 4,853 civilians were injured or killed in Afghanistan, with 1,564 confirmed dead. These casualties are largely caused by militants, who not only destabilise Afghanistan but also pose a major threat to Pakistan and the region. Yet these militants enjoy impunity and shelter outside Afghanistan which have endured the militants’ activities and undermined a lasting political solution for the problem of insurgency. Reconciliation with the Taliban should be strengthened, but only if it is premised on denouncing violence and participating in legitimate political processes. Firm fiscal and legal measures must be adopted to prevent these militants from accessing revenue and enjoying impunity. Alongside this, a regional dialogue is necessary to investigate root causes of, and establishing lasting solutions to, extremist militancy.
  • Zero tolerance for corruption. The international community must have confidence in the integrity of the government institutions if it is to channel more support through them. It is vital that the Afghan government makes concrete commitments that show that it is serious about eliminating corruption. The resumption of the investigation into the Kabul bank fraud is commendable but does not go far enough. Kabul bank collapsed in 2010 because of fraud and mismanaged. Despite an estimated $900 million loss the case of Kabul Bank was left in limbo. The government should target zero corruption in core government institutions including the Ministries of Finance, Commerce, Mining, Police, and Education, and the judiciary. These reforms will only work if there is consensus and unity among political elites.
  • Prioritize economic growth. If Afghanistan is to move out of its chronic dependence on foreign aid, it needs to have a much stronger national economy. Fostering domestic industries and Afghan exports would provide much needed employment and a tax base to shore up future government revenue. The Conference should agree on specific steps to improve mutual trade and stimulate domestic and foreign investment. Investments should capitalize on Afghanistan’s natural resources and its strategic location as a transit corridor between Iran, Pakistan, China, and the Central Asian states.
  • Put young professionals and women in leadership positions. Afghanistan’s people are its most precious resource. Tapping into the collective energy and ideas of all of its citizens is vital for the country’s future. Young people and women — the segments of society most disadvantaged — need to be given leadership positions in government. This would catalyse a revival of the public sector and help restore the faith of ordinary people in their government. Specific targets should be developed to increase the number of young people and women in senior government positions.

A stable, economically sustainable and democratic Afghanistan is in the interest of its 28 million citizens, other countries in the region, and the world at large. This is a historic moment and a critical juncture for Afghanistan. The leaders who gather in London have the opportunity to set Afghanistan on a path to a prosperous and vibrant future. They must seize it.

Nematullah Bizhan is an Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Development Policy at the Australian National University.