On 27 June, ISIS Europe attended the roundtable discussion on Perspectives and Strategies for Constructive Conflict Resolution from the Neighbourhood in Afghanistan, organised by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Kicking off with inputs by Ambassador Mahmoud Saikal, Policy Group Afghanistan, and Andreas Fischer-Barnicol, Desk Officer Afghanistan at the European External Action Service, the event also brought together experts from national policy groups of Pakistan, India and Central Asia in what was a most fruitful and stimulating discussion.
2014 will be a landmark year for the future of Afghanistan. Since the announcement of the ISAF’s withdrawal from the country at the end of 2014, all talks have focused on the “post-2014” era with blurriness and uncertainty characterising the international community’s statements on its future engagement and support to the country. However, 2014 is not only a year of change for external assistance to Afghanistan; it is also the year when elections should be held, an issue which has received only late and very superficial attention in the West. Indeed, the EU has been calling for transparent and inclusive elections that would empower a President and a government with political legitimacy internally and abroad. However, electoral laws enshrined in the Constitution have still not been put in place. In addition, the lack of appropriate voter registration procedures casts shadows on the reliability of voter turnout and election results. Ambassador Saikal went as far as expressing doubts about elections actually being organised, as no initiative seems to be emanating from the Presidential Palace; instead, every action taken by the Palace is reducing more and more the possibility of elections being held.
In Mr. Fischer-Barnicol’s perspective, the stabilisation of the country will much more depend on national factors (elections, governance, building state structures, and development), than on foreign support. Arguing that active ownership is key for sustainability, he called for Afghanistan to assume full responsibility not only for its security, but also for its development. If the EU will keep supporting Afghanistan after 2014, Mr. Fischer-Barnicol suggested that, in the future, its contributions should be made conditional on progress being made and red lines respected, consistently with the Bonn Conference. Using conditionality as a foreign policy instrument is, however, highly controversial; ultimately, those that will be the most affected by assistance being withheld will be the people of Afghanistan, who, in Ambassador Saikal’s words, “is already punished by its corrupt government”. Thus, the way in which conditionality is implemented is essential if the measure is to have any effect on the government and its targeted corrupt components.
The Peace Reconciliation Process was naturally at the core of the discussion. The EU will endorse a primarily supportive role, as the process needs to be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. However, internal support and backing for the process is lacking as political initiative and ownership is limited, including from other regional actors. The Peace Process presents considerable weaknesses and its success is inextricably linked to the political legitimacy it will have in the eyes of the Afghan people. Serious and sincere talks with Pakistan are a necessary building block in any attempt to reach reconciliation, while fundamental issues such as demobilisation, giving up arms, respect for the Constitution need to be tackled. Most importantly, the question that remains is: is Afghanistan in a position to lead that process? Considering the weakness of the state’s structures, the corruption surrounding President Karzai and his government, and the disruption of traditional Afghan governance mechanisms, is the simple idea of an “Afghan-own and Afghan-led” Peace Process realistic? Solutions to Afghan problems are ultimately found outside the country, although their conceptualisation and implementation must be owned and led by Afghanistan…
As argued by Maj. Gen. Ashok Kumar Mehta, the Peace Process is unlikely to succeed if it is simply considered as a tactical move. In his opinion, given the fact that those brokering peace are simultaneously stakeholders and involved in the interest circles of the conflict, the current process is doomed to fail. He called for a UN mechanism to facilitate talks between Afghan authorities and the Taliban.
Progresses have been made in Afghanistan; the situation of women is improving, civil society is flourishing, newspapers and radio are relatively free. Yet, the gains remain extremely fragile and need to be consolidated in order to become sustainable. Security, however, is the cornerstone. Although the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Police increasingly improve their professionalism, they still lack sufficient intelligence capabilities that would allow them to detect and diffuse terrorist plots, as the recent attack on the Presidential Palace has revealed. Afghanistan’s security is intricately linked to Pakistan, its governance and the outcome of its undergoing transition. Pakistan’s opening up to the region and its private sector’s engagement in the region will undoubtedly constitute an important factor. This is a field where the EU could have some added-value, providing technical support on regional trade, cooperation, integration and mutual trust-building in the framework of the Istanbul Process and the Heart of Asia initiatives.
Ambassador Saikal’s overall assessment of the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan is positive; yet, he underlined that regular dialogue needs to be maintained, and that increased focus and support should be given to the 2014 elections that constitute a milestone for the country’s future. He called for the EU to convey a strong message at the upcoming Senior Officials Meeting in Kabul on 3 July 2013.
You can find more details on the event here