In The Media

David Collins: Afghanistan's aid pitch

by David Collins

Ottawa Citizen
December 3rd, 2014

On Dec. 4, in London, the international donor community will meet with the new president of Afghanistan and his government. The purpose of this conference, co-hosted by the governments of the United Kingdom and Afghanistan, is to allow the new government to set out its vision and strategy for the international community to recommit its support. But many fault lines remain.

The presidential election in April and run-off vote in June produced a national unity government, under which two main candidates agreed to form a type of co-presidency, with Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive. One can fault the regime of former president Hamid Karzai on many fronts, but this new partnership between two political rivals remains untested. In fact, the two have yet to agree on members of the cabinet, although this is promised before the conference. The task before them remains immense.

Security is by no means assured in Afghanistan. The international combat mission has ceased and only a relatively small number of trainers will remain to support the Afghan National Security Forces in their fight against the Taliban and other insurgents. Violence in Kabul this week and elsewhere indicates that this fight is far from over. One of the challenges of the new administration will be to enter into reconciliation talks with the insurgents if they will come to the table. The role of helpful third parties, such as the Chinese, may prove pivotal in this regard because of China’s positive relations with other actors such as the government of Pakistan.

In the last 13 years, many billions of dollars have been invested in transforming Afghanistan, and many lives have been lost. Despite some bright spots regarding the role of women in society and better health care, much remains to be done. Capacity among civil servants and institutions remains woefully inadequate. Corruption has not been tamed and remains a cancer on the administration of the country. Governance remains weak. Despite robust efforts, the growth of poppy is actually increasing again and the country desperately needs a counter-narcotics policy.

Following the withdrawal of Canadian troops earlier this year, the government has committed approximately $227 million over three years in support of development projects related to maternal and child health, education and human rights. A similar dollar amount has been committed for training and support of the army and police. This will not be a bottomless pit.

Donor “fatigue” is palpable in the Western community. While there is obviously interest in protecting the legacy of what has previously been committed, and to see projects through, donors want to see much more concrete progress in the transformation of Afghanistan. This is the immediate challenge facing President Ghani and his government. He has made a good start in several areas regarding the treasury and the legal apparatus. It seems clear that he (as a former senior World Bank official) knows what needs to be done. But can he marshal the support of his chief executive, other factions and tribal elders to move his yet-to-be revealed programme ahead?

The London Conference provides Ghani the opportunity to lay all this out. He has perhaps two years to prove that governance and conditions in Afghanistan have improved on his watch. Despite the highly-principled rhetoric that will no doubt flow in London, what really counts is performance over the next two years. If Ghani cannot deliver, he will find that further support from the donor community will fall away. And at what cost to Afghanistan and the region, and the international community?

David Collins is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a former high commissioner to Pakistan and an interim head of mission to Afghanistan.

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