The London Conference: Recommitting to Afghanistan’s Secure Future: Inteview with M. Ashraf Haidari, Political Counselor and Acting Defense Attaché of the Embassy of Afghanistan (Washington, DC)
International Affairs Forum:
Thank you very much for the opportunity to interview you again, and this time on another pivotal event, the London Conference, taking place this Thursday. Please tell us about the significance of this Conference to the government and people of Afghanistan, as well as your nation’s expectations from this international gathering.
M. Ashraf Haidari:
It’s a pleasure speaking to you again. The London Conference this Thursday, without any doubt, is of historic importance not only to the government and people of Afghanistan but also to our international partners for a number of clear reasons. First, the Conference comes after a year of many trials and tribulations for Afghanistan and our nation-partners, a year of many sacrifices both civilian and military—Afghan and international—and a year of many shared accomplishments.
Also, eight years have passed since the first international conference on reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan in Tokyo in January 2002, and others that have followed since—in Berlin (2004), in London (2006), and in Paris (2008)—each with a promise of recommitting to the common security of Afghanistan, the region, and the world at large. But, on the contrary, year after year since 2002, we and our partners have witnessed a deterioration, rather than improvement, of security, governance, and protection of civilians and human rights in Afghanistan.
I must underline, however, the realization by the Obama administration upon taking over from the last administration of the fact that Afghanistan, indeed, was and remains to be “a war of necessity” for the common security of us and every nation involved in helping build and consolidate peace in Afghanistan. Against this background and the success of our second presidential election recently, I must say that the Afghan people are more critical, more demanding, and more optimistic at the same time in terms of their expectations.
And I think that the London Conference is timely organized to serve as a forum to focus and deliberate on the most effective ways of delivering on what I still believe are the basic expectations of the Afghan people: security and protection from violent extremism; job opportunities and a way out of abject poverty due to three decades of imposed conflicts on Afghanistan; and justice and an end to the culture of impunity. The policies and priorities of the Afghan government, from the very beginning, have been in line with these expectations, and we’ve striven, to the extent that limited resources and capacity have allowed us, to meet these popular demands with international support.
There are conflicting stories on the various goals of the London Conference. Could you please help clarify the main objectives of the Conference, and the key issues to be discussed by the government of Afghanistan.
The London Conference is supposed to serve as a renewal of firm commitment by the Afghan government, our international partners, and the key regional actors to ensuring international peace and regional stability through stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan. We’ve learned from the past and recent events that continued instability in Afghanistan is not limited to the internal challenges facing the Afghan people. Protracted instability in our country, for more than three decades now, is very much a function of traditional, new, and emerging threats to global security that increasingly transcend borders. And Afghanistan and the region we’re in continue to constitute the epicenter of these divergent dangerous threats that must be overcome with serious and sincere international and regional cooperation.
For our part, Afghanistan co-chairs the London Conference, and we intend to introduce clear initiatives in the areas of security, governance, and development with the purpose of achieving gradual self-reliance in those areas with continued international support. At the same time, we make a number of commitments towards accomplishing these initiatives and our priorities with a specific demand from the international community that they increasingly align their aid resources and efforts with our short- and long-term security and development objectives.
It is quite apparent from international press that reintegration of the Taliban fighters is quite high on the agenda of the London Conference. There is a lot of confusion about this. What’s really meant by reintegration of the Taliban and under what specific conditions?
Reintegration of present or former combatants must be an integral part of every war effort. Because the security and reconstruction needs and priorities of Afghanistan were shortchanged for more than seven years, the most important aspects of state-building were neglected—including the resourcing and implementation of a robust reintegration program, indeed, not just for an expanding number of rental Taliban fighters or former combatants but also for millions of Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons, who have returned home without much reintegration assistance.
We welcome international support for helping the Afghan government launch and lead an effective reintegration program as part of an integrated war strategy pursued by us, the US, and NATO. Conservatively speaking, the majority, more than seventy percent of the Taliban fighters, are illiterate and jobless youth, who have been lured into fighting our and international forces for a daily wage. Another ten to fifteen percent of the Taliban fighters have overlapping grievances, on which Al Qaeda, ideological members of the Taliban, and elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services have capitalized to destabilize south and east of Afghanistan.
I think that for those anti-government forces that fight for a livelihood, there has to be an incentive in the form of vocational training, on- or off-farm work opportunities, micro-credit for small enterprises in urban and rural areas, and a visibly expanding environment of increased human security so that the Afghan people begin seeing that peace, prosperity, and justice gradually take root in Afghanistan.
Those anti-government forces that we offer the reintegration opportunity must meet the essential conditions of laying down their weapons, renouncing violence, pledging allegiance to the constitution of Afghanistan, and resuming life in peace with the rest of their society.
Many experts and observers of Afghanistan believe that stabilization of Afghanistan cannot be achieved without regional cooperation. Do you agree with this statement?
It is a fact that the Taliban insurgency has been led, resourced, financed, and maintained outside Afghanistan in the region. And Pakistan had to overnight discontinue its active support for and diplomatic recognition of the Taliban when former U.S. President George W. Bush told his then Pakistani counterpart President Pervez Musharraf, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” in the wake of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks masterminded by Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan had no choice but to stop supporting the Taliban then. But the country’s relationship with the Taliban was never completely severed, and was soon revived after the U.S. increasingly became bogged down in Iraq from 2003 to 2008.
As I said earlier, most of our internal problems—widespread poverty, weak governance, a lack of socio-economic facilities and opportunities—are common to the countries of “bottom billion” where security is not a major problem. But in our case these internal problems provide opportunities for interference by predatory state and non-state actors who have broader strategic and ideological designs in the region and the world at large. So, a major focus of the London Conference is on regional cooperation—building on the recent conference of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the summit of heads of state of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey in Istanbul this week, as well as many other ongoing regional initiatives for cooperation.
On our part, Afghanistan pursues a sovereign foreign policy and is firmly committed to mutual non-interference in our relationship with all of our neighbors. Our country is uniquely located at the heart of South West and Central Asia, and we aspire to serve as a land-bridge in the region—connecting south to the north and east to the west—for commerce, trade, investment, and exchange of ideas in a rapidly shrinking and globalizing world.
I must point out that as we invite our neighbors to help stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan, we strongly reject (by some of our neighbors) expressions of their “legitimate interests” in Afghanistan. We consider such statements as an indication of interference in the Afghan affairs, particularly as our country no longer serves, as it once did during 1990s, as a regional proxy battlefield. We are a sovereign nation-state, adhere to the principles of the United Nations Charter, and pursue mutually beneficial relationship with all of our neighbors.
Will aid effectiveness figure high on the agenda of the London Conference, given the criticism that much of the aid provided by the international community is being wasted?
Yes, aid effectiveness, financial and administrative accountability, and anti-corruption measures are highly expected to be raised in the conference. On these issues, Afghanistan and the international community intend to agree on a set of specific commitments and benchmarks to achieve in ensuring maximum effectiveness in the provision and implementation of aid resources. One of the key demands of the Afghan government, from the vey beginning, has been increased direct assistance to the state institutions of Afghanistan. So far, ninety percent of international assistance has bypassed the Afghan government. Because most international contractors, United Nations agencies, and non-governmental organizations have high overhead costs, much of the tax payers’ aid monies to Afghanistan are wasted and do not reach the targeted beneficiaries.
We welcome the increased oversight of the aid the United States is providing to Afghanistan. The U.S. Congress has held a number of hearings to discuss ways to ensure aid effectiveness, and we’re pleased that the U.S. government has considered providing direct budgetary support to several of our best performing ministries including Agriculture, Education, Public Health, Rural Development and Rehabilitation, and Telecommunications. We hope that in the next two years, direct assistance to Afghanistan will increase by fifty percent, and that most countries begin channeling their aid resources through the government’s more cost-effective mechanisms, particularly the jointly administered trust funds such as the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund or ARTF.
What is the public mood like in Afghanistan, and how does it compare with the public opinion or support for Afghanistan in the contributing countries?
I think the war in Afghanistan is increasingly becoming a public war, and a war of perceptions. We need the support of the Afghan people and that of the publics in the contributing countries to win the peace in Afghanistan. And so it is critically important that this is factored in the overall efforts of Afghanistan and our international partners. And so the people and their interests cannot and should not be ignored, as we prosecute the war against our common enemies in Afghanistan and the region. The Afghan people remain very optimistic about their future, and continue to support international presence in our country. According to a recent BBC and ABC poll, seventy percent of Afghans support NATO and Coalition forces, and an equal percentage approve of the government’s performance and the leadership of President Hamid Karzai.
As for the public support for the Afghan mission in the contributing countries, it has declined over the past few years. This has to do with the fact that people in the contributing countries are generally unaware of why their countries are involved in Afghanistan, and the failure of governments to inform the public of the importance of securing Afghanistan to the national security interests of their own countries. Overall, however, there is still tremendous public goodwill for the people of Afghanistan in many countries. In the U.S. Congress, different aspects—both military and civilian—continue to receive strong support, and the coalition governments in Europe appreciate the importance of staying the course in Afghanistan for the safety and security of their own citizens. We welcome the recent announcement by Germany and Britain of deploying additional forces to Afghanistan, and look forward to increased security and development assistance from other countries.
And please allow me to take this opportunity to express the gratitude of the Afghan people and government to the nations supporting Afghanistan, as well as to the families and forces of those countries that help build peace in our country. As I said earlier, securing Afghanistan is a shared cause, and we can only achieve this goal together in a solid partnership.
Mr. M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor and Acting Defense Attaché of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. Mr. Haidari is a seasoned analyst of the Afghan and regional politics, and has extensively written on the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan, as well as international security affairs. He was an International Peace Scholar and a Fellow in Foreign Service at Georgetown University from 2002-2005. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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