Why the Brussels Donor Conference Should Recommit to Afghanistan
This week, the European Union and the Afghan government will co-host the third in a series of conferences in Brussels that will convene Afghanistan’s partners to discuss future foreign assistance commitments. At the 2012 Conference in Tokyo seventy international donors promised to mobilize $16 billion for Afghanistan in total foreign assistance over the subsequent four years, with the United States expected to cover about half of the amount. In Brussels, Afghanistan is hoping for a re-commitment to similar funding levels through 2020.
The donor countries and Afghan policymakers gather at a time when the security situation has deteriorated in the wake of the reduction of Western military forces in Afghanistan, attracting much media attention and concern. Security is certainly vital for success, but economic and social progress alongside good governance is also needed. Afghanistan’s partners seek determined leadership in Kabul and a consensus based on a process for achieving measurable progress. Afghanistan’s government and its people in return need partners that understand that progress will require another decade of engagement.
A stable and sustainable Afghanistan is in the interest of the United States, other international partners and the region. The costs of allowing a friendly government to collapse would be very high in a region that is volatile and susceptible to inroads by extremist groups. The 2014 reduction in foreign military support allowed a resurgent Taliban to gain control of at least one-fifth of the country, and some say more. The Brussels Conference is an opportunity to acknowledge the key role of development assistance in building a stable Afghanistan, since July’s NATO Summit in Warsaw focused on providing security assistance commitments of about $1 billion a year to the country through 2020.
Afghanistan has a democratically elected government and is no longer a safe haven for extremists with international reach, as it was prior to 2001. Sadly, a sizable portion of the Afghan population remains under the control of the Taliban today. The group has failed to capture and hold major urban areas, but it has launched a series of attacks across the country straining Afghan government security capacities. And, safe havens for the insurgency continue to exist in Pakistan. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have developed into a functioning military institution over the last decade and have managed to hold their own, and even take back lost ground against the Taliban under a “fight, hold, disrupt” campaign strategy. The ANDSF has suffered extensive casualties, but they are still a viable force, even while they lack capacity in key areas such as logistics, air support, and intelligence. President Obama decided to freeze the withdrawal of U.S. forces and allow the forces remaining to provide more active support for Afghan military operations, as well as to continue operations against the “Islamic State” and remnants of Al Qaeda. This decision has likely been critical in preventing the Taliban from taking control of important population centers. Even if the security situation remains threatening, however, the country can make social and economic progress.
Corruption remains a major deterrent to investment and economic growth, as well as in improving the effectiveness of the security forces. It is also a key constraint in establishing the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the Afghan people. Afghanistan was ranked 166 out of 167 on Transparency International (TI)’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. Funds allocated for development and reconstruction have too often taken a detour into the pockets of undeserving Afghans. Afghanistan’s government is working to address previous failures of anti-corruption efforts through a new anti-corruption strategy, which is evident in the creation of a new Anti-Corruption Justice Center and the removal of corrupt and unqualified officials.
Afghanistan continues to be a major source of the world’s illicit opium and heroin. It remains the largest producer of opium, with poppy cultivation increasing to a record 211,000 hectares in 2014, coincident with the shrinking of territory under clear government control. The Taliban has long influenced the drug trade; trafficking is now the Taliban’s steadiest source of revenue. Landowners and farmers under the influence of the Taliban have little power to resist orders to cultivate crops on its behalf. There are credible reports of official Afghan collusion in the drug trade as well. Official involvement in the drug trade creates a distrust of Afghan officials and seriously hinders economic development.