Kabul conference: Can Karzai take the reins?

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KABUL, Afghanistan — After nearly nine years of frustrating engagement in Afghanistan, the foreign community appears eager to transfer responsibility to Kabul and go home. And at the Kabul Conference today, that seems to be exactly what is happening.

At the gathering of representatives from 70 countries, Western powers endorsed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plan to take the lead on security by 2014, according to reports and a draft of the final communique.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary general, qualified this endorsement, however, saying there would be no quick exit of troops, just a shift into a more supportive role.

As the international appetite for the war wanes, all players are more than ready to let Afghanistan take a greater role in designing its own future. The major question will be, is it ready to do so?

Ashraf Ghani, one of the main organizers of the conference, told the media he wants Kabul to have more control over aid dollars. He would like to reverse the proportions of aid money going through the Afghan government.

At stake is more than $13 billion dollars in assistance funds that Karzai wants channeled through his government, rather than given to contractors or NGOs whose priorities may not always match those of Kabul. In return, the international community wants to see clear signs that Karzai is at last turning into a reliable partner.

At present, just over 20 percent of assistance is given directly to Kabul; Ghani wants to raise that figure to 80 percent. This will be done in the name of “alignment” — bringing international aid into sync with Afghan government priorities.

But the Afghan government, as has been repeatedly pointed out, is one of the most corrupt in the world. And Karzai has made little progress on one of the main tasks set for him at January’s London Conference — improving transparency and accountability in his own back yard.

Participants in the Kabul conference, however, are not likely to hold Karzai's feet to the fire, according to Candace Rondeaux, the Kabul-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The time for hard questions and skeptical reasoning is over for the international community,” she said. “But there will be a lot of rhetoric around accountability and corruption.”

United Nations Special Representative Steffan de Mistura supplied some of the rhetoric in interviews with the media before the conference.

“From our side and from the international community’s side, there is a lot of pressure on the Afghan government,” he said. “It is now the time for the Afghan government to take more responsibility and be more accountable, meaning that corruption should be wisely controlled. Otherwise the money that the Afghan government wants to be channeled through them is not going to be allocated.”

But Rondeaux says that the tough talk is more show than substance.

“It is academic at this point whether the Karzai government is capable of spending the money effectively and transparently,” she said. “The international community is looking for the door.”

This is the ninth international conference on Afghanistan since the U.S.-led intervention chased the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001. In that time, the hopes of many Afghans have been dashed time and again, as the insurgency grows, corruption flourishes and promises made are seldom realized.

The mood in Kabul is anything but upbeat.

“This conference is being held at a time when security is deteriorating, and Karzai’s government has become extremely unpopular,” said Ahmad Behzad, political analyst and prominent parliamentarian. “The Kabul conference will not be more than a show for the Afghan people and for the international community. But for Karzai the real agenda is money; he and his cohorts want to get more funds that they can use for their own corrupt purposes.”

One of the major items on Karzai’s agenda is negotiation with the Taliban. The insurgency has grown steadily stronger over the past few years, leading all, including the U.S. forces, to openly acknowledge that a military solution to the conflict is not possible.

But the alternative — power-sharing with the Taliban — is not a prospect that excites many Afghans, especially those from the non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The Taliban are drawn largely from the Pashtuns, and talk about substantive negotiations is deepening an already gaping ethnic divide.

“People are very pessimistic and know that this conference will not bring a positive change in their lives,” said Massoud Ansari, analyst and researcher in Kabul. “But many are even more worried that this conference will give the Taliban legitimacy and will pave the way for them to rule Afghanistan again.”

Female activists, especially, are unhappy at the growing chorus calling for accommodation with the Taliban, whose harsh policies on women scandalized the world during their reign.

A group from the Afghan Women’s Movement gathered in Kabul’s Serena Hotel a few days before the conference to develop a policy statement for the event:

“The exclusion of women in the London conference and hesitation to include women in the Kabul conference raises women’s concerns regarding the Afghan government’s political will to implement gender equality and women’s empowerment, adding to the fear of losing the gains we have made in the past eight years,” read the statement, circulated widely in the media.

With world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, assembling in Kabul, security has been extraordinarily tight. The city is in almost total lockdown, with schools, government offices, and businesses closing down for the duration. The U.N. has been on restricted movement since Sunday, and much of the city is blocked to traffic. The Afghan police have mounted bright blue signs everywhere advertising their “Ring of Steel” — code word for checkpoints that make travel through many neighborhoods all but impossible.

A bomb near the airport killed at least three people on Sunday; additional blasts were heard in the same location Monday evening, but there were no reports of casualties.

With roads closed and most people restricted to their homes and immediate neighborhoods, the possibility for major problems is limited.

So the Kabul conference will continue, long on show but regrettably short on substance.

“It will be the same as other conferences,” said parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai. “The government and the international community will say nice words and make sweet promises.”

But little will change, she emphasized.

In fact, said ICG’s Rondeaux, Karzai is being given more or less carte blanche. No matter how inefficient or corrupt, he and his government will more than likely receive exactly what they are looking for: more funds and less accountability.

“The money will continue to flow,” she said. “It is a down payment on an exit.”

Freelance journalists Abaceen Nasimi and Jamaluddin Temori contributed to this report from Kabul.