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World Must Help Afghanistan through Its Risky Pause

Financial Times, 30 January 2006

The drama of Afghanistan is in a dangerous intermission. One act has finished and another is about to begin; but the script has not yet been written, some key actors have been slow to answer their calls and there are too many villains for comfort waiting in the wings.

The December inauguration of Afghanistan’s National Assembly marked the symbolic end of the institution-creating process outlined in the 2001 Bonn agreement, the post-Taliban roadmap for the country’s political transition. Even if some undesirable characters from the country’s violent past were elected, the new parliament is an exciting prospect, allowing a broad spectrum of voices to be heard at the centre after years of conflict across ethnic and sectarian divides.

But now the new legislative and executive institutions must be made to work, real leadership must be shown and nation-building must begin. The “Afghanistan compact”, to be forged at a conference in London tomorrow co-chaired by Afghanistan’s government and the United Nations, will have a crucial role in setting a framework for the country’s direction and in energising the international community and mapping its support role.

This watershed meeting comes at a particularly difficult time for Afghanistan. The seeds of a functioning state have barely germinated. Deep tensions remain and the threat of a return to failed state status persists – with all that implies for both local and international terrorism. Suicide bombings, previously unseen in Afghanistan, are on the rise, with 19 in the past 12 months – 13 of them in the last two months.

With a deteriorating security situation, this is no time for wobbling when it comes to desperately needed reinforcements for Nato’s International Assistance and Security Force. Robust peacekeeping forces must go where they are needed most – not, as has all too often happened, to the safest areas. The troops must be not only sufficient in number, quality and commitment but effectively co-ordinated and with a common understanding of their mandate and how to apply it.

Beyond basic security, the crucial issues are good governance and the rule of law, which must be at the core of the new compact. The current state of affairs is unacceptable for the local population and wastes donors’ time and money. Why promote alternative livelihood programmes for opium farmers when their provincial governor is a known drugs trafficker? How can you promote a justice system today when those responsible for yesterday’s massacres remain in positions of power?

Governors with records of human rights abuses and involvement in drugs are on a merry-go-round of presidential appointments: when locals in one area object to an official, he is simply moved to the next province. In many regions police commanders with no professional training run what are, in effect, private militias. That such positions of power have been awarded to the very people who fed the civil war has been a major source of public disillusionment with the transition process.

A system to professionalise senior appointments is a vital component of the new accord. There should be an advisory board to vet the appointment of governors and police chiefs and weed out the thugs, drug lords and incompetent. Commitments have been made to tackle past crimes and the new accord must guarantee that these are met, in spite of the government reluctance that has so far created a culture of impunity. A society based on the rule of law is essential not only to entrench democracy but to encourage investment and economic development. Major reform of the judicial system must be carried out: court houses and infrastructure do not exist in most regions; old laws have been lost in the last four years; and the relationship between customary, religious and civil codes has yet to be clearly defined.

The Bonn agreement showed that deadlines help focus minds. The new compact must emphasise clear timetables for building up both the numbers and professionalism of the various judicial bodies outlined in the constitution and extending their reach beyond Kabul to the whole country.

The huge scale of the task and the threat of it going off track – because the international community’s interest slips or because anti-government insurgents are emboldened – makes clear prioritisation, sequencing and benchmarks all the more essential. If peace is to be stable and change is to be permanent, the rule of law and the institutions to enforce it must be seen as the very foundation for the whole state-building enterprise.