An equally ambitious and politically sophisticated project was recently launched by the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), at United Nations headquarters in New York City. "Envisioning Afghanistan Post 2014" brought together political representatives of Central Asia and other policy experts last week to discuss options for a peaceful future for the still politically unstable country of Afghanistan and surrounding region. The discussion was based on a strategic initiative, "Afghanistan's region: 2014 & Beyond - Joint declaration on regional peace and stability," that will be executed and implemented by FES and several, regional, political interest groups.
"A truly regional document, not just an academic paper," FES regional coordinator for peace and security policy, Sarah Hees, called the joint declaration. The idea was born in 2012 after the region was confronted with the withdrawal of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The ISAF mission was established by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001, based in part on provisions in the Bonn Agreement (May 2001). ISAF has since been training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as well as supporting the Afghan government in rebuilding core government institutions and battling an ongoing conflict with insurgent groups, including of course the Taliban.
With ISAF minimizing its significant role in stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan, the main responsibility will be transferred to the ANSF in corporation with a smaller NATO-led mission to advise the ANSF. As mentioned in the preamble of the declaration: "The scenario is uncertain: Will the ANSF be able to counter and defeat terrorism and other national and regional threats? Is the region ready to embrace Afghanistan with its myriad of challenges beyond 2014 while helping to guarantee its security, stability and prosperity? And will the region work towards a comprehensive and mutually beneficial outcome based on multi-faceted regional integration, in harmony with legitimate interests of non-regional players?"
A shift in approach, from looking at Afghanistan as more of an isolated incidence to more of an inclusive, regional attempt to bringing peace and stability, is what FES is trying to achieve with this initiative. Critical to the process was the development of regional policy groups, "providing a platform for them to engage in robust discussions," as explained in FES' concept paper. All-in-all, four policy groups were established, namely the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; Central Asia, which consists of the Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; the Republic of India; and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Further relationships were established with the Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS) in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in China. "When considering the historical grievances and differences, the region having achieved consensus on deliberations and policy recommendations is a remarkable feat," concluded the FES paper.
Included in this regional process were former and acting senior diplomats, parliamentarians, civil servants, military generals, civil society members, analysts, and journalists with connections to decision makers and authorities in their respective fields.
The declaration drafted by FES and the regional experts reaffirms the "respect to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan." Furthermore, acknowledging the highly sensitive geo-strategic crossroads location of Afghanistan and the implicated political challenges regarding the cooperation with neighboring countries. Among the call for trust-building measures the declaration also expresses the need "for an early resolution of the Iran-US standoff, which would create a conducive atmosphere to better coordinate and implement development projects in Afghanistan."
One of the medium-term recommendations functions as a reminder to the international community that "in order to enable Afghan ownership, increase economic sustainability as well as build and upgrade state capability to deliver public services effectively and accountability, the international community and the Afghan Government must honor their mutual commitments beyond 2014 and through the Decade of transformation."
Last week's discussion at the UN made clear where participants in the joint declaration still see deficiencies or difficulties regarding future implementation of the declaration. The outcome of the upcoming elections in Afghanistan in early April will play a crucial role for not only the country's future, but that of the region. The consensus among the participants appeared to be that fraud and irregularities during the elections will very likely take place, but the extent of those problems is unclear. The Guardian newspaper commented, "The election is the third presidential poll since the fall of the Taliban. It should pave the way for the country's first-ever peaceful democratic transfer of power, because the constitution bars the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, from standing again. The fact that Afghanistan has never managed such a handover before is an indication of how fraught the process could be, even without the complication of a raging insurgency."
As is widely known, voting can be very challenging for many Afghans. Often, casting a ballot involves hours of travelling while enduring serious risks to well-being. The level of fraud in previous elections has left many disillusioned about the process and therefore unwilling to take risks to reach the polls. The Taliban have disrupted voting and threatened anyone who tried to participate in previous elections. During the elections in 2009, Southeastern Afghanistan had the most incidents with 10 suicide attacks, 10 mine blasts and three other attacks according to data provided by the ministry of defense, as was reported in the Christian Science Monitor.
Security for these upcoming elections will primarily be provided by Afghan security forces, although the shrinking NATO mission has offered help with logistics, including air transport of ballots and other supplies. "Afghanistan's rugged mountains, harsh deserts and limited infrastructure mean organizers of past elections have relied heavily on both high-tech air transport and traditional solutions such as donkeys to get ballot papers and boxes to more remote areas."
Beyond elections, the call for the United Nations to play a stronger role in brokering Afghanistan's peace process united all attendees at last week's discussion at UN headquarters. The UN has been involved in the region since 1946, the point at which Afghanistan joined the General Assembly. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has been carrying out aid and development work since the 1950s. The UN continues to operate UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), established in 2002 by the United Nations Security Council, primarily to support humanitarian, not military efforts in the country.
In an interview with the Global Policy Forum from November 2011, Kai Eide, former UN Special Representative in Afghanistan and former head of UNAMA explained some of the challenges the mission has been experiencing, "There were tensions already in our mandate; the UNAMA mandate said that we should work closely with the military. But of course, many of the UN agencies did not want us to work closely with the military, but wanted the UN to maintain its independence and not be seen as being part of the war against the Taliban. And I think that was important. For me, it was very difficult to position myself between the military, which wanted more and closer cooperation, and the UN agencies, which wanted a distance from the military. My instinct was to keep a distance and that was what prevailed." Eide explained that many other obstacles came into play, for instance difficulties in getting the international community to speak with one voice on political issues, as well as to bring assistance from international donors together in one strategy. "On the last part, I must say, we did not succeed very well. We managed to set some priorities with the Afghan government, but when I arrived, the international aid effort in Afghanistan was chaotic, and when I left two years later, it was not much better."
During the FES discussion at UN headquarters, the Central Asian representatives highlighted that the declaration needs to focus stronger on national responsibility to be taken up by Afghanistan, "which Afghans are keen to show," as well as pointing out that in particularly socio-economic recommendations are crucial for the long-term stability of the region. While explaining the process of establishing this declaration, FES coordinator Sarah Hees pointed out that trust building between individual groups had been proven to be difficult at times, with some participants "remaining in Cold War rhetoric" and others, while neighbors, still exhibiting a fundamental unfamiliarity with each other.
It seems that no matter how complex the implementation, no matter how small the outcome or impact in the end, initiatives like this one by the FES are crucial to keep Afghanistan in the international community's collective eye. There is a need to support the effort of policy and decision makers to establish a safe and prosperous society in Afghanistan, while closely paying attention to the manifold voices and perspectives of its people.