The South Asia Channel

When too much is not enough

Afghanistan since the downfall of the Taliban regime in 2001 has been subjected to a plethora of high-profile international meetings, occurring with increasing frequency in recent years. It seems that no other conflict-affected developing country has been as "meeting-ized" as Afghanistan.  With the Chicago NATO Summit focused on Afghanistan's security recently held in May, the "Heart of Asia" Ministerial Conference in Kabul in June, the Tokyo conference on development in July, and the possibility of follow-up meetings already being discussed, it might be useful to step back and review this experience as has been done in a recent paper.

The current flurry of meetings is occurring in a context of declining international troops and financial resources for Afghanistan, whereas in earlier years the international engagement was being maintained or increased.  But the lessons from the past decade's numerous events remain highly relevant.  The meetings have been successful in keeping international attention focused on Afghanistan, eliciting financial support, demonstrating inclusiveness and providing a "seat at the table" for all partners, generating good strategic documents, and providing a forum for the Afghan government.  However, there have been many problems:

  • Raising unrealistically high expectations leading to inevitable disappointments
  • Lack of meaningful follow up on agreements reached and commitments made
  • Undermining meetings' own objectives and sometimes even setting them up to fail
  • Diplomacy often trumping substance
  • Focusing more on donors' needs and issues rather than the problems of Afghanistan
  • Orienting the Afghan government toward donors rather than the Afghan people
  • Diversion of resources (especially intellectual resources) toward meetings
  • Meeting fatigue-too many meetings detracting from the significance of each event
  • Meetings often seemingly substituting for action

In the future, the effectiveness of these meetings could be increased by: (1) keeping to realistic expectations about what meetings can accomplish; (2) not expecting meetings to substitute for difficult decisions and hard actions; (3) having substantive meeting agendas, avoiding complete co-optation by diplomatic priorities, and maintaining discipline in shaping the agenda; (4) matching meeting objectives with the main issue(s) the meeting is supposed to address; (5) ensuring quality background work for meetings; (6) focusing on key areas and a few simple, monitorable benchmarks; and (7) keeping the number and frequency of meetings manageable.

Turning to the most recent and upcoming meetings, the Chicago NATO Summit on security during May 20-21 did succeed in coming out with a consensus overall figure for the total cost of the Afghan security sector in future years.  However, donor pledges fell short of fully covering the international portion of this amount, with some donors not yet being in a position to make pledges.  Moreover, beyond the financial cost a whole range of non-financial issues and problems plague Afghanistan's security sector, which pose big question marks for the success of the security transition in coming years.

The recent "Heart of Asia" meeting in Kabul on June 14 well illustrates the limitations of such meetings.  It is one of a long series of meetings on regional issues (some focused on regional economic development and trade, others on political and security relationships, still others on border controls and drugs) which have not accomplished a great deal in substantive terms.  This latest meeting, a follow-up to the high-profile Istanbul meeting on regional security last November, did bring together the key regional players plus Afghanistan's more distant partners and related international organizations, but it did not seem to generate much in the way of concrete progress. This is not surprising given the geopolitical fault lines and sharply diverging interests and relationships represented at the meeting-ranging from Iran to Russia, India, China, Pakistan, the USA, and others-which make this one of the most difficult parts of the world for achieving real progress on regional cooperation in political, security, or economic dimensions.  These realities belie the optimistic pronouncements on Afghanistan as a "land bridge" in Central Asia or the hopes for a "new Silk Road".

Finally, the upcoming Tokyo meeting is intended to set the longer-term development agenda for Afghanistan, with a 10-year time horizon beyond then-i.e. for the "decade of transformation" following the 2011-2014 transition.  While taking a longer-term perspective on Afghanistan is important, this soaring rhetoric may distract from the key question of whether the transition will go well enough-politically, economically, and security-wise-that the country will be in a position to achieve rapid development progress post-2014.  In addition, based on the experience with past similar high-profile meetings there are a number of issues, a few of which are outlined below: 

  • One of the main objectives will be to delineate the overall resource envelope for civilian aid to Afghanistan in coming years, as was done for the Afghan security sector in preparation for Chicago. A range of numbers is being put forward by the Afghan government and by others. It remains to be seen whether there will be broad agreement on one of these figures, but in any case the goal of resource mobilization is being undermined by some donors neither pledging funds nor giving indications of at least roughly how much they will be in a position to provide. A total figure not backed up by a critical mass of pledges or indications by key donors may not be very credible.
  • "Mutual accountability" (i.e. on the part of Afghanistan and the international community, respectively) is intended to be a major theme of the Tokyo meeting. Questions about the level and predictability of aid as noted above may undermine accountability on the international side, which in turn could reduce the incentive for the Afghan government to make meaningful commitments to which it can be held accountable. In any case, trying to hold the government accountable-in particular for commitments behind which there is little if any political will-will be difficult. However, declining international resources for Afghanistan in coming years may facilitate making agreements stick, provided that reductions in assistance are pre-programmed and gradual.
  • Past experience with follow-up to high-profile international meetings on Afghanistan does not give much ground for optimism about follow-up to Tokyo, but focusing on a few key areas with monitorable benchmarks that are in the interest of both Afghanistan and the international community may provide the best hope for success.  Moreover, with declining international attention and resources for Afghanistan, the benefits of meetings like Tokyo in keeping Afghanistan in the international eye and on international policy agendas may again come to the fore (as in the early post-2001 years). 

William Byrd is a visiting senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.  He participated in and was involved in the preparations for many of the high-profile international meetings on Afghanistan over the past 10-plus years.  The views expressed here are his own.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/GettyImages

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