The South Asia Channel

Travails of mutual accountability in Afghanistan

The Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF), agreed to at the July 2012 Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan, started out with high hopes.  International donors pledged to provide Afghanistan with $4 billion in civilian aid per year through 2015 and to continue significant support through 2017 and beyond, while the Afghan government committed to governance improvements and a democratic political transition as per the Afghan Constitution.  Less than a year into the implementation process, however, serious obstacles are being encountered. 

As noted in a recent paper, the old adage about work in Soviet-era centrally-planned economic systems -- "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us" -- appears to be increasingly applicable to TMAF implementation, which is being undermined by:

-        Doubts about the realism of some pledges made by both sides, specifically the degree of genuine commitment by the Afghan government to improving governance and fighting corruption, and the level of international funding that will actually materialize in the face of donors' budget constraints and disappointment over limited Afghan progress;

-        Short-term priorities that may sideline TMAF implementation, most notably the international community's preoccupation with its military exit strategy, and the Afghan government's focus on political maneuvering in the run-up to the 2014 election; 

-        Adherence to process, fulfilling the "letter of the law" and "checking the box" on benchmarks, which is being emphasized at the expense of substance; and

-        Focus on the TMAF for its own sake, which is, perhaps, distracting both sides from achieving actual results and positive outcomes.

Furthermore, there is a risk that TMAF implementation will degenerate into a "blame game," with each side accusing the other of failing to live up to its side of the "bargain" and using perceived failures as justification for falling short on its own commitments. 

A few examples illustrate these themes.  Recent convictions of Kabul Bank senior executives involved in the theft and misuse of some $1 billion in deposits and other bank funds were presented by the Afghan government as evidence of its fulfilling commitments regarding the bank, but there was a perception internationally that the verdicts were too lenient.  Regardless, the practical point is this: with the principals of Kabul Bank convicted on some other fairly minor charges but not on money-laundering charges, the government cannot initiate formal procedures to seize the stolen assets already identified in other countries, and an opportunity for the Afghan state to recover hundreds of millions of dollars has been lost -- irrespective of whether TMAF benchmarks regarding corruption were met or not.

Some efforts by international donors to move aid "on-budget" -- providing funds to the Afghan government for disbursement through its national budget and administrative mechanisms -- seem questionable.  Most donor funding is currently "off-budget" -- channeled bilaterally -- but at the Tokyo conference, donors committed to putting at least 50 percent of their aid on-budget, a laudable objective, as part of the shift toward Afghan leadership during the transition. It was recently announced, for example, that the installation of a third turbine at the Kajaki hydroelectric plant (in a conflict-ridden part of Helmand province) would be turned over to the Afghan government, despite massive and ultimately unsuccessful international efforts to complete the project. It is unclear how the Afghan government will be able to succeed where the international community failed.

Intruding short-term priorities can also trump making mutual accountability work.  The international imperative of a timely and smooth withdrawal of foreign combat forces may be interfering with efforts to hold the Afghan government accountable for its performance.  For example, international pressure for action on Kabul Bank has greatly eased as the coalition has become increasingly focused on its military exit strategy.  It also appears that the IMF-supported macroeconomic program, which provides balance of payments support and the critical IMF "certification" that enables funding through trust funds and other budget support, is likely to remain officially "on-track," even if the government's performance falls short of its targets (for example in the crucial area of domestic revenue). No one wants to deal with the consequences of going off-track, namely a budget crisis. 

On the Afghan side, short-term political considerations in the run-up to the 2014 presidential election are sidelining and distorting TMAF implementation. Expectations that the government will take meaningful actions to improve governance, especially against high-level corruption, will become all the more unrealistic as the election approaches. There are also signs of possible manipulation of some TMAF benchmarks for narrow political purposes.  For example, the Afghan government has strongly advocated that 100 percent of international funding for the 2014 presidential and the 2015 parliamentary elections be on-budget, ostensibly related to the TMAF benchmark of moving more aid on-budget.  However, without safeguards to preserve the independence of electoral authorities, this may increase their vulnerability to interference or at least undermine public confidence in the elections (I am grateful to my colleague Scott Smith for making this point).

It is also uncertain to what extent the Tokyo pledge of civilian aid will be delivered.  Based on Afghan and international experience, actual aid commonly falls short of pledges for a variety of reasons, and it would be surprising if the Tokyo pledge turned out to be an exception to this general pattern.  Moreover, given that the pledge was slightly above even the high-end scenario ("accelerating progress") put forward in the World Bank study Afghanistan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014, it seems clear that donors saw this amount as a "stretch target" -- something to be aspired to only if there is strong progress by the government in improving governance and fighting corruption in the spirit of the TMAF's objectives, prospects for which are doubtful in the short run.

Aside from these concerns, the TMAF is generating a substantial amount of paperwork, which may further distract those involved from substance.  The government's "anti-corruption decree" of July 2012, intended to be a vehicle for implementing the TMAF, contained more than 150 specific action points/benchmarks, called for a large amount of reporting, and would be no small task to monitor.

Overall, the larger goals that animated the Tokyo conference and the promise of the TMAF are being undermined during implementation.  But this should not come as a complete surprise given experience with conditionality, benchmarks, and similar arrangements in other countries, as well as in Afghanistan's own recent history.  Such mechanisms do not work well in the absence of a reform constituency in the country that can leverage conditions and push reforms, if objectives and targets are overly ambitious or multitudinous, and if a medium-term perspective is lacking or is dominated by short-term priorities.  

But how to move forward?  Rather than investing more effort in trying to fix and fine-tune the TMAF, let alone add benchmarks or revisit the respective "failures" of both sides, the Afghan government and its international partners need to clarify and manage their own and each other's expectations.  This will be particularly important in the immediate future while the challenges of elections and political transition, as well as the withdrawal of international combat troops, dominate the landscape.

Both sides can responsibly pursue their respective, clearly-defined objectives, while staying realistic about overlaps and disconnects.  Progress would be facilitated by clear and honest communications.  The main objectives of Afghanistan and the international community are interdependent and in many ways broadly consistent -- provided they are responsibly pursued and include a wider, medium-term perspective rather than solely serving narrow and short-term interests.  The international community's key short-run priority is to withdraw most foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and achieve a smooth security hand-over.  For this hand-off to be sustainable, the achievement of several key Afghan national objectives is required, most importantly a successful presidential election and political transition, resulting in an effective new government administration and (later) parliament that are perceived to be legitimate both internally and externally.

Once these key milestones of the current political and security transition are successfully achieved, the TMAF, if tempered by realistic ambitions and timeframes, may provide the basis for a productive partnership between Afghanistan and the international community over the medium term.

William Byrd is an Afghanistan senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  The views expressed here are his own.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

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