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Sobering assessment of Afghanistan's reconstruction

In brief

The results of international assistance for Afghanistan are disappointing. Critics complain that the actions of donors are not well enough coordinated. Progress on establishing a viable police force is slow, and opium cultivation is at a record level.

The results of international assistance for Afghanistan are disappointing. Critics complain that the actions of donors are not well enough coordinated. Progress on establishing a viable police force is slow, and opium cultivation is at a record level.

It was clearly a touchy subject at the presidential palace in Kabul. Speaking to the international press at the end of August, President Hamid Karzai railed at the international community’s failure to develop a coherent strategy for the fight against drug cultivation in his country. Panning the donor countries for their poorly coordinated actions, he accused them of ignoring his government’s proposals for combating opium production. “Wherever the government is present, the drug fight is successful, but where the government is overshadowed it is not successful,” the Financial Times reports Karzai as saying.

What sparked the outburst was the latest UNODC report on poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. And the figures presented by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime are indeed alarming. According to the report, the area under opium cultivation this year grew by 17 % to 193,000 hectares. That is more land than is devoted to coca-growing across the whole of Latin America. The Afghan opium harvest will be a third bigger than in 2006, at 8,200 tonnes. It has doubled in size in the last two years. As the ­UNODC report points out, no other country has produced narcotics on such a massive scale as Afghanistan since China in the 19th century.

But the situation is “not yet hopeless”, says UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa. The good news is that the number of opium-free provinces has more than doubled this year, from six to thirteen. Indeed, the bulk of cultivation is concentrated in just a few provinces, mostly in the south and east of the country. More than half of all the poppy-growing land – over 100,000 hectares – is in the southern province of Helmand alone. It produces more narcotics than Colombia or Myanmar. Like Karzai, Costa believes the main reason for the north-south divide is the different degree of government control. “Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish,” the UNODC Director said.

Problems with building up the police

What Kabul thinks or says carries little weight in the regions bordering Pakistan. Afghanistan’s security forces are too weak, and building up of police and army progresses at a painfully slow rate. The reasons are cited in recent studies by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an internationally staffed institute based in Kabul. First of all, the actions of donors are uncoordinated. In June, the European Union assumed responsibility for building up the police force. Nonetheless, the United States will contribute by far the most money this year – $ 2.5 billion. Washington’s main focus is the rapid recruitment of auxiliary police for deployment on missions against opium growers and insurgents. Europe’s EUPOL mission, however, is geared to the German police model of well-trained officers with an awareness of human rights who see themselves more as public servants than members of a fighting force.

Second, both International Crisis Group and AREU point to the fact that the development of a police force is not embedded in a comprehensive reform of the justice system, though such reform would be vital for effective policing. Again, the problem is that the relevant donors – Italy is responsible for justice – do not sufficiently liaise and coordinate their actions.

A third problem is corruption, especially at the Ministry of the Interior. The MoI is “notoriously corrupt, factionalised, and an increasingly important actor in Afghanistan’s illegal drug economy,” the AREU study says. Reforms were initiated in late 2005 to get police appointments based more on merit than political patronage. According to the ICG, however, President Karzai’s government “still lacks the political will to tackle a culture of impunity, and to end political interference in appointments and operations”. So long as that remains the case, the AREU believes that increasing the strength of the Afghan police from 62,000 to the 82,000 officers, as planned by the donor community and Kabul, will probably even aggravate the security situation.

New German Afghanistan Concept

The new Afghanistan Concept unveiled by the German government in early September is remarkably frank about these and other shortcomings of the reconstruction effort so far. However, it also points to the successes that have been achieved, especially in the areas of education, healthcare and infrastructure. The tenor of the paper is that too much attention has been paid to military issues in the past, and that more needs to be done about civilian reconstruction. Accordingly, the German government plans to increase its funding for civilian projects by 25 % to € 125 million a year.

Skeptics feel that this is still not enough. The present € 100 million would need to be doubled at the very least, according to an analysis conducted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, an organisation associated with the Green Party. In that analysis, Böll Executive Barbara Unmüssig and Green MP Ute Koczy paint the same sobering picture as the government in its Concept. The two authors see evidence in Afghanistan of a long-familiar “disease” of international development cooperation: “Donor coordination starts only after aid operations get underway. It also occurs locally, whereas the political decisions on objectives and strategies are taken in the capitals of the donor countries.” This “supply-driven development policy”, Unmüssig and Koczy conclude, does not provide enough incentives for Afghan forces to become active themselves.

In Afghanistan, the Böll Foundation sees in swing the kind of vicious circle that is often found in post-conflict countries: given the shortage of local capacities to spend large sums of aid money effectively, foreign donor agencies (both from governments and civil society) tend to manage their projects themselves. As a result, parallel structures emerge, hindering the development of efficient local capacities in government, business and civil society. (ell)