Over 70 countries are attending the Afghanistan conference. As NATO withdraws its forces from the country, the conference is seeking more support for the war-torn nation, writes Kitty Logan from London.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani are set to co-host talks at the London Afghanistan conference, attended by delegations from some 70 countries. Representatives from aid agencies and human rights groups also flew in from Afghanistan to join a special civil society event hosted by the British government, a day ahead of the main political meetings.
The overall aim of the conference is to secure more support for Afghanistan from the international community, at a critical time in the country's history. NATO troops plan to largely withdraw by the end of 2014. Only a small force will be left behind, mainly in a training capacity. But there are many fears about what may happen once international troops pull out.
Already, there are signs of problems. The 12th Afghanistan conference comes amid a fresh wave of violence in the country. There has been a sharp rise in insurgent attacks in the past weeks, targeting foreigners, military and civilians. Many Afghans believe the Taliban is taking advantage of a transitional period, as the new government finds it feet. A current deadlock over the selection of a new cabinet, adds to the feeling of unease.
Aid agencies are also concerned that insurgents could capitalise on any lack of focus by the international community with regard to Afghanistan. “Those who don't want Afghanistan to be developed and to stand on its feet and be independent, they are trying to harass people,' says Hasina Safi of the Afghan Women's Network, who has travelled to London from Kabul for the conference.
But Aziz Rafiee, from the Afghan Civil Society Forum, says a recent survey indicates the majority of Afghans remain optimistic that their country is on track for future stability. “The Taliban has not been able to gain the hearts and minds of people,” he says. “So they're not in a winning position. They're actually in a losing position.”
Afghanistan has seen improvements over the past decade since the international community stepped in with substantial aid programmes following the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. “There has been a lot of progress in Afghanistan in terms of freedom of expression, women's rights, access to education, access to health and so many other things,” says Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan Researcher at Amnesty International, “but at the same time there have been so many mistakes,” she adds. She believes the number of civilian casualties during the recent years of conflict has caused the international community to lose legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans.
Aid agencies at the conference agree the gains made in Afghanistan are fragile and that the international community must commit longer term to sustain any progress. But many are leaving due to the worsening security situation, which has left some areas completely out of reach. A recent survey of aid workers indicated that 60 percent felt less safe in their work than last year. Several agencies are already experiencing a drop in funding, or are anticipating a reduced budget in the near future. Currently around three quarters of Afghanistan's development budget comes from international donors.“The international community should continue their financial and political support for Afghanistan otherwise the gains that the Afghan people have had in the past 13 years, it may just go in vain,” says Ms. Mosadiq.
Special concern for women's rights
Of particular concern is the situation for Afghan women, many of whom worry about losing the small gains they have made in recent years. “I think many woman are finding themselves in a very difficult situation, because Afghanistan has been dropping out of the international agenda,” says Ms. Mosadiq. “What it means is there will be less international monitoring, less international funding, less international interest, which it in itself is having a huge impact on the situation for women in Afghanistan. The new Afghan government should really prove its commitment to improving the situation of Afghan people, particularly regarding the situation of women's rights and human rights.”
Addressing the conference, UK Development Secretary Justine Greening echoed that sentiment. “I don't believe that any country can truly develop if leaves half population behind,” she said. “Women's rights are going to take time. It will take continued work from people taking immense risk and showing personal courage.”
Corruption has been key word at conference so far, with several participants calling for better financial accountability, something which has been an issue in recent years. And human rights groups are voicing their concerns about the continuing lack of rule of law and independent judiciary in the country. Other delegates at the conference say they want to see an ongoing commitment to Afghan security and democracy. But the biggest concern on most minds is economic development.
“Afghanistan will require at least 15 years to build up its own economy to survive,” says Mr. Rafiee. “So I think for this next period of transformation, one of the dire needs for Afghanistan is the economic support of the international community and strong partnership for development in Afghanistan. If we have international support, chance of disruption by insurgents is low. If not, it will increase. But I strongly believe people will not go backwards.”
Afghanistan's new Chief Executive, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah closed the civil society event by saying he hoped the new government would have a better relationship with the international community than the strained tries the Karzai administration once had. If not, he admitted, things could be very tough. Speaking to delegates, he promised, “we have come together and will continue to work together to open brighter horizons.” Much of Afghanistan's future will depend on that really happening.