Photograph: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images. The Essential Edge’s Global Beat focuses on articles with insight that have appeared in the media. Here Michael Keating, head of United Nations humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, explores in an oped for The Guardian what is really needed to help bring this country out of its present quagmire. For Afghans, particularly women, he maintains, security is not only about protection from external threats and insurgents.
‘For Afghans, particularly women, security is also about protection from unaccountable officials and security forces in the course of daily life.’ The message from May’s Nato summit in Chicago was that the Afghans would not again be abandoned by the international community, as they were in the early 1990s.
It resulted in financial pledges for Afghan security forces beyond 2014, whose cost is estimated at over $4bn a year, by which point most foreign troops will have left. This was no small achievement in today’s global economic climate, given growing disenchantment with Afghanistan.
But it is not enough. Unless funding for Afghanistan’s security forces is matched by investment in meeting people’s basic needs, and by robust efforts to protect civilians and human rights, the money being spent on security could be wasted.
For Afghans, particularly women, security is not only about protection from external threats and insurgents, critical as these are. It is also about protection from unaccountable officials and security forces in the course of daily life.
It is about knowing that that jobs and opportunities are not just for the well-off, that property rights are respected, injustices addressed, abuse of authority checked. Afghans are no different from the rest of us.
The imperative now is to ensure that the blood spilled, money spent and gains made over the last decade are not reversed, that they yield a sustainable security dividend. What is needed is a partnership that focuses on meeting Afghans’ practical needs.
The Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan in early July is an opportunity to set the right course, to substantiate the grand ambitions set out in many previous conferences, including in Bonn in December.
As foreign troops go, economic activity, revenues for the state and foreign aid budgets will drop. A virtue must be made of this necessity – to rationalise international support in a way that protects people, supports them to manage their own affairs, and rewards enterprise.
Aid and development alone cannot deliver peace, any more than security forces. An inclusive intra-Afghan political process is a must, supported by neighbouring countries, both to bring the country’s long nightmare to a close, and to reduce the need for costly security.
Equally important is to ensure that presidential elections, slated for 2014, do not become the catalyst of violence, but are accepted as credible by the population, ideally contributing to reconciliation. Not easy, given ongoing insurgency, but it can be done.
But the bedrock of longer-term security and stability is sustained improvement in the quality of life, authorities that are accountable, institutions that function, and jobs.
Despite the decade of progress in areas as diverse as freedom of expression and political participation, infrastructure and mine clearance, healthcare and girls’ education, Afghans are increasingly anxious about the future, and frustrated.
Five million still live as refugees or undocumented migrants. Conflict-induced displacement has risen steadily over the last five years and now amounts to over 500,000 people. Women and children suffer disproportionately from the conflict.
In 2011, a quarter of the population received food support, and over a million people got emergency drinking water. 55% of Afghan children under five are stunted, and their chances later in life of being self-reliant and contributing to economic growth are impaired. Female illiteracy and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world.
Land, soil, forests, water resources, and mineral deposits are degraded by over three decades of conflict, prey to illicit exploitation. The incidence of disasters, including floods, earthquakes, avalanches and droughts, is increasing. Drug production is responding to international demand, as farmers seek incomes to survive. About half the population is under 18, with few prospects, particularly in rapidly growing cities.
These are not the ingredients of stability. A long-term partnership is needed to tackle problems that are now inter-generational.
First, protection of civilians, accountability and the rule of law must be hardwired into plans for the transition, training and support of security forces. Strengthening a police force that is professional, answerable and responsive to civilians is essential.
Second, funding for security must be matched by funding of a practical, needs-based development agenda that focuses on what Afghans want, especially jobs, functioning institutions and basic services. They also need help to deal with urgent and extensive humanitarian needs.
This must go hand in hand with support for public-private partnerships to generate revenues that will increase the country’s self sufficiency – infrastructure, services, and responsible management and exploitation of the country’s vast natural resources.
Third, Tokyo should clarify the respective roles and responsibilities of the Afghan government and international community and agree a mutual accountability mechanism. Stronger and more accountable governance must be at the heart of the deal. That is what local people want, entrepreneurs need, and what western politicians must have if they are to vote the funds.
The price tag of continued support will be significant. But this will be modest compared to the vast sums now spent by the west on security – currently over $2bn a week – and the cost both to Afghans, the region and the international community if social tensions and a sense of injustice go unchecked.
Getting it right will pay enormous dividends – for Afghans, the region and the world.
Michael Keating is currently based for the United Nations in Kabul. He is also a contributor to the forthcoming fully-revised 4th edition of the Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan to be launched on September 19, 2012, in Assisi, Italy.