On September 5, 2015, Kabul hosted senior officials from 60 donor countries and international financial institutions. The gathering was a preparatory meeting for the next yearly donor conference which is scheduled to take place in 2016.
During the last donor conference in London on December 4, 2014, Afghanistan’s new unity-government had promised its benefactors to fight corruption, to support women’s rights, to bring about the rule of law, and to grow the economy.
Those were the standard conditions that Afghanistan’s financial supporters made at each donor conference during the past many years. Over time, the donors’ demands and the Afghan government’s promises had become a meaningless exercise. Indifference and fear of more trouble had persuaded the donor community—principally the United States and its European and Japanese allies—not to rock the boat and let things be as they were.
And things were not good. The Western-sponsored Bonn Conference in October 2001, had, with a few exceptions, thrown up the worst elements of Afghan society to leadership positions. Most of them had hungered for power and riches somewhere as refugees doing menial jobs and dreaming for a miracle to put them in power and give them access to wealth. America’s hunt for Osama bin Laden offered them that opportunity.
Once they occupied the dilapidated halls of power in Kabul, they swore to make themselves whole. In their minds, laws were written to be manipulated and even broken. Property was there to be taken, if necessary by force, and defended by the bullying sight of Kalashnikov-carrying men.
Afghanistan’s new leaders thought of corruption and nepotism as useful and necessary human conditions. When leaders of donor nations notified their Afghan counterparts that they would cut off their subsidies if good governance and the rule of law were not introduced but failed to act upon those warnings, Afghan leaders were reinforced in their conviction that their benefactors were not serious about their threats and would not act on them.
Out of those deliberations, a system developed: Afghanistan’s financial backers demanded good governance, the rule of law, human rights, and the creation of a functioning economy. In turn, the Afghans made solemn promises to that end. In fact, former President Karzai had made it a point to make a speech a few days before the donor conferences, blasting lawlessness and corruption and pledging to end government misuse of its powers.
And that did it. Seemingly satisfied, Afghanistan’s patrons would approve the proposed funding and the money would flow for another year.
Tragically, the donors’ acquiescence emboldened Afghanistan’s power holders to continue acting on their insatiable craving for money. And soon, the Karzai regime became known as one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet.
What made this latest preliminary meeting of donor representatives in Kabul interesting was that after thirteen years of Karzai’s misrule the Afghans have a new government, the so-called unity-government. Many within and outside the country had high hopes that Afghanistan would at last take the right steps towards better governance, less corruption, and a revitalized economy.
However, the disunity of the unity-government has shattered those expectations—at least till now. Mired in disunity, the government has had no time to attend to the people’s business—at least so far.
One way of changing things is to tell the truth. I, for one, had wished that the year-old unity-government would tell the assembled donor representatives that corruption was still rampant, that the Kalashnikov culture still thrived, and that the economy was dead in the water.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. President Ghani followed the script that his predecessor, former President Karzai, had so successfully applied. On September 1, four days before the conference was to convene, the President used the occasion of an Ulema Council (meeting of religious scholars)—a body that has nothing to do with the running of the government—to speak before it. During his speech, he described corruption a “cancerous lesion” and asking the assembled religious scholars to declare Jihad against it.
And when the preliminary donor conference convened on September 5, the unity-government made, as had the Karzai regime before, a tortured presentation of the fabulous plans it had devised, which it planned to implement beginning “next week.”
Nothing has changed in Afghanistan. Yet, something must change if the Afghans and their international partners want to avoid a complete collapse of the state.
While the poverty-stricken Afghan people need continued financial assistance, the appeasement of the Afghan leadership must come to an end. It must be replaced with firm and hands-on supervision by the donors.
In view of the timidity and indifference of donor governments, the pressure to produce that change must come from the donor countries’ public. It is their money that’s being squandered for no reason other than political expediency.
The change must also come for the sake of the Afghan people in whose name the funds are approved and on whose behalf the money is spent.
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