Dr. Amin Tarzi, an Afghanistan analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, spoke to cfr.org’s Esther Pan ahead of a major international meeting on Afghan development in London January 31-February 1.
What do you expect to come out of this donor conference in London?
The Afghan government has high expectations, and perhaps unrealistic ones. They are thinking that this conference will guarantee them funds for at least a five-year plan, not only for reconstruction but also for counter-narcotics, including crop subsidies, which will be expensive and also expecting that the conference will have an element of guaranteeing the security of the country, from both external and internal threats. They have proposed a five-year plan for development, but the main funding for this is expected to come from foreign countries. Close to 95 percent of Afghanistan’s income is actually aid donations. So the expectation is that the next five years will be basically guaranteed, not only funds but also security guarantees.
How much does that work out to? What is the dollar figure they’re attaching to all of these needs?
They’re not giving a dollar figure because if people read it, they’ll be disappointed, because I don’t think that will come in. There are certain numbers Afghanistan tosses around, but if you look at just the counter-narcotics, to give you an idea: the Afghan [proposal for] fighting narcotics is a $20 billion package, which is $5 billion or $4 billion a year. This is more than all the aid the country gets. So I think because of this, they have not given any hard numbers. They have just proposed a plan, and they are looking for as much as they can get.
This is not really a donor conference in the sense that the first two conferences were, in Tokyo [January 21-22, 2002] and Berlin [March 21-April 1, 2004]. Some people—myself included—were critical [of those conferences], saying that Afghanistan had not taken the responsibility onto its own shoulders. It’s always been, okay, this is the Bonn agreement and the UN and international community are supposed to do pretty much everything. Here, at least what is happening is the Afghans are taking the lead. They are the ones who have put forward this plan and they are not asking for so much directly. But if you look at the London meeting, what is being said and the expectations are not converging. This is my biggest worry about it. The expectations of the Afghan government and what is coming up will not actually come together.
What does the Afghan government have as other funding sources if these international donor funds don’t come through?
Unfortunately, right now there’s not much. The country has pretty much no taxation, although the Finance Ministry in 2005 tried to collect a tax on businesses—which was criticized as being not very business-friendly. There is no income tax to speak of. Another thing that the United States is now trying to help the country with is to generate some sort of income through customs. What President Karzai has been trying very hard to accomplish is to at least get the money that comes into the country on legal trade, which is pretty significant. That is an ongoing problem, how to establish a customs system with an understanding that the center and the periphery are together, and that money that comes through Herat from Iran doesn’t stay in Heart, but goes into the public treasury. If they do manage to do that, it will generate some amount of funding from the country, which makes it more independent. But there’s not much more. Unfortunately, the main income, which is not going to the government, is narcotics. A country that gets more than 50 percent of its GDP from narcotics is problematic.
And what is the view in Afghanistan of the NATO security situation? It seems NATO has recommitted to sending troops to the south of the country, but some countries, including the Netherlands, are expressing some doubts about how long their troops will be there. From the Afghan perspective, how does the security situation look?
The ISAF force has been a welcome addition, and has done a very good job as far as Afghans are concerned, in the north and the west. The southern expansion, or so-called Phase III expansion...includes some very volatile provinces: Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz, Zabol, and Oruzgan are pretty [dangerous]. To go there, the NATO mandate says we’re not dealing with the counter-narcotics, we’re not going to chase the bad guys, or the terrorists, or the neo-Taliban, or whoever the anti-government forces [are]. So the question is, what will they be doing? The Afghan hope is that NATO comes there, but the U.S.-led coalition, Operation Enduing Freedom, will still be there to make sure that the security is kept. This is their hope, but while they’re not saying it openly, there is a fear that once NATO comes in there...the United States may opt to take some troops out and move them] east, or even out of the country. The U.S. already wants to take some 2,000 to 3,000 out of the country, but if any more were withdrawn, there’s a hesitation, an understanding in Afghanistan, that NATO—at least with the mandate they have today—may not be there. The hope still is that the U.S. will retain some sort of force there for the foreseeable future.
What progress has been made with the training of the Afghan security forces?
There is some very good news, which is the ANA, or Afghan National Army. The US is the lead country training them, and they’re doing very well. There is a very realistic plan about how to generate these forces, and the timeline goes all the way out to 2009. The expected full strength will be 74,000. Right now they are somewhere between 24,000 and 25,000. The forces have been very good. In the early days there were a lot of desertions, but right now because the salaries are a bit higher, they’re good. And from the U.S. perspective, they have been actually fighting pretty good in battles alongside the United States, and they have actually operated on their own also. Today, the ANA is one of the brightest spots on security. But another thing about the ANA is, how long will the subsidies continue to come in? When will the Afghan government actually start to at least think of some sort of financial responsibility? How long will the U.S. actually bankroll their salaries? If that doesn’t happen, that force may not [continue to] be as good as it is right now.
The biggest problem right now is the ANP, or the Afghan national police, which is in absolute disarray. The numbers are exaggerated, and the police—traffic police, border control, counter-narcotics, and the police who are more like a militia force—all have problems. There are several problems. Number one, the training is very short, sometimes a week. Most—some statistics say up to 70 percent—of the forces are illiterate. Desertion is rampant, and the worst problem right now is corruption. Where ever they go, they seem to get involved in the corruption of the local government, or narcotics. So unless the police are also trained well, they’re a big problem.
And then another thing of concern is that there are now three ministries dealing with counter-narcotics. There are four different forces fighting narcotics in different ministries. The Ministry of the Interior has two, there’s one in the Ministry of Defense, and then a whole new ministry was created, the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics. So there you have many many departments but neither their mandate nor their forces are very coordinated, which creates more problems.
Let’s shift away from security and talk about reconstruction. How would you say reconstruction is progressing?
Some areas are doing very, very good. I think reconstruction is, unfortunately, directly related to security. Where there is security, reconstruction has gone okay. I’m looking at places like the north. A very good example is Bamian in central Afghanistan. Herat [in the west] is doing very well. There are parts of Kabul where there is a reconstruction boom. Where you really have a problem, again, is the south and the east. There you have very private reconstruction—some people have money, they build a dam here, a bridge there—but there is nothing ongoing on a grand scale. You have the PRTS, provincial reconstruction teams, but they are very small for the job. They are good and simple, but because of the security problems, not much is happening. You have to look at the map: where there is security, things have gone pretty well; where there is no security it hasn’t. The problem is that if this insecurity prevails in the south and east, then you may have a country divided not only on ethnic lines, but [economic ones as well.] That could create two sides of the same country, which would make problems beyond reconstruction.
There’s been some criticism that reconstruction projects that are funded by the United States or Europe are happening outside the control of President Karzai or the Afghan government, and that this is weakening Karzai’s government. What do you think of those charges?
Currently, they’re true. There’s this NGO-bashing, which is one of the main things the newly-elected Afghan national assembly has taken up. When you travel to Afghanistan, you do see that some of the foreign companies or NGOs are taking a lot of the money for their overhead and security, and not much goes to Aghanistan. In my view, some projects that would have taken longer but employed Afghans would have been good for training Afghans and employing Afghans. They brought Pakistani and Turkish companies in to build roads rather than training Afghans. That was mainly because there were timelines that had to be met, but there is an issue there. If the Parliament has its way, you’ll see less and less of the NGOs. The problem is that if the NGOs leave, will the donors give directly to the Afghan government? That’s an open question, because corruption if very high in this government. So donors are reluctant to give big chunks of money to a government that doesn’t seem to have control over its finances. And another open question is whether the Karzai government has direct control over certain provinces, where a long-term project can go on without foreign hands.
Afghanistan is not yet a democracy. It is trying to become a state. It has democratic institutions, but it doesn’t have what it takes to become a democracy: civil society, a population who knows what democracy means, who are aware of their own rights. Afghanistan has to first become a state: the central government has to have power over its territory; defined, secure borders; and a monopoly on the use of force. Afghanistan is marching towards becoming a democratic state. How long it takes, no one knows, but it’s not a democracy in the sense of a Western-style democracy.