From a decades-long conflict which has seen an ever-growing number of civilians killed to rooting out corruption among government bodies, Afghanistan has been facing a range of challenges with the international community’s assistance – and many of these topics will be discussed at a two-day gathering starting on Tuesday, 4 October, in the Belgian capital of Brussels.
Hosted by Afghanistan and the European Union, the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan will have some 70 countries and 20 international organizations and agencies represented, and provide a platform for the Government of Afghanistan to set out its vision and track record on reform.
For the international community, the two-day gathering is expected to provide an opportunity to signal sustained political and financial support to Afghanistan’s peace, state-building and development.
The international community has to understand that, and I think they do understand, that the country… requires a lot of assistance for years to come.
Attendees will focus on three areas: joint international and Afghan efforts to increase the effectiveness of sustained international support and funding, on the basis of a new Afghan national development framework; Afghan reform efforts, including on economic reform, rule of law, improved public finance management and anti-corruption, so as to ensure the provision of the most important services and public goods; and, regional efforts to support a political process towards peace and cross-border economic cooperation.
The United Nations has a long history in Afghanistan, with various agencies at work there, some extending back until 1949. Spearheading the world body’s current efforts there is the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which leads and coordinates international civilian efforts in assisting the country. UNAMA also provides political good offices in Afghanistan, works with and supports the government, supports the process of peace and reconciliation, monitors and promotes human rights and the protection of civilians in armed conflict, promotes good governance and encourages regional cooperation.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend the Brussels meeting, as will his Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, who spoke with the UN News Centre in the lead-up to the conference.
UN News Centre: What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan today?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: I think challenges have to be thought of in terms of those within the government and those which are challenging the government itself.
I would say that the most fundamental challenge is security. Security actually affects all activities of life in Afghanistan. After the drawdown of the international forces in 2014, the Taliban had tested the ability of Afghan national forces to defend the country. This had created a rather difficult situation in 2015, when the Taliban insurgency was able to make headway in terms of expanding their areas of control, and also the Afghan national security and defence forces seemed to be on the defensive.
This year, a similar kind of intensified attack continued but, for the time being, the Afghan national forces are able to hold the ground, having learned lessons from last year. But still, they are posing a rather huge challenge to security in terms of, for instance, surrounding the provincial capitals in the south.
I would say that, in addition, there is a challenge for the government itself. The government is a national unity government, which has brought differing political sides together to work as a unified political force. But because they come from different political grounds, it has not been so easy to maintain the smooth management and implementation of policies in the government.
This issue of the differences within the government has surfaced recently, and I believe that to try to ensure that the government is internally stable and to be able to cope with all the necessary issues [before it] is really critical.
UN News Centre: What is UNAMA’s role in respect to those challenges you just mentioned?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: We have a particularly larger role in terms of meeting the political challenge. UNAMA has the mandate to provide good offices, to enable these people to work together better. So this is actually the core issue for our role: to try to enable the political leaders to work together better.
In terms of the security, UNAMA really doesn’t have – we are not really a big mission – a direct responsibility. But the strength of UNAMA is that we have offices in the provinces – so-called field offices – in twelve places across the whole country, and we are able to actually monitor and assess the situation, including the security situation of the country, better perhaps than any other international presence. And we will be able to provide our assessment to the international community, and sometimes even to the government itself, and this will help them to manage the situation better. But also, I think, our role is to try to provide a more comprehensive assessment of the situation, to try to provide the outlook for the country, as to where we should be going – I think that is something that we can provide.
UN News Centre: It has been almost two years since the National Unity Government was agreed upon and it has not always been smooth sailing – what more can be done to instill a great sense of unity there?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: The important thing is for the leaders to try to really think about the country and its future, and how to better serve the people. Of course, since it is a political system, each of the political leaders has their own constituency, where they have to be able to deliver upon the expectations of their supporters – but Afghanistan is facing severe challenges; not only security, but also in terms of the economic situation, the human rights situation and corruption. These are all things which will affect future stability, and also the prospects for the growth of the country. And if they really thought about how they should go about doing this, they have to think of how to exercise their statesmanship, and also try to look at the larger objectives together. It is a difficult thing to do, but they will have to try to understand the responsibility which they are charged with.
UN News Centre: There were challenges to the conduct of the last presidential election, in 2014, which led to calls for electoral reform. Has there been progress in this area?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: There are many challenges and this is one of them. Because the presidential election of 2014 had been regarded as an election which had suffered from many irregularities, people do not actually sort of feel that they would trust the electoral system as such. And so they are looking for reforms to take place in the electoral system.
However, the reform of the electoral system actually impacts upon the outcome of the election, which is a very political undertaking, and so the compromise between political leaders regarding what sort of electoral system should be instituted has in itself become a subject of discussion. Naturally, the implementation and reform should be conducted by the independent electoral commission with impartiality – but in terms of what sort of system, for instance, is to be adopted, in any country, it is the political decision of the people concerned.
UN News Centre: Corruption has been a huge issue for the country. Has there been progress on combating it?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: Yes, President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah – the President and the Chief Executive Abdullah – have a rather strong vision as to how the country should cope with corruption, and recently in particular, the government, under the strong leadership of President Ghani, has been able to come out with strong reforms in terms of creating what they call an Anti-Corruption Justice Centre. And this is a new system which will be insulated, to the greatest extent possible, from outside influence. The choice of the commissioners and the secretariat members will be very carefully conducted. They are tasked with the prosecution of higher-level officials, and I think they are determined to do this.
But they also understand that corruption is an issue which actually seeps throughout society, and they are not simply implicating people – changing the whole system of how bureaucracy and society operate is necessary. So they are going for a more long-term approach of trying to reform the ministries and how the government functions. So, in terms of both having egregious cases of corruption held to account, and trying to change the system from the foundation [upwards], both are ongoing. This is a very difficult undertaking, which requires strong determination, and the international community needs to help the efforts of the leaders in this regard.
UN News Centre: Civilian casualties from the government-militant violence has been an ongoing issue for Afghanistan. Has there been progress in reducing these casualty figures?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: You raise a rather important area for the United Nations and to the international community as a whole: the United Nations, as you may know, has been conducting what we call ‘civilian casualty reports,’ with very detailed and objective investigations into cases where civilians suffer casualties. We have been doing this for a few years.
Unfortunately, civilian casualties have been increasing year by year. We have dialogues with the government forces, also with the insurgents and the international forces, and explain to them the circumstances under which civilian casualties are caused, and make recommendations trying to minimize this, with concrete steps to be taken. All actors – insurgents, government and international forces – they all understand the importance of minimizing civilian casualties. There has been progress in terms of the way in which they look at this issue, with instructions, directives on conduct in all areas, amongst all parties, to try to reduce the numbers of civilian casualties.
But, in reality, the number has been increasing because of the change in the nature of the conduct and because the conflict has intensified over the past couple of years. It is very unfortunate but recently we’ve seen an increase in the number of casualties of women and children, and this is due to the increase in the fighting. Street fighting and cross-fires actually account for the deaths of many of these women and children. This is a serious issue. All parties are trying to make efforts, but it is something that is very hard to change at the time.
UN News Centre: Why is the violence getting worse?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: There’re several reasons, I presume. But one of the largest causes for the Taliban to test the capacity of the Afghan forces after the drawdown of international forces is that they consider this to be an opportunity, and have been increased their attacks – so the number of incidents has increased over the past three years. The presence of international forces has decreased enormously; at their peak the international forces numbered more than 100,000 troops, now there are 10,000.
The total number of Afghan national forces, including the police is around 300,000. So you can see if 100,000 or over 100,000 of the international forces decreased, it has a huge impact. As we predicted, this has provided opportunities for the insurgents to go on the offensive. Also, problems exist among Afghan forces: with the conduct of its operations, the coordination amongst different forces of the army and police has not been well-managed. And, sometimes, the command structure has not been very effective. This has resulted in rather severe losses. For instance, last year, the city of Kunduz, the capital city of a province, was over-taken. If we look at how the actual fighting took place, there was not much resistance from government forces – in a way, they collapsed. This is partly due to the ability of the Afghan forces to coordinate and hold ground.
Now one thing that has improved this year is that the Afghan forces have been able to coordinate better and, also, for international forces to support the actual fighting done Afghan forces. So the response has been more effective. They have been more mobile and their response has been quicker. This has even been the case in the south where the insurgents have strong influence – a city called Lashkar Gah which is also the capital city of a province, had been under heavy attack. But with reinforcements and with the strategic help from international forces, they [government forces] were able to hold their ground quite well. I am sure the insurgents will try to test the Afghan national forces during the rest of this year – but they also suffer. The casualties are heavy on both sides.
But I am afraid that even if the Afghan national force keep holding ground, the losses are very heavy – in fact, the death tolls are larger than last year’s. This is not a situation which can be turned around by either side for years to come. We hope that the realization of the situation and also the heavy toll that is imposed upon civilians would make both sides realize they have to need a negotiated settlement and try to seek peace for their country.
UN News Centre: With so many other competing interests for the international community, are you noticing any sort of fatigue or lack of interest from the international community in terms of Afghanistan’s political and security situation?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: I think we have to look at this from many aspects – certainly, the international community has been assisting Afghanistan for a long time, so even if there’s fatigue, it is no wonder, it is not strange.
But I have to say that fatigue has not really surfaced. When you look at the Warsaw Summit, the NATO Summit in Warsaw this July, NATO countries were able to re-confirm their assistance in the security field at the current level until 2020. In the meeting there, the leaders were saying that they would not withdraw from the country as long as it is necessary, as long as they’re needed. Many of the leaders were saying that the withdrawal [of their remaining troops] will be conditional on the situation on the ground, and they were saying that this is not a message to the Afghan people but a message to the insurgents.
And I interpret it as them trying to convey the insurgents that time is not on their side. That they cannot wait out until the international community tires and departs. That they will defend the Afghanistan, by first of all, fostering and nurturing the ability and capability of the Afghan forces, including the police and the army, and that the international forces will engage as needed to the extent possible. Of course, things are calming down in all countries and there is very strong pressure to keep engagement at a minimum – but you can see this political will.
UN News Centre: And any sign of fatigue from donor countries in relation to longer-term development?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: In terms of development, there perhaps one might talk more about fatigue. But again we are preparing for the Brussels Conference in October, where it is expected that the donor community will provide Afghanistan with development assistance until 2020, so for the next four years, at near the current level which is more than $2 billion. This commitment by the international community is actually something that I was very impressed with and very pleased about.
Some countries are actually increasing their commitment and even those countries which may reduce their amounts would still be of effective assistance to Afghanistan. If you look at the assistance to Afghanistan in the past, you can see that there was also an issue of absorption?? (22:36) capacity in Afghanistan. So, even with a slightly decreased amount of international assistance in the economic field, the effectiveness of the assistance can be maintained, in fact, with better focus to where the money is needed. This is particularly the case when trying to help Afghan people sustain their livelihoods. For instance, in agriculture, where most of the people depend upon for their living, we will be able to actually provide a very sound basis for future growth and development.
So although we talk about donor fatigue, I think that, at least until 2020, the international community has thought through this and is taking very responsible action. This is particularly remarkable when you look at the increased demand in the money needed for Europe and elsewhere around the globe.
UN News Centre: It seems that the international community will have a major role to play with Afghanistan’s progress for some time to come?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: Well, I would say that the one of the important things for the success of our effort is real commitment from the international community. The international community has to understand that, and I think they do understand, that the country – although they are trying to be more self-reliant – requires a lot of assistance for years to come.
It is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is probably one of the more dependent upon international assistance in terms of their budget and in terms of their ability to deliver services to people. They, of course, will become more independent and self-reliant but, for still some time to come, this support of the international community will be critical in ensuring that the path that they have started to take for bringing back normalcy and putting them on the right growth path will require the continuation of the commitment from the international community, not just in terms of the development assistance but at the political level.
UN News Centre: You mentioned 2020 being an important year for Afghanistan in terms of the international community’s engagement. Where do you see the country in four years’ time?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: I believe that the development over the past 50 years, from when the international community first started working in Afghanistan, there has been much progress in many areas, including education, health, technology and education and many other areas, and I should imagine that this will continue.
My sense is that the economic development will take a much more pragmatic route, meaning that they will go to things that are much more down-to-earth, closer to the people, including agriculture and perhaps even small house industry. So there has been some progress and I also feel that with effort and cooperation with countries in the region it will be possible to try to really start the process of dialogue with insurgents.
We have the opportunity of talking to the insurgents sometimes and we find that they also think of the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan people – so there is something common between the Afghan Government and the so-called insurgents regarding the future of Afghanistan. They both care about their country so there are potential grounds for them to come together. It may not be so easy, it may not be in four years’ time, but I believe people will start exploring how, as Afghans, they can better bring the country together and build something for the future.
So I am cautiously optimistic but I have to stress that there are challenges and hurdles and we of course, first of all, have to overcome these challenges, which are centred on security and the political stability of the government, as well as the creation of a more fair and trustworthy society through tackling things like corruption.
UN News Centre: On a more personal note now, the posting of Afghanistan is not one of the easiest ones in the UN system. Actually, it is one of the tougher assignments. What motivated you to take up this post leading UNAMA?
Tadamichi Yamamoto: I think that as a diplomat, or a person working in an international field, to be able to work for a country in its nation-building is something that is really worthwhile. It is something that is extremely exciting in terms of being able to contribute to something which would be lasting.
And when you look at Afghanistan, it is a country which has suffered conflict throughout 30 years, close to 40 years, and it is a country which used to have a glorious history and also enjoyed a high quality of life in the 1960s and 1970s. So the potential for creating or bringing the country back to something really rich in terms of livelihoods is certainly there, and you can see that the Afghan people are very conscious of their nation’s integrity. There is a real opportunity for this country to be brought back to becoming a very attractive, prosperous country.