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Opinion

New Opportunities for an Effective Afghanistan Strategy

May 28, 2008

by STEPHEN BARANYI and ALMUT WIELAND-KARIMI 

In Paris on June 12, the government of Afghanistan and the international community signed on to the “Afghanistan National Development Strategy” (ANDS), thereby erecting the development pillar of a new approach in that war-torn society. This pillar is meant to buttress the security pillar erected at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest. Both are meant to bridge the trans-Atlantic divisions which have pitted the so-called “security-first” approach led by the Anglo-American group including Canada, and the “development-first” perspective spearheaded by Germany, and some of their European Union partners.

Are we seeing the emergence of a more effective approach in Afghanistan? What challenges and opportunities does this present to Canada and Germany, as important NATO allies but also proponents of different perspectives over the past few years? What could bridge Canada’s Kandahar-focused strategy and Germany’s engagement in the Northern provinces? Is political dialogue the piece missing from our efforts in Afghanistan?

These are the questions that shaped discussion among a group of German and Canadian experts from government, parliament and civil society at a meeting convened in Ottawa on June 19th.

The Paris conference could mark the emergence of a new approach based on greater Afghan ownership, through the ANDS. It might herald an approach that balances military, political and economic engagement more strategically. It could portend new ways of combining support for nation-wide programs with provincial-level strategies that generate clear results on the ground. It could open the door to linking complementary international efforts in different provinces. The recent appointment of a new Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Kai Eide, could also help bring about this greater coordination, balance and respect for local leadership.

Yet unless Paris marks such a shift to a new approach, the international effort in Afghanistan is doomed. Leaders who highlight the impressive achievements of the post-9/11 period (from the return of three million refugees to the historic elections in 2004,the six million children back in school or the National Solidarity Program which bringssmall-scale development to over 30,000 villages) are only reporting one side of the story. The other side is that we are far from winning the war on the ground in the South and East (or even in Kabul …), rampant corruption is eating away at the Karzai government’s legitimacy in the run-up to the national elections in 2009, donor coordination remains weak while narcotics production fuels violence and cynicism. That side of the story will gain prominence unless there is a decisive shift in our Afghanistan strategy.

Fortunately, new opportunities are emerging from our trials and tribulations. Hidden in the announcement the Harper government made two days before Paris is a promise to invest $14 million to support dialogue and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. This may open the door to a shift from Ottawa’s position of “no talks with the terrorists”. Berlin recently announced significant funding for cross-border cooperation and dialogue initiatives between Afghanistan and Pakistan, within the framework of a G8 initiative which Canada also supports. Fostering cross-border and national dialogues could help Afghans build the multi-leveled peace process they will need to reach a real political settlement. And without that comprehensive political solution, neither security nor development can be achieved.

Dialogue poses risks. Talking with the Taliban raises the issues of justice for past crimes against humanity, and of what might happen to ethnic minorities and women if the Taliban recovers power in Kabul. Yet minority rights, transitional justice and women’s inclusion will remain huge challenges with or without the Taliban at the table. And there won’t be a table without dialogue. Reaching out beyond the belligerents to include civil society groups in a broad peace process could help ensure that nobody’s rights are sidelined by another political-military deal.

That is why Canada and Germany are bringing dialogue into their portfolio of engagements in Afghanistan. By working together, with a broader range of Afghan stakeholders, our countries can help them build the multi-leveled dialogues that will be required for true reconciliation and lasting peace. With changes on the horizon in Washington and Kabul, this is a good time for middle powers to nurture real shifts towards a more effective strategy.


Almut Wieland-Karimi is Director of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) offices in the USA and Canada.. Stephen Baranyi is Principal Researcher in the Conflict Prevention program at The North-South Institute (NSI). This opinion piece is based on an expert roundtable that FES and NSI hosted in Ottawa on June 19.