By Lyse Doucet
‘Karzai is often blamed for making poor choices’
In December 2001, a new future for Afghanistan was mapped out at an international conference in Bonn, beginning with an interim government to replace the Taleban. This week we look at how much has changed since then.
Five years ago, on a cold winter’s day in Kabul, news broke that a new Afghan leader had been chosen thousands of miles away in the German city of Bonn.
I reached for a satellite telephone to call Hamid Karzai, still battling against Taleban forces in their last redoubt in the south.
“Am I the new chairman?” he shouted on a crackling line. On a morning when he had come under fire from misguided American aircraft, Hamid Karzai still had not been told officially.
“That’s nice,” was his unassuming reply.
Afghans have, in some ways, made an impressive journey since a hastily assembled group of Afghans and foreign envoys forged what became known as the Bonn process.
With some difficulty and delay all the ambitious targets were met: a traditional assembly, or loya jirga, approved a new government in 2002; a second loya jirga came up with a constitution; and presidential and parliamentary elections were held for the first time in decades.
We are too late, too bureaucratic, and frankly we spend too much money on ourselves rather than developing the skills of Afghan
Lakhdar Brahmini, former UN envoy
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But for many Afghans it is a job half done.
“We reached the quantity of targets, but the quality is still missing,” says Nader Nadery, an observer at the Bonn conference who is now a Commissioner at Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission.
Afghanistan is still a place awash with guns, where commanders and local officials can impose their will with impunity, where many Afghans say their lives have changed little.
Most startling of all, the Taleban have made a comeback in the south, fighting with unexpected ferocity and firepower.
There is no doubting some progress, but why did billions of dollars in aid and thousands of foreign troops not make more of a difference?
Fighting in Afghanistan continues to attract international criticism
I have put this question in recent weeks to many of the players who helped shape Afghanistan over the past five years.
Former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani insists the world’s aid agencies simply were not equipped for state building in an impoverished country emerging from a quarter century of war.
Even Lakhdar Brahimi, who presided over much of this process as the UN’s senior envoy, offers a scathing verdict on the performance of the UN and donors.
“The way we are doing it is really lousy. We are too late, too bureaucratic, and frankly we spend too much money on ourselves rather than developing the skills of Afghans,” he says.
Most critically for Mr Brahimi and many others, countries who vowed to “stand by Afghanistan for the long run” didn’t send enough troops in 2002 to start rebuilding, including disarmament, across the country.
Only 5,000 soldiers were sent to Kabul while 8,000 US troops concentrated on rooting out remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
Mr Brahimi speaks of a “great deal of bitterness” that resources were then suddenly found for a war in Iraq.
‘Police reform is now on top of US military agenda’
“In 2002, the warlords and commanders were shaking in their boots fearing they were going to be disarmed or cast aside,” recalls Francesc Vendrell, the former UN envoy who is the now the EU’s man in Kabul. “Now it’s much more difficult.”
Five years on, Afghanistan’s powerful regional leaders no longer command private armies but in province after province, men with guns now have access to state resources and positions of power.
Huge cracks have been exposed in this state building exercise. including the failure to focus enough attention on rebuilding institutions like the judiciary and police.
“Ten good police are better than 100 corrupt police and 10 corrupt police can do more damage to our success than one Taleban extremist,” explains Lt General Karl Eikenberry, the senior US commander.
He has now put police reform at the top of the US military’s agenda after years of a German-led effort which concentrated mainly on training.
Government failings also fuel the rise of Taleban and other opposition forces.
President Karzai is often blamed for making poor choices when it comes to appointing provincial governors and police chiefs.
In an interview at his heavily guarded presidential palace, he admits “there are things I would have done differently”.
But he rejects criticism that he still relies too heavily on advice from former mujahideen factional leaders blamed for the destruction of Kabul during the civil war of the 1990s.
His political signature has been “the big tent” approach. But what Mr Karzai views as a wise strategy to bring everyone on board, others see as a sign of weakness.
Many express regret over other missed opportunities.
Lakhdar Brahimi worries that he and others were wrong not to bring the Taleban into the political process as early as 2002.
Many say Afghanistan did not get enough aid
Former US envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad told me he wished more attention had been paid to Taleban “sanctuaries” across the border in Pakistan.
Five years on, there is consensus on an urgent need to get a grip on the situation.
It is more difficult now with the emergence of a new “mafia”: a nexus of drug smugglers, criminals, and in some provinces Taleban, filling a vacuum left by the government.
Nato forces are now acutely aware their fight is also about jobs and reconstruction. As General Eikenberry puts it: “Where the road ends, the Taleban begins”.
As another harsh winter closes in, long cold nights without electricity, even in Kabul, concentrate Afghan minds.
Spring must bring not just a reprieve from winter’s icy blast, but clear signs that their government, backed by Nato forces and major donors, is heading in the right direction.