Afghanistan Donor Conference Diplomats Offer Karzai Firm Words

Money and a slap on the wrist for Hamid Karzai: Afghanistan's president returns home from Paris with commitments for about $20 billion (€13 billion) in foreign aid. At the same time, the criticism of his administration's efforts was clearer than ever. In the future, payments to the Karzai government will be based solely on performance.

By in Paris


French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai: the end of the "more of the same" principle.
REUTERS

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai: the end of the "more of the same" principle.

It was a little like being in a bazaar in Kabul. Journalists jostled their way through the narrow hallways of the conference center on Avenue Kleber, sweating and whispering rumors to each other about the aid commitments of individual countries. Inside, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner did his best to keep the speeches by his counterparts from almost 65 countries within the three-minute limit. "Take pity on us and just tell us your amount," the Frenchman joked.

Kouchner's joke emphasized the real purpose of the Afghanistan conference in Paris. Seven years after the ouster of the Taliban, the Paris conference had been convened to raise money for the troubled country, which is still almost wholly dependent on foreign aid. Afghanistan's president had come to Paris armed with a request for $50 billion (€32 billion), the amount, he said, that his government will need over the next five years to continue along its "long path" out of a "dark past."

Karzai's wishes were fulfilled for the most part. The United States was the only country to agree to less than Karzai had requested, reducing its commitment by almost half, while others even increased their commitments. Germany promised €420 million ($651 million) for the next two years. In the end, according to the French foreign minister, the assembled nations committed a grand total of $19.95 billion (12.95 billion). Karzai, some scoffed, should "have nothing to complain about, in light of these gifts."

"The Trouble Lies with the Karzai Government"

Nevertheless, the conference brought both aid commitments and a warning to the weak Afghan president. Both in the general conference and in one-on-one talks, the key heads of state made it clear they were more than dissatisfied with his performance. Given his country's persistent problems with corruption, the drug trade and an arbitrary judicial system, Karzai's achievements have been paltry when it comes to the core issues of reconstruction. In fact, his clan is even involved in many unsavory deals.

In addition to the large numbers being quoted, the harsh criticism of Karzai is the salient signal from the Paris meeting. In recent years, the West pinned its hopes on Karzai, a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, consistently praising him as the only alternative. And although it repeatedly turned two blind eyes to his administration's mismanagement of the country, it is now equally unashamed about reading him the riot act. "The question is no longer what Karzai wants from us," says one US envoy, "but what we expect from him."

Once again, a perfidious, behind-the-scenes diplomatic drama was being staged in Paris. While the dignitaries in the conference room spoke of friendship and eternal alliances, the comments they made outside, in front of the cameras, were decidedly more direct. "Reconstruction in Afghanistan is not failing because of the money," said one European diplomat, "the trouble lies with the Karzai government itself." The Kabul government, the diplomat continued, will have to make many improvements within the next two years, or it will lose the West's confidence once and for all.

"Still a Lot to Do"

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also wasn't one to mince his words, calling for "clear signs" from Karzai, a "determined approach to fighting corruption and lawlessness" and an acknowledgement by the government that it is aware of its responsibility. In concrete terms, Steinmeier proposed that payments be routinely reviewed to ensure that they are being applied correctly. The "more of the same" approach of the last few years no longer makes any sense, Steinmeier said, adding that there is "still a great deal" left to do in Afghanistan.

For the German foreign minister, the trip to Paris was little more than a short side-trip. He left the conference after lunch for a trip to China that evening. But his diplomats had already done the legwork for him ahead of the meeting. Although the Paris group accepted the Afghans' ambitious plan for reconstruction in the coming five years, it also insisted that UN Special Envoy Kai Eide's status report serve as an annex for subsequent steps.

The approval of the report is important, because the ten-page dossier offers a highly critical depiction of reality. More specifically, Eide writes in his report that the goals of the "Afghanistan Compact," reached in 2006, have proven to be "overly ambitious in many areas" in the past two years. The document lists many problems and shortcomings in the three most important areas, security, government work and the development of a civil society.

Does Karzai even Have the Necessary Power?

The Germans are not the only ones hoping the report will stimulate at least a minor change in direction in the coming years of reconstruction. The dossier recommends, for example, that the community of donor nations be given a "watchdog function" in the future, enabling it to intervene whenever there are signs that funds are being misappropriated. The United Nations report also calls upon the Afghan government to make its work more transparent, so as to make it easier to monitor.

Steinmeier, at any rate, was relatively satisfied after the conference. President Karzai "got the message," says Steinmeier, and his assurances were "clearer than at earlier opportunities." All Western diplomats know that they couldn't expect much more. Whether Karzai is even in a position to fulfill the donor nations' wish list is more than questionable. Afghanistan experts fear that Karzai has long lacked the power to take tough action.

Despite the many billions in commitments for his country, the Afghan president is under even greater pressure now that the Paris conference has ended. The next two years will determine his political fate, and the unmistakable criticism from Paris will further weaken him domestically.

As much as the West has become accustomed to this well-educated man in his green coat, it should not hesitate to start thinking about a post-Karzai scenario -- one that would finally bring an end to the "more of the same" principle.

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