World leaders debate the future of Afghanistan

World leaders debate the future of Afghanistan at London summit. Bangladesh executes independence leader’s killers. Honduras’ Zelaya goes into exile. The international community unites to tackle al-Qaeda in Yemen. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
28 January 2010

A one-day summit on the future of Afghanistan, expected to give renewed momentum to nation-building efforts, opened this morning in London. Hosted by the UK, UN and Afghan government, representatives from over seventy nations, including members of the NATO mission, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and key regional players, are attending to discuss ways of making progress in the war against the Taliban.

According to summit officials, the aims of the conference are three-fold: to discuss a future security plan for the country; to encourage better governance; and to debate a more proactive role for Afghanistan’s neighbours. In a joint interview with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for BBC Radio Four, Karzai said it might take fifteen years to develop Afghan security forces’ capacity to the extent that they can look after national security themselves.

A plan to lure moderate Taliban members back into Afghan society had been discussed before the summit, in which donor countries might create a fund to offer jobs, cash and security to militants turning in their weapons. Karzai is also expected to announce, among other things, the start of a new anti-corruption drive, which will include the creation of an external watch dog made up of international anti-corruption experts.

The openSecurity verdict: As the summit kicks off, some commentators predict that it is a prelude to withdrawal from Afghanistan by members of the NATO coalition who, due to declining public support for the war, have become anxious about their intervention. The emphasis of the conference on handing over more responsibility to Afghan forces, a point repeatedly made by Gordon Brown during his Radio Four interview with Karzai, would seem to point in the direction of preparation for withdrawal. Plans to reach out to moderate Taliban members have been portrayed in a similar light by some analysts.

The intervention of international forces under NATO leadership was never meant to be indefinite. Although withdrawal must not be hastily and shoddily carried out, it will be an inevitably disruptive process that must be begun at some point. Other commentators believe that reaching out to moderate Taliban members and involving them in the future of their country is an essential part of the solution in Afghanistan.

Whatever the summit participants’ decide about the future conduct of the war in Afghanistan, there is one pressing issue that does not appear to be high on the summit’s security-led agenda: development aid to Afghanistan.

Recent moves by the IMF, World Bank and creditor nations to grant $1.6bn in debt relief are a step in the right direction. Afghanistan was recently congratulated by these international financial institutions for fulfilling debt cancellation criteria through economic reforms in the face of adverse conditions. However, despite the billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan since 2001, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and has some of world’s the worst human development indicators.

Aid agencies have been highly critical of the way that aid has been distributed in Afghanistan, as a report released by Oxfam International and several other international agencies on Wednesday demonstrates. The report is particularly critical of the impact of militarised aid on Afghanistan. $1.7bn has been channelled through military means, which the report suggests has not only failed to reduce poverty, but is also endangering the lives of Afghan citizens.

The report’s authors highlight the dangers of ill-thought out, short-term projects, such as school building in remote and volatile areas in which military backing draws hostile attention to education institutions and endangers the lives of teachers and students. The report is also severely critical of the practice of offering food in return for information in a country in which one third of the population depend upon food aid.

International aid agencies are not alone in their criticism of the international aid effort in Afghanistan. A conference of politicians, community representatives and local and foreign development workers held in Kabul on Tuesday demanded that world leaders use today’s summit to reorient the development agenda to focus more on the Afghan people and less on short-term military goals. The conference was also critical of an aid agenda that has focused on conflict zones and short-term ‘hearts and minds’ projects, rather than long-term, holistic development.

Given Afghanistan's underdevelopment and the country’s continued reliance upon international aid, any security improvements will be short-lived unless the development agenda is revisited and reoriented, and the Afghan people are given the chance to participate in and contribute to the process that lifts them out of poverty. While a certain level of security is necessarily required to safeguard this future, bolstering security through building the capacity of Afghan security forces and reintegrating the Taliban alone will not be enough to bring this conflict to an end.

Bangladesh executes Bangabandhu killers

Five Bangladeshi ex-army officers convicted of killing the ‘father of the nation’, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were hanged in Dhaka Central Jail last night. The five executed men did not deny their role in the assassination, but had argued that they should be tried in a military rather than a civilian court.

A total of twelve plotters were convicted for their involvement in the 1975 murder and sentenced to death in November last year. Six of the convicted are on the run overseas, however, and a seventh is thought to have died abroad.

This politically sensitive trial has been running on and off since 1975, but since the Awami League government came to power last year after a two-year state of emergency, the current prime minister and daughter of Mujibur, Sheikh Hasina, has made the swift conclusion of the trial one of her government’s highest priorities.

Last minute petitions to review the sentences of the five condemned men were dismissed by the Appellate Division earlier this week, on the grounds that the convicted men’s legal counsel had submitted no new evidence. Popular opinion in Bangladesh has been strongly in favour of the execution of the convicted men, and there are calls for the remaining plotters to be extradited to Bangladesh for execution.

Honduran ex-president goes into exile

The former president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, left Tegucigalpa yesterday to begin his second exile in the Dominican Republic. The move brings to an end a six month stand off between Zelaya and the leaders of a military coup which ousted the president on 28 June 2009 over plans to redraw the 1982 constitution. Since returning to Honduras in secret in September, Zelaya had been sheltering in the Brazilian embassy. Attempts at international diplomacy to allow Zelaya to return to office have met with repeated failure over the preceding months.

Zelaya was offered safe passage by the newly elected president, Porfirio Lobo, who was sworn in on Wednesday. Lobo has described his former opponent’s exile as essential for national reconciliation. Zelaya is thought to have agreed to go into exile in order to escape prosecution in Honduras on charges that he violated constitution while in office. These charges have been repeatedly denied by Zelaya and his supporters.

Zelaya’s exile demonstrates the final failure of diplomatic efforts to condemn the coup and allow the former leader to return to office. Although France and the US have shown tentative support for Honduras’ new leader, leftist governments in the region remain broadly critical of Lobo, fearing that his rise to power will legitimise coups as a means of regime change in the region. Many regional and national commentators believe that the move represents ultimate victory for the coup plotters, who were granted amnesty when Lobo, in his first act as president, signed a decree pledging that those involved in the June coup would not be prosecuted.

International community unites to tackle al-Qaeda threat in Yemen

An international conference on Yemen, convened by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was held yesterday in London. Officials from twenty countries, plus representatives from the EU, UN, World Bank and IMF, met to discuss the threat from al-Qaeda and the broader socio-economic problems facing Yemen, the poorest Arab state.

The conference was precipitated by the failed Christmas day bomb plot, for which Yemeni al-Qaeda claimed responsibility. The failed attempt to blow up an aeroplane en route to Detroit has drawn international attention to the severe political instability, ethnic conflict and economic deprivation in Yemen, and stoked fears that al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the chaos in parts of Yemen to set up a new base of operations.

Officials attending the conference pledged to help Yemen enhance its counterterrorist capacity, strengthen border and aviation security and improve coastguard operations, whilst urging the country to enact economic and social reforms. Yemen in return promised to pursue social reforms and initiate discussions with the IMF on economic reform.

The Yemeni prime minister, Ali Mujawar, welcomed the conference’s pledges of support, but was quick to assert that Yemen is not a failed state, and that its government will not tolerate any breaches of sovereignty. In a separate statement, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the Yemeni foreign minister, dismissed the idea of US bases on Yemeni territory as “inconceivable”. These statements reflect concern in Sana’a that overenthusiastic acceptance of international support will simply play into the hands of Islamists and other opponents of the government, and will further weaken the government’s already fragile credibility.

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