Afghan Civil Society Looks to the Bonn II Conference and the Transfer of Power in 2014
Ilaria Romano 1 June 2011

Afghanistan looks to 2014 with concern. What will happen when stage four of the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) mission comes to an end and all power is handed over to local authorities? According to statements made by President Karzai, the transition should start next July. The Afghan Police and Army will assume full responsibility for seven areas: the provinces of Kabul, Panjshir and Bamyan, as well as the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Mehterlam and Lashkar Gah.

And yet the country is still far from fully accepting the current government, and the state does not have enough authority to guarantee security and stability.

Traditional organizations, such as local councils, still play a fundamental role in the administration of justice. Especially in the country’s over 40,000 rural villages, community meetings called jirgas act as consulting and deciding bodies, with an assembly of elders who express their opinions to deal with conflict and judge crimes. It is no coincidence that, in acknowledging how distant citizens are from the central institutions, the Karzai administration has created, within the framework of the National Solidarity Programme, Community Development Councils, which are authorized to manage projects and their funding at a local level, with help provided by 20 partners, which are mostly foreign NGOs.

Relations with NGOs, especially international NGOs, are a particularly delicate issue in “transitional” Afghanistan, because the many informal institutions present in the country fear that the debates, projects, and finances associated with these organizations may be channelled within a series of restricted circuits. This could lead to neglect of the many other organizations that are the expression of Afghanistan’s active civil society.

Ten years have passed since the Bonn Conference, and on December 5th the international community will have to address the results of intervention in Afghanistan. The fear expressed at the conference in Rome by Najiba Ayubi, the representative of the Steering Committee for a network of sixty Afghan associations, is that once again the presence of civil society may be restricted to a mere façade with no real say in any decision-making processes.

In 2001, under the aegis of the United Nations, the Bonn Conference set off a process that over a three-year period was meant to accompany this country to democracy. A few days later, U.N. Resolution 1386 authorized an international mission addressed at guaranteeing security and assisting the “newborn” institutional apparatus. The sovereignty of a temporary authority was acknowledged and a great assembly summoned, the Loya Jirga, to lead the country to its first elections and the drafting of a new constitution for Afghanistan.

In view of Bonn II, neither the government in Kabul nor the international community have yet consulted civil society organizations, which a decade later continue to demand to be acknowledged as subjects capable not only of presenting proposals, but also of negotiating them.

Freelance researcher and journalist Giuliano Battiston conducted a survey within the framework of the programme supporting civil society sponsored by the Italian-Afghan network, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the NGO Intersos, which was presented last February. The survey indicates precisely that the need felt by the Afghan citizens interviewed is to extend the borders of the concept of civil society, to include the young people’s and women’s movements, trade-unions, cultural associations, journalists and lawyers. The answers provided in questionnaires, filled out in eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, indicate realities that have inspired publications such as Parkha, which has cultural characteristics, or news desks such as the one at Radio Sahar, founded by young journalist Humaira Habib and entirely run by women, or such as the Afghanistan Cinema Club in Kabul.

In recent months two important events saw the direct participation of a wide range of Afghans. One was the Kabul conference held on March 30th and 31st, and the other was held in Rome on May 24th and 25th, both part of the project organised by the website At the end of the first meeting, participants drafted a six-point document, asking for Karzai’s government to allow civil society to participate in the decision-making process and for the international community to change its decision-making approach for intervention measures.

One of the consequences of the having the largest international peacekeeping force ever is that Afghanistan has, in the course of these years, seen a mixing of military operations and aid for development. The United Nations ISAF mission, under NATO control since 2003, has set up Provincial Reconstruction Teams, centres in which civilians and soldiers work together on reconstruction projects. At the moment there are 27, of which 12 are being managed directly by the USA and 15 subdivided among nations belonging to the coalition. Italy, for example, is responsible for the province of Herat as the Regional Command West, and leads the city’s PRT, as well as provides logistical support for three other teams. It has also developed medical, social, economic, and infrastructure projects. Since 2005 the Italian PRT alone has invested 29 million euro, provided by the Defence Ministry and integrated in 2010 with American funds. 

According to Jalalabad journalist Babrak Miakhel, only 30% of the Afghani population is satisfied with the manner in which the international community has spent funds destined to Afghanistan. The risk in supplying services, rather than strengthening social structures built to survive the transition, is that the overall development process for a country that has been at war for thirty years will not be implemented, but will instead be replaced by a series of projects that are often not linked one to the other.

Translated by Francesca Simmons




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