My colleague Bill Byrd has just written a provocative but thoughtful piece on the limits of what large, international conferences can achieve for Afghanistan. Whatever the benefits are of keeping Afghanistan on the international agenda, Bill is rightly skeptical that these large conferences often confuse talk for action, and raise expectations that are invariably disappointed.
Now, what the International Crisis Group once called Afghanistan's "travelling Jamboree" is heading to Tokyo July 8 to discuss post-2014 civilian assistance to Afghanistan. The topic is important, especially since it has been totally overshadowed by the security transition. So the high-level attention will be welcome. But what can really be achieved?
The "international community," like any community, deserves an anthropology of its own. These meetings have their set rituals and hierarchies, and the most important bits of communication are often indirect: understood by the participants but difficult to perceive by outside observers. The communiqués that result are reliably unreadable. They almost always begin with the good intention of being punchy and sharp, with some takeaways for the press, and quickly slide back into diplomatic sludge. Every previous conference ever held must be mentioned in deference to all the previous hosts, every previous agreement made must be reached; every country's pet priority must be set down.
The ritual is set to repeat itself in Tokyo on Sunday. As usual, optimistic background documents have been prepared. Experts in fifty capitals around the world have written statements for their ministers that are variations on an eternal theme: "while much has been achieved, much remains to be done." The integrity of the "Afghan lead" will be highlighted, followed inevitably by a long list of what the Afghans "must do." "Mutual accountability" will be pledged. Again.
Nabakov once described politics as ‘the transformation of perfectly innocent little towns into the names of international treaties.’ And so it was with Afghan conferences on civilian assistance: Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, now Tokyo again.
In an era of perceived plenty, like that between 2001 and 2008, this conference ritual was comforting and easy to believe in. Donors pledged money in exchange for hearing pleasant words from the Afghan delegation about the need for good governance and the determination to tackle corruption. Plans to build railroads, invest in mines and develop the private sector were discussed. Donors "insisted" on a few "measurable benchmarks" of good governance and the Afghan government agreed to implement them. Inevitably, when the jamboree met again a year or two later, the money had not been fully pledged, the investments had not really been made, and the benchmarks had not been met. What hadn't changed was the willingness to believe in the ritual, and do it again. Nabakov once described politics as "the transformation of perfectly innocent little towns into the names of international treaties." And so it was with Afghan conferences on civilian assistance: Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, London, Kabul, now Tokyo again.
But the mood will surely be different at Tokyo II. The combination of global fiscal austerity and an ongoing frustration with the pace of progress in Afghanistan has to make the ritual a little more difficult to swallow. The Afghans must begin to understand that patience is running out, and money will run out with it. The real fact of scarce resources will make the conditionality of the international community much more credible.
In the end the ritualistic words spoken at the conferences don't matter. What is important is the dialog of deeds that takes place in the months afterwards through the meeting of respective commitments. Up to now, both sides have let each other down, and that essential dialog is permeated with distrust. Tokyo cannot restore that trust, but if post-Tokyo actions don't begin to soon, then it is difficult to foresee that the Afghan conference ritual will continue much longer.
Scott Smith is deputy director of USIP’s Afghanistan program. He is a former UN official and will be in Tokyo during the conference on Afghanistan. Look for more from Scott in coming days.