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.

Mining in Afghanistan
Photo Credit: The New York Times/ Mauricio Lima

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.

Related Publications

Afghanistan’s Economy Once Again Nears the Precipice

Afghanistan’s Economy Once Again Nears the Precipice

Friday, November 17, 2023

By: Belquis Ahmadi;  William Byrd, Ph.D.;  Scott Worden

More than two years into Taliban rule, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world with some of the highest humanitarian needs. The situation has shown some signs of stabilizing over the last year — but many Afghan households are still struggling to procure basic needs, and many women have been driven from the workforce altogether. Unfortunately, financial troubles loom ahead, and the already beleaguered Afghan economy is now projected to decline. Combined with population growth and the influx of thousands of Afghans forced to return from neighboring Pakistan, this is a recipe for increased humanitarian need over the longer term in the absence of major structural and political reforms.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

EconomicsHuman Rights

In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban

In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban

Thursday, November 16, 2023

By: Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.

On November 8, in an unprecedented press conference, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar offered a blistering critique of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He announced that the Taliban leadership was supporting the anti-Pakistan insurgency of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and that had contributed to a major increase in violence in Pakistan — leading to 2,867 Pakistani fatalities since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global PolicyViolent Extremism

A Shift Toward More Engagement with the Taliban?

A Shift Toward More Engagement with the Taliban?

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

By: Kate Bateman

Since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States has found itself in a vexing dilemma — wanting to condemn and hold accountable the Taliban regime for persecuting women and girls, harboring terrorists and failing to govern inclusively, but also wanting Afghanistan to avoid famine and civil war, and achieve some economic and political stability. U.S. policymakers have thus tried to balance principle and pragmatism. To exert pressure on the Taliban, the United States has withheld diplomatic recognition and traditional development aid, frozen Afghan Central Bank assets and maintained sanctions on Taliban leaders.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

International Day of the Girl Is a Cruel Irony for Daughters in Afghanistan

International Day of the Girl Is a Cruel Irony for Daughters in Afghanistan

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

By: Belquis Ahmadi

As leaders, activists and families across the world commemorate the International Day of the Girl on October 11, the harsh reality faced by millions of Afghan girls stands in stark contrast to many of the planned celebrations. For 750 days and counting, Afghan girls have been forcibly deprived of their right to education and their future because of the Taliban regime’s repressive policies.

Type: Blog


View All Publications