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Afghanistan is perhaps one of the most pressing issues in contemporary humanitarian and foreign affairs. In his Inaugural address, President Obama committed to "forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan." The country has been the scene of extreme human rights abuses, civil war, terrorism, regional instability, and is the third poorest country in the world.

It is vital for the international community to develop an effective, considered, and practical approach to improve the situation in Afghanistan and address issues of human rights, humanitarian assistance, development, counter-narcotics, national security, and regional stability. This conference is designed to move forward in developing the both the fundamental understanding and practical solutions needed to address the challenges.

Agenda and Speakers

Welcoming Remarks/Introductions

  • Richard Solomon
    President of USIP
  • Rory Stewart
    Ryan Family Professor of the Practice of Human Rights
    Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School
  • Jamie Metzl
    Executive Vice President of Asia Society

Keynote speakers

  • Richard Holbrooke
    U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Barnett Rubin
    Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation
  • Michael Ignatieff
    Interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada

Panel Discussions, all moderated by Rory Stewart

  • Pakistan/Regional Issues
  • Counter-Narcotics and Development
  • Taliban, Counterinsurgency and Counter-Terrorism
  • Governance and Politics

Concluding Remarks

  • Rory Stewart

Event Summary

By most accounts – this conference -- co-sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, the Asia Society and the Center on International Cooperation at New York University -- yielded one of the most engaging and candid debates in recent memory concerning Afghanistan, Pakistan and the international community's role in the region.

The conference was entirely off the record – one major reason for the frank discussion – but a list of panelists and the conference agenda are public. 

In addition to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, other luminaries included Michael Ignatieff, interim leader of Canada's Liberal Party; Barnett Rubin, director of Studies and Senior Fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation; Alex Thier, director of the Future of Afghanistan Project at USIP and editor of "The Future of Afghanistan";  Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analyst's Network; Hekmat Karzai, director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul; and USIP's Scott Worden, who was just recently appointed to Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission.  
The audience – which acted more as participants since the format allowed for a productive back-and-forth with the panelists – included some of the top analysts, policymakers and scholars from all over the world.

Participants appreciated the candid responses by Amb. Holbrooke on a number of sensitive issues, and the extent to which he emphasized the social and cultural complexity of Afghanistan. His remarks, along with several others, tended towards sober realism about the depth of the challenge and what could realistically be accomplished, while emphasizing the importance of taking a step-by-step approach and remaining flexible. 

Several critical themes were repeated throughout the day. Some of those common concerns included the matter of bringing warlords and former fighters into the electoral process; the risks of working with warlords and private militias; negotiating with the Taliban; the tensions between having a decentralized country and centralized state; and the tensions between what kind of government the international community wants for Afghanistan and the kind of government Afghans want. Participants also highlighted the ultimate legitimacy of the upcoming elections.

Pakistan also heavily influenced the discussion, as focus has shifted there with the rising tide of violence and sense of increasing loss of control by the Pakistani government and military. One panelist called Pakistan the biggest concern and uncertainty because it remained unclear where the country was headed, suggesting that the U.S. government was still in the process of making its policy.

Other common threads, and points of contention – included debate over what stabilization minimally entails and how best to achieve those ends. What exactly does "nation building" mean in a country like Afghanistan, and are those realistic goals for the international community in Afghanistan? Related to that debate lies the question of whether counterterrorism and "nation building" policies were diametrically opposed, or whether they suggest the same ultimate approach in order to succeed.
Some questioned how long the international community would be willing to remain in Afghanistan, especially when such ultimate objectives – and strategies -- were not entirely clear to the nations involved. 

One of the livelier debates emerged over whether stabilization meant resolving security problems and terrorist threats, regardless of creating a legitimate state, or if stabilizing Afghanistan would only be achieved through nation building in some form. 
One panelist argued that countries would not fight – and die -- in Afghanistan to reform it, but only to stabilize it, and that stabilization had nothing to do with democracy.

Another panelist countered that "only the rule of law will lead to stabilization," emphasizing the pragmatic importance to pursue human rights and transitional justice to "chip away at the culture of impunity."

One area of agreement, however, was the potential benefit of including and working with local groups as a way to stabilize the country.

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