The Geneva Conference on Afghanistan (GCA), held on November 27-28, was co-chaired by the Afghan government and United Nations, and brought together delegations from 61 countries and 35 international agencies, as well as representatives of civil society, the private sector, and media. The GCA followed conferences in London in 2014 and Brussels in 2016, and the Geneva program included many side meetings on salient topics. From a diplomatic and process standpoint, Geneva was generally seen as a success by participants (though some countries were not represented at the minister level), and the Afghan government showcased the progress it made in implementing reforms and national priority programs over the past two years. But what did the GCA accomplish substantively, what was left undone, and what questions were left unanswered?

Farmers unload melons at the melon market in Kabul, Aug. 8, 2017. As bountiful as the fruit is this season, the Taliban and militias defending the government against it have taken a toll on farmers and traders. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Farmers unload melons at the melon market in Kabul. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Achievements and Successes

The GCA produced a joint communique (titled “Securing Afghanistan’s Future: Peace, Self-Reliance and Connectivity) and the Geneva Mutual Accountability Framework (GMAF), building on earlier frameworks promulgated in 2012 and 2015. The GMAF puts forward 24 deliverables to be achieved during 2019-2020 to support the continuing inflow of aid, in six areas: 1) improving security and political stability (including through holding elections); 2) anti-corruption, governance, rule of law, and human rights; 3) restoring fiscal sustainability, improving public finances and commercial banking; 4) reforming development planning and management, and ensuring citizens’ development rights; 5) private sector development and inclusive growth; and 6) development partnerships and aid effectiveness.

What more was achieved? First, the GCA reaffirmed the international community’s intention, expressed in Brussels in 2016, to provide a total of $15.2 billion of development assistance to Afghanistan during 2017-2020 and gradually declining support thereafter through 2024. Maintaining this commitment is critically important for Afghanistan’s future, since a precipitous drop-off or sudden phase-out of aid would be a recipe for disaster—resulting in a fiscal and likely governmental collapse.

Concrete manifestations of support by different donors included an announcement by the European Union (EU) of a 474-million euros assistance package (roughly $540 million) as part of its Brussels aid commitment. The U.S. government noted that it had provided $3.6 billion of civilian assistance since 2016 and reaffirmed its commitment to the Afghan people. Some additional funding was also announced by various donors to respond to Afghanistan’s severe drought and the widespread displacement resulting from drought and conflict.

Second, the GCA and its communique strongly emphasized that Afghanistan’s development is inextricably linked to peace. Donors and partners were asked on an urgent basis “to develop and implement a specific action plan, consistent with fundamental values and existing frameworks, in support of [a] broad-based program of economic initiatives which would advance: a post-settlement return of Afghan capital; increased Afghan and foreign investment; job creation; and, enhanced regional economic integration.”

At the GCA, President Ghani announced the Afghan government’s updated peace plan and named a 12- member peace negotiation team. Based on Taliban acceptance of a “democratic and inclusive” society respecting the Afghan constitution including its protections for women, the plan put forward a five-phased Afghan-owned and government-led approach: intra-Afghan dialogue, followed by discussions with Pakistan and the United States, then participation of regional actors, then the Arab-Islamic world, and finally NATO and non-NATO countries. This initiative represents an attempt to reassert the Afghan government’s role in the peace process, and raises some questions, particularly given the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate directly with the government to date.

The U.S. statement at Geneva was largely devoted to discussion of a peace settlement and planning for peace. The European Union offered five concrete forms of support for the peace process:

  • Making the peace process inclusive;
  • Assisting with the reforms that may come with a peace deal, like security sector reform;
  • Working with ex-combatants and their families to reintegrate into society;
  • Acting as a guarantor of the peace process; and
  • Further promoting trade and infrastructure projects with all of Afghanistan's neighbors.

Third, Geneva advanced the substantive dialogue—or at least mutual understanding—on key topics and issues through side meetings and events, including: women’s economic advancement, strengthening the private sector, and growth and development, among others. Meetings on displacement, reintegration, and return, and on drought and food security highlighted the humanitarian problems Afghanistan faces and the urgent need to address them. And strong substantive speeches were delivered by Afghan President Ghani and CEO Abdullah at various points during the GCA.

Another positive takeaway from Geneva is that neighboring states and regional powers were more prominently and proactively engaged than in previous development conferences on Afghanistan, reflecting the recent moves toward a peace process and the welcome recognition that the regional countries will be crucial for peace and prosperity.

Unresolved Issues, Unanswered Questions

Geneva did not address some important issues, at least in its official public meetings, and left unanswered questions. These include the risk that the upcoming presidential election will produce another divided political landscape, the uncertain possibility of a peace process getting underway, the problematic security situation, the regional geopolitical undercurrents, and the confluence of these different factors.

The holding of parliamentary elections in October, just in time for Geneva, was widely praised while recognizing the serious shortcomings of the rushed electoral process. The Geneva communique called for “effective preparations” for elections in 2019 “to ensure maximum transparency, credibility, participation, and security.”

There is, however, grossly insufficient time to make meaningful improvements given that the 2019 presidential election is scheduled for April 20 and the slow pace of electoral decision-making and reform. In any case, the highly consequential presidential election may turn out to be problematic and disputed, which could precipitate a crisis that would undermine peace efforts and political stability.

Moreover, the international development community’s penchant in favor of holding elections may well clash with possible initiatives to delay the presidential election and form an interim government, as part of what likely will be a complex and extended peace negotiation process.

The GCA was strongly supportive of the peace process, but both in the communique and in the Afghan government’s plan laid down some markers which may, unless pursued flexibly and creatively, be difficult to fulfill in their entirety. The communique stated: “This political solution [i.e. peace agreement] must ensure the renunciation of violence, the breaking of all ties to international terrorism, and protect the human rights of all—including women, children and persons belonging to minorities—in accordance with international law and as enshrined in the constitution of Afghanistan.”

Documents prepared for Geneva wrestled with the economic growth conundrum: despite the recognized progress in implementing reforms, GDP growth has remained slow, resulting in stagnant average per-capita incomes, rising unemployment, and worsening poverty. Even with optimistic assumptions, a substantial acceleration of growth does not seem feasible as long as the current conflict continues at such a high level of violence.

Reforms and investments will make much more of a difference under a peace scenario, particularly if accompanied by a reasonable degree of political stability. Therefore, achieving higher growth under a “peace with reforms” scenario is a much more realistic prospect. However, there may be tensions and trade-offs between parts of the reform program and political deals made as part of a peace process, and/or a messy presidential election.

Finally, among the main topics on the GCA agenda, anti-corruption was an area where participants widely considered that progress has been insufficient and redoubled efforts are required, though the U.N. had reported substantial progress in certain areas of the anti-corruption agenda. But how much more strongly and effectively can anti-corruption be pursued in the near future with so much focus on the election and an incipient peace process?

Post-Geneva Priorities

Though the GCA put forward ambitious targets and deliverables for implementation of reforms, in the short run more modest and realistic objectives may be in order. Getting through the approaching presidential election without too much political and institutional damage will be a top priority.

While the development actors who met at Geneva are not directly involved in either elections or the peace process, the development agenda will be affected by both. A contested election outcome could lead to a fiscal crisis and deeper economic downturn (as it did in 2014), whereas a sustainable peace agreement would open up prospects for Afghanistan’s robust economic growth and development. The peace dimension was strongly emphasized at the GCA—a positive sign—though concerns remain that development and economic priorities may get sidelined during peace negotiations. Moreover, there are tensions between pressures to hold elections expeditiously on the one hand, and the widely expressed need for improvements in the quality of elections on the other.

On the economic front, maintaining macroeconomic and fiscal stability during the upcoming election season and a possible peace process, while avoiding outright reversal or serious backsliding on reforms, will be critical. Though seemingly a modest objective, this may turn out to be challenging. Lessons from the fiscal crisis during the 2014 presidential election must be learned to avoid a repeat, which would be even more disastrous this time around.

The stability and continuity of the international community’s civilian aid commitment to Afghanistan that was reaffirmed at Geneva is essential. This parallels the NATO support commitment announced at the Brussels NATO Summit in July. Afghanistan’s partners should not undermine or inject uncertainty about aid or the international commitment to Afghanistan more broadly, through words or actions that may cast doubt on this. Such problems came up during the 2011-2014 transition process and should be avoided, since building and maintaining confidence will be a necessary ingredient for progress and ultimate success during an uncertain time.

Finally, the GCA’s urgent call for an economic action plan to support peace should be prioritized. The economic dimensions of sustaining peace received considerable attention at Geneva, and follow-up is needed to avoid loss of momentum. 

William A. Byrd is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are his own and should not be attributed to the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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