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Afghan Aid ‘is Not a Blank Check,’ says US regarding Afghanistan Development

Representatives from more than 70 countries and dozens of international organizations and agencies are expected to attend this conference

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Ambassador Richard Olson, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaks Sept. 29, 2016, at an event organized by the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. (H. Alikoza/VOA)

October 2, 2016: The international community is looking for signs of progress on key issues ahead of an international conference on Afghanistan in Brussels next week, said Ambassador Richard Olson, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The European Union and the National Unity government of Afghanistan will co-host the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan starting Tuesday. Representatives from more than 70 countries and dozens of international organizations and agencies are expected to attend.

After nearly 15 years of war and billions of dollars in international aid, the Afghan government still needs international support. But Olson said that support should not be taken for granted.

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“U.S. and international support for Afghanistan is not a blank check. Our support is conditioned and conditional on Afghan progress,” said Olson at an event organized by the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University on Thursday. “Our collective ability to continue providing significant levels of support to Afghanistan is dependent on the Afghan government’s performance and ability to work with us as an effective partner.”

Olson told VOA there are four areas of concern in the international community.

“First of all, further commitments on anti-corruption, electoral reforms, reforms on fiscal sustainability and on human rights, including rights of women,” he said.

Program of reforms

The Brussels Conference is aimed at endorsing a realistic program of reforms by the Afghan government to ensure continued international political and financial support for the country’s political and economic stability, state building and development over the next four years.

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The meeting will be the second international conference on Afghanistan this year. It follows NATO’s Warsaw Summit in July, where U.S. and other NATO member countries pledged to continue to deliver training, advice and assistance to Afghan security institutions.They also agreed to fund the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) until 2020 by providing up to $5 billion a year to the Afghan government, a big chunk of which would be paid by the United States.

At the Brussels Conference, which is an extension of the 2012 Tokyo International Conference on Afghanistan, it remains to be seen whether the Afghan leaders will be able to convince the international community that they are on the right path to reforms and have delivered on promises they made in earlier conferences.

If its government convinces the international community, Afghanistan will receive a pledge of more than $3 billion a year in development support until 2020, Olson added.

Endemic corruption

President Ashraf Ghani assumed the presidency with a pledge to fight corruption in 2014. But the country continues to struggle with the issue. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks Afghanistan 166 out of 168 countries.

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In 2012, at the Tokyo International Conference on Afghanistan, the Afghan government was required by the donor countries to illustrate its commitment to reforms, including fighting endemic corruption.

Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesman for Ghani, told VOA that Afghans are going to Brussels with confidence about their record on fighting corruption and other reforms.

“We have considerable achievements in this regard, and also the government has made substantial progress towards reforms, including in the defense sector as well as other sectors of the government,” Menapal said.

He added the government has taken measures to bring reforms in the judiciary branch of the government, which has long been a source of complaints among Afghans.

And there are signs that some outside the government are seeing a sincere effort to address the problem.

Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, believes that for anti-corruption efforts to succeed, there needs to be solid leadership that prioritizes reforms.

“During the past two years, indicators have emerged that the leadership of the Afghan government has the political will to go after corruption. These indicators in the past have been either very weak for various reasons or not present at all,” Ahmadzai said. “The international community has realized that Afghanistan is serious about fighting corruption.”

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Afghans’ destiny

Afghanistan was on the brink of a civil war when both candidates claimed victory in the country’s 2014 presidential elections, which were undermined by serious allegations of fraud and irregularities.

FILE - Then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham announces the results of the U.S. presidential election to the media at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Nov. 7, 2012.
FILE – Then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham announces the results of the U.S. presidential election to the media at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Nov. 7, 2012.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham told VOA that the international community will do its part, but ultimately the Afghan people will have to push their leaders for needed reforms.

“I kept telling people that as I was going around when I was leaving Afghanistan that we can help — that the international community can help deal with a whole range of problems,” Cunningham said.

But to make the system work and to make the government work, it is the Afghans who need to do the hard work and have the statesmanship, he added.

“Politics is about conflict and confrontation, but it is also about getting things done. Afghans have to put their national interest ahead of their political and personal interests at a certain point. Success of this government is one of those things,” Cunningham said.

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Ahmad Khalid Majidyar, a former analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who currently teaches U.S military officers on politics and security in Afghanistan, believes that the National Unity Government has had some successes in the past two years.

“For example,” he said, “the government has increased its national revenues, it has established an independent body to fight corruption, but still some of the key reform measures as stipulated in the political agreement of the unity government have not been implemented — most importantly, the electoral reforms.”Ghani spokesman Menapal said key steps have been taken toward electoral reforms as well. (VOA)

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U.S. Military Officials, Come Up With A New Strategy Over Unfavorable Data

"Obviously, we haven't kicked the terrorists out if they're still blowing things up and we're negotiating with them. That strategic goal has now changed."

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Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint on the Jalalabad-Kabul road, on the outskirts of Kabul, April 28, 2019. VOA

A decision by U.S. military officials in Afghanistan to stop tracking the amount of territory controlled by the Taliban is sparking an increasingly tense showdown with the watchdog overseeing reconstruction efforts.

The so-called district-level stability assessments, which measure the number of the country’s districts under government or insurgent control or influence, have been one of the most widely cited indicators of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

But the assessments are missing from the quarterly report issued Wednesday by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the first time the report has failed to include the data since 2015.

In a letter to SIGAR in March, the U.S.-commanded Resolute Support mission said the information had been dropped because it was “of limited decision-making value.”

Ending data collection

A spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, Col. David Butler, further defended the decision to stop collecting the data Wednesday.

“The district stability assessment that was previously provided by (the Department of Defense) was redundant and did little to serve our mission of protecting our citizens and allies,” he said, adding, “the intelligence community produces a district stability assessment which is available to SIGAR.”

Only SIGAR, which has expressed growing alarm about the amount of information that is no longer being collected or which has been unnecessarily classified, said this is the first time military officials have raised such concerns.

“SIGAR has always gotten the district assessments from the RS (Resolute Support) command, not from the intelligence community,” SIGAR spokesman Philip LaVelle told VOA, via email.

“When RS provided their formal response to our data call on this issue, they made no mention of it being discontinued because it’s ‘redundant’ and no indication of it being made available to us from the intelligence community,” he added.

Intelligence officials contacted by VOA are looking into whether the information is being collected and might be available to SIGAR.

But the assertion such data is collected would appear to contradict the letter Resolute Support sent SIGAR in March.

“District stability data has not been collected since the October 22, 2018 data submitted last quarter,” Resolute Support wrote. “There are no products at command or other forums that communicate district stability or control information.”

FILE - Soldiers attached to the 101st Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade, Iowa National Guard and 10th Mountain, 2-14 Infantry Battalion load onto a Chinook helicopter to head out on a mission in Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2019.
Soldiers attached to the 101st Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade, Iowa National Guard and 10th Mountain, 2-14 Infantry Battalion load onto a Chinook helicopter to head out on a mission in Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2019. VOA

Loss of data

In a statement accompanying the report’s release, SIGAR decried the loss of the data.

“Despite its limitations, the control data was the only unclassified metric provided by (Resolute Support) that consistently tracked changes to the security situation on the ground,” it said.

SIGAR also noted that previous commanders of the Resolute Support mission “had previously cited its importance in public statements.”

The U.S.-led mission’s decision to eliminate the stability assessments comes after successive reports showed the Afghan government’s control of the country falling to record lows.

In its November 2018 report, SIGAR said the Afghan government controlled or influenced only 56 percent of the country’s districts, at the time the lowest level recorded since the watchdog began tracking district control in November 2015.

In SIGAR’s subsequent report, issued this past January, that number had slipped to less than 54 percent, as the Afghan government lost seven districts to the Taliban.

According to some, the figures suggest U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan, meant to increase pressure on the Taliban and force them to negotiate an end to decades of fighting, is not having the level of success claimed by administration officials.

FILE - An Afghan man rides on a bicycle past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan, April 9, 2019.
An Afghan man rides on a bicycle past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan, April 9, 2019. VOA

Concerning data

Other data collected for the latest SIGAR report also show reason for concern.

The average number of attacks initiated by the Taliban jumped 19 percent for the three-month period ending in January. The number of casualties suffered by Afghan forces were 31 percent higher than compared to the same period last year.

The report found Afghan civilian casualties were also up, increasing 5 percent from 2017 to almost 11,000, while the number of civilians deaths jumped 11 percent, to more than 3,800.

“Ultimately, I don’t think we’ve met all of our strategic goals there,” U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told reporters last week, ahead of the report’s release.

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“We were going to get the terrorists out and create a government that could keep the terrorists out,” he said. “Obviously, we haven’t kicked the terrorists out if they’re still blowing things up and we’re negotiating with them. That strategic goal has now changed.”

Sopko also raised concerns that increasing amounts of information about U.S. difficulties or failures in Afghanistan is being hidden from the public.

“What we are finding now is almost every indicia, metrics, however you want to phrase it, for success or failure is now classified or non-existent,” he said.

“The Afghan people obviously know which districts are controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows it,” he said. “The only people who don’t know what is going on are the people who are paying for all of this, and that’s the American taxpayer.” (VOA)