In Colombia's Hope, Afghanistan's Future
Donors meeting in Brussels should remember Colombia in the 1990s looked a lot like Afghanistan today.
Colombia’s surprising referendum defeat of an all-but-complete peace deal, and the vow by its government and rebel leaders to continue talks rather than revive 52 years of war, demonstrate two principles of peacemaking that are critical this week for the war in Afghanistan.
As world leaders from 90 governments and the United Nations meet in Brussels to review support for Afghanistan, the news from Colombia underscores that peacemaking is a years-long slog requiring steady leadership that outlives electoral cycles. But the promise of all sides in Colombia to stick with peacemaking despite their shock also shows that such processes can generate momentum and resilience—and that peace ultimately is possible even where seemingly intractable problems invite despair.
Consider that Colombia in the 1990s looked a lot like Afghanistan today. After some 30 years of war, it seemed a failed state on the brink of collapse, with narco-mafias, insurgents, and corruption tearing apart the state and its institutions. In 2002, rebels encircling the capital fired rockets into President Alvaro Uribe’s inauguration.
The donors who meet in Brussels this week should bear in mind the benefits of steady assistance and pressure over time to create the necessary conditions for peace. In addition to money for needed development—the main purpose of the donor conference—Afghanistan needs a steady process to build political compromise among the country’s factions on just how they should share power. As participants discuss economic and governance reforms in the conference room, the talk in the corridors and after Brussels should be about incentivizing the political reforms that can reduce the root causes of the insurgency and broader instability.
The discussion at Brussels will spotlight Afghanistan’s important progress, including years of economic growth and the increased access to education and health care for millions. But the need to address the political paralysis that has prevented governance reforms is urgent. The Taliban insurgency continues to spread, ISIS has found a foothold, and rising civilian casualties exact an exorbitant price on the people. After two years in office, the “national unity” coalition led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has been unable to make basic government appointments without long delays as insecurity rises, the economy falters, and ethnic divisions increase.
As in Colombia, Afghanistan will require strong domestic leadership and sustained international support to reverse its decline. That strong domestic leadership means a more unified governing coalition. Ghani and Abdullah, rivals in the 2014 election, agreed under U.S. pressure to join in a coalition after the muddled, disputed results of that vote. They may feel they were forced into a bad marriage, but when Ghani served as finance minister and Abdullah as foreign minister a decade ago, they each showed the ability to work as part of a multi-ethnic team in government to improve Afghanistan’s economy and international standing.
To quickly build Afghans’ confidence in the coalition government, Ghani and Abdullah need to accomplish two tasks, which Afghanistan's partners should encourage and facilitate. First they should agree on a specific process to make fair, inclusive, merit-based government appointments. Second, they should present a credible, consensus plan to hold long-delayed parliamentary elections, and to reform the election system. This would include appointing a qualified and impartial election commission and cleaning up bloated voter rolls. Holding elections for the sake of elections without reforms risks further reducing trust in the democratic process.
These steps to show the government’s basic efficacy will be critical to the deeper, longer-term task: a lasting, inclusive political accord on how Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and factions, including elements of the Taliban, can share power. Elections, while broadly supported by brave Afghan voters, have consistently produced deeply divisive results. The current ad-hoc and ambiguous split of executive power between Ghani and Abdullah has failed to coalesce in large part due to underlying struggles among ethnic powerbrokers about what is their fair share of political power. This has clouded the government’s legitimacy and effectiveness.
The 2014 agreement that established the National Unity Government recognized the need for more fundamental discussions about how political power and resources are shared in Afghanistan’s pluralistic and atomized society. That is why the agreement called for a constitutional assembly within two years – which should have taken place by last week. Little progress has been made on holding the assembly, in part because no one relishes the thought of negotiating sensitive and far-reaching political agreements in such a fragile political and security environment. But the longer Afghans wait for the time to be right, the more underlying disagreements cause instability. Afghans will have to tackle this big question soon.
Without a commitment to slow, steady improvement, Afghanistan could falter toward collapse. Instead of following Colombia’s path to the threshold of peace, the country could evolve like Syria. Five years ago, Aleppo was a tourist destination. Now Aleppo’s ruins, and Syria’s agonies, are reminders of the cost of letting bad problems metastasize into horrible ones—and of the need for solid leadership to avoid it.
Alex Thier, a former chief of policy, planning, and learning at the U.S. Agency for International Development, oversaw USAID's Afghanistan and Pakistan programs from 2010 to 2013. Scott Worden is the director for Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.