From Bonn to Kabul: a Tale of Two Cities

23 December 2011

by Nadeem Kazmi

How an Afghan street child altered Nadeem Kazmi's view of international diplomacy

It was midnight on a freezing December night in Kabul when I saw him; a tiny, scruffy boy, abandoned in the middle of a busy, unlit intersection.

He was probably three to four years of age.  Although it was minus five degrees, he had no coat, no gloves, no hat.  His job was to try to beg as the traffic dodged around him.

I found myself shocked: not so much by this small boy’s fight for survival, given the well documented poverty in Afghanistan, but by the stark contrast between two very different worlds.

I had just arrived in Kabul from the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan - a grand international affair with around a thousand delegates from more than a hundred countries.

The Conference was like another universe.  The atmosphere was self congratulatory, with jovial, back-slapping diplomats congratulating each other on pulling together this huge event.  After issuing a final communiqué stressing their continuing support - and aid - for Afghanistan, they retreated to their smart hotels before flying home.

Although Afghan civil society delegates - the people whose job it is to represent ordinary Afghans like the young beggar boy - were invited to Bonn, they were kept largely at arm’s length.

Only two “super delegates” were allowed to address the main conference.  Others had to content themselves with attending a smaller civil society event.

At that event, they spoke passionately about the need to address poverty, create incentives for Afghan fighters to put down their arms, and called for a just peace which upholds the hard-won rights of Afghan women.  They issued their own, separate communiqué.

But back in Kabul, people didn’t seem impressed by any of the promises made by the Afghan government and international community in Bonn.

They were concerned that the international community seemed more worried about the wider Afghan economy, rather than tackling poverty.

They feared that after 2014, when most international troops withdraw, Afghanistan’s security forces - and its government - would be ill equipped to deal with the state’s security and administrative needs.

As for the calls for an “Afghan led” transition process, there is precious little confidence in the government, amid widespread allegations of corruption and nepotism.  There are fears that an ever-weaker central state could lead to a power vacuum, which could be filled by insurgents.

There are more international conferences to come in 2012, including the all important Tokyo meeting in July.

But in order to produce real and positive change, such conferences should be more inclusive.  Afghan civil society delegates left Bonn expressing disappointment with the achievements of the main conference, particularly regarding commitments to protect women’s rights as part of any peace settlement.

In February, BAAG is hosting a five day peacebuilding workshop for Afghan civil society in Ireland.  We hope this event will help provide a more substantive civil society input into the Tokyo Conference.

Afghans need their views and voices on their country’s future to be heard - and to be taken fully into account.

It’s the very least the international community can do to help people like the tiny boy begging at the Kabul crossroads.

Nadeem Kazmi is Executive Director of BAAG