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Herat Dialogue Raises Tough Questions on Afghanistan’s Security

November 6, 2013

On Oct. 5-6, 2013, The Asia Foundation sent a delegation to participate in the second Herat Security Dialogue, an annual international event organized by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). The dialogue brings domestic, regional, and international security experts and officials together in the historic town of Herat to discuss Afghanistan’s security in a regional and global context.

Herat Citadel

Nearly 150 representatives from over 30 countries came together for the second Herat Security Dialogue at the city’s historic Citadel building. Photo/Petra Dunne

This year, nearly 150 representatives, including government officials, international organization delegates, legislators, members of academia, media, and civil society from over 30 countries participated in eight different closed door, off-the-record sessions which covered the topics of 2014 presidential elections and the transformation decade; state of regional counterterrorism cooperation; counterdrug trafficking cooperation: seeking a blueprint; regional cooperation: opportunities & obstacles; inclusive security: cosmopolitan community, Islamic Sufism; Nowruz – from shared cultural heritage toward political and economic cooperation & integration; the Afghan peace process; and prospects of Iran-Afghanistan-U.S. cooperation.

The Herat Security Dialogue’s main objective is to address a clear domestic and regional need for a permanent forum where different stakeholders could engage in dialogue aimed at building confidence and identifying practical and broader security cooperation at different levels. The Dialogue challenges conventional approaches to security and encourages creative and “out of the box thinking” and solutions. Below are some of the main findings and recommendations from this year’s Dialogue.

2014 Elections and the Transformation Decade

The importance of the upcoming elections in Afghanistan, scheduled to be held on April 5, 2014, can hardly be overstated. Despite the disqualification late last month of 16 presidential candidates and an overall time consuming and cumbersome process that has led some to question whether the nation will be ready, participants in the dialogue strongly recommended that the proposed date of the elections should not be changed or postponed. They argued that preparations have already been made, budget allocations approved, election guidelines and laws are in place, and voter registration has been ongoing. In addition, for elections to succeed, panelists agreed that the elections must be Afghan-led with the international community keeping a distance from the public eye.

Panelists also emphasized the need for candidates themselves to make greater effort during their campaigns to promote national unity, emphasize transparency, and promote women’s participation in order to avoid violations of human rights and ensure that a fair election can take place. One panelist suggested that successful elections in Afghanistan could in fact undermine the credibility of rogue factions. Another panelist representing the European Union emphasized that whoever wins, they will only be accepted by the international community under the conditions that the elections are free and fair and that a legitimate government is formed. The future president and government, however, should also be willing to cooperate with the international community and the region.

State of Regional Counterterrorism Cooperation

The Afghan National Army (ANA) cooperates with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on a daily basis with the goal of enhancing the security of Afghan citizens. Yet, dialogue participants said that international and regional cooperation against terrorism needs to be strengthened dramatically, given Afghanistan’s lack of a track record in this area. According to one panelist, terrorism in the region continues to rise and grow, and he pointed out specific social, cultural, political, and psychological factors that would have to be considered in strengthening cooperation in a complex landscape, including ideology, ethnicity, religion, nationalism, separatist aspirations, weak governance, and weak institutions. He even posed the question to the audience, asking how the international community plans to prevent the new generation of terrorists from growing. In order to decrease terrorist incidents around the globe and, particularly, in the region, he concluded that the international community needs to be very much involved in answering this question, and soon. Another panelist pointed out that information-sharing among intelligence agencies needs to increase, an international consensus on the working definition of terrorism needs to be reached, public awareness needs to be raised, border cooperation needs to be strengthened, and support for democracy, dialogue, and communication needs to be promoted. All panelists agreed that Afghanistan lacks effective policies related to combatting terrorism, making regional and international cooperation all the more necessary.

Counterdrug Trafficking Cooperation

Afghanistan has one of the highest growth rates of drug addicts, estimated at over 1 million users, and is the world’s largest producer of opium, which remains the biggest source of income for Afghans, particularly in impoverished areas. In the past year, poppy production has increased in comparison to previous years, and this is mainly due to high unemployment and lack of employment opportunities. The largest opium cultivating provinces include Helmand and Kandahar, or provinces which remain unstable and unsafe. On the other hand, provinces that are relatively secure, experience no drug problems. According to the former governor of Helmand province, in 2011, the poppy cultivation in Helmand increased by 40 percent, despite joint efforts from the government and international community partners to eradicate poppy fields, no silver bullet tactic has proven effective. Moreover, poppy farmers whose fields have been destroyed during eradication efforts in many cases either join the insurgents or return to growing poppies after the dust has settled. If Afghanistan stands alone, panelists warned, it might prove difficult to fight drug trafficking. Panelists concluded that coordinating with regional neighbors, namely Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan as well as with the international community, is crucial in order to find effective counter narcotics strategies and policies.

Regional Cooperation: Opportunities and Obstacles

Afghanistan is located in one of the most complex regions in the world, which can be both an asset and liability. Security in Afghanistan remains one of the biggest challenges for its neighbors. Panelists cited insecurity as a main factor responsible for decreasing incentives between Afghanistan and the region for trade and economic opportunities, which is important for the country’s political stability and social peace. According to one panelist from Tajikistan, the primary focus should be on providing alternatives by promoting vocational training in all of the country’s 34 provinces. Afghanistan has the natural resources, however, it needs the markets. Creating economic, education, and cultural opportunities between Afghanistan and its neighbors and understanding the region’s vision of the future, will lead to more stability and prosperity. As Afghanistan charts its own course and prepares for elections in six months, cooperation with its neighbors and the region will be more critical than ever.

Petra Dunne is a project manager at The Asia Foundation’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan. She can be reached at pdunne@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Dick Scott:

    On the failed counter narcotics programs the problem has been the focus on finding the “silver bullet” which does not work. But a broad scoped integrated program focused on helping the farmers, not punishing them is what was needed from the start but never tried. Law enforcement people (the people in charge) dont think like that. The focus should be on the farmers and not on the neighboring foreign countries…and the markets for legal crops that need international help if not subsidies…like we do for our US farmers. The narcotics problem in Afghanistan is to some great extent of our own making. And Helmand province produces some 30-40% of the WORLD’S opium and in central Helmand they are long term successful cash crop farmers with reasonable sized plots of land…not the poor and backward, on a modern irrigation system that the US helped build between 1946-79, of some 150 thousand acres of well irrigated land.

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