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Political Counselor Haidari Speaks at the Wilton Park Conference

Political Counselor M. Ashraf Haidari participated in the Wilton Park Conference on "Public Diplomacy: Meeting New Challenges" on October 7, 2008, in the United Kingdom. Haidari spoke on "Challenges and Opportunities for International Engagement," and noted the importance of public diplomacy (government-to-people engagement) in the context of international stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. He pointed out three key opportunities for international public diplomacy in Afghanistan, which he said had yet to be fully taken advantage of.

"Let me begin by saying that no recent post-conflict intervention has enjoyed as much international goodwill and consensus as Afghanistan. Today, some 70 countries are providing assistance to rebuild Afghanistan, while forces from 40 nations participate in the NATO/ISAF to stabilize the country," Haidari said. "Secondly, our international partners understand that no peace operation is successful without popular support. Unlike other post-conflict situations, the international community hardly needed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people upon re-engagement in the country seven years ago. In fact, the Afghan people played a key role in helping the Coalition forces overthrow the Taliban in less than two months. In the two years following the defeat of the Taliban, millions of Afghan refugees optimistically returned home in show of support for international peace-building efforts and the new regime they helped establish in Afghanistan," he added. Finally, Haidari pointed out that "significant progress has been made with comparatively much less international investment in the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan over the past seven years. We have established the key institutions of a permanent government, and we have made considerable progress in rebuilding infrastructure, in expanding access to basic healthcare, and in providing education to an increasing number of Afghan girls and boys across the country."

Haidari noted, however, that "our international partners have been unwilling and slow to capitalize on the three strategic opportunities I just mentioned." He said that Afghanistan’s international partners had so far faltered on three key accounts to help secure the future of Afghanistan, and thereby serving their own national security interests. First, Haidari said, they have been reluctant to provide the necessary level of aid resources to meet Afghanistan’s basic reconstruction needs. Second, they have failed to coordinate their aid efforts with one another and with the Afghan state to ensure aid effectiveness. Finally, they have lacked an effective public diplomacy strategy to listen to the Afghan people and deliver on their very basic expectations. At the same time, he discussed the importance of educating publics in Europe and North America on why it was necessary for the individual countries involved in Afghanistan to maintain their peace-building efforts and to do more to help stabilize the country.

Haidari noted that a lack of progress in each of the above key areas over the past seven years had allowed peace spoilers—particularly the Taliban—to fill the gap and destabilize Afghanistan. As far as engaging the Afghan people is concerned, he argued that the international community had so far lacked a unified and effective public diplomacy strategy that was well connected with sound policy and policy delivery to help ensure continued popular support for international peace-building efforts in Afghanistan.

He noted, for example, that the Afghan government has been unable to "provide poor Afghan framers with alternative livelihood assistance each time we have promised to do so." Haidari said that "in 2005, poppy cultivation declined 21% as a direct result of an effective public information campaign spearheaded by President Karzai, who persuaded poppy farmers to give up cultivation in return for alternative livelihood assistance. But as we did not receive the necessary level of aid resources from the international community to meet the basic demands of the farmers, they went back to cultivation the following year." He cautioned that "we are seeing the same trend this year, as poppy cultivation has declined 19% over the past year, but this success could be reversed if we do not deliver an effective combination of carrots and sticks to aid poor farmers and to enforce law against high value drug traffickers."

In conclusion, Haidari discussed the rebuilding priorities of the Afghan government, and stressed the importance of engaging the Afghan people and maintaining their support for realizing long-term peace and democracy in Afghanistan. He stressed that "we cannot afford to lose popular support in Afghanistan. Our partners must seize the opportunity to regain the lost ground by involving and empowering Afghans to take control over their country’s reconstruction process. Our partners can and must use their influence and resources to reward competence and moderation, while weakening potential peace spoilers to ensure that when they exit Afghanistan, our country firmly stands on our own feet."

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