Interview: Finland-lead international conference finds Afghanistan at a crossroads

As the international development community meets with the Afghan government security and stability are top of the agenda.

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File picture of Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, November 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

Finland’s foreign policy soft power takes centre stage this week at the United Nations in Geneva, as the Nordic nation co-hosts an international development conference on Afghanistan.

Although in financial terms the Finns are relatively small players in the Afghanistan donor community, Afghanistan represents one of Finland’s broadest and most enduring aid partnerships.

The conference comes at a crucial time for Afghanistan, with ongoing historic peace talks in Qatar, and the recent announcement of a sudden American troop draw-down by the administration of outgoing US President Donald Trump.

Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) says the security situation, and whether it remains stable without US troops, is one of the biggest concerns for Afghanistan and the international community.

“I’m of the opinion there shouldn’t be any too-rapid changes, or at least things should be well organised and well coordinated between the international community and the Afghan government” Haavisto says of the US plan to cut the number of troops in half by the middle of January.  

The minister says an American pull-out now impacts the ability of Afghanistan’s government to control areas that remain relatively stable only thanks to the presence of US troops; and that same security allows other NATO countries and their allies, like Finland, to continue to operate.

“Whenever somebody is reducing the amount of troops, it might have an effect to the others.”

File picture of Afghanistan flag / Credit: iStock

Stability and security are important in the region 

The Qatar peace talks, which began in September, have brought the Taliban and Afghan government around the same negotiating table for the first time. But progress has been slow, and seemingly insurmountable sticking points are reportedly numerous in Doha.

That security and stability in Afghanistan are fragile is a given, the US presence in the country – certainly not universally welcome – is at least tacitly acknowledged by governments in the region as a steadying hand.

But in a round of telephone diplomacy ahead of the Geneva conference, Haavisto says he’s detected a new tone of concern from countries like Pakistan, Iran and India over stability in Afghanistan where there’s been an uptick in terror attacks over recent weeks.

Nations that have enjoyed meddling openly in Afghanistan for decades with deadly consequences now worry about it becoming a safe harbour for ISIS fighters whose actions they can’t control, and who might just use a lawless Afghanistan as a base for launching attacks against some of its regional neighbours.

“If Afghanistan goes back to where it came from, a hub hosting terrorists, a hub where the disturbance not only to the region but to the world was spread from. Afghanistan is still unfortunately a place where some of the ISIS fighters from Syria are trying to find protection.”

“Everybody understands that if we now abandon Afghanistan, if we now think that it’s irrelevant, we will find it in front of us later” explains Haavisto.

Donor fatigue in the time of coronavirus

Organising an international conference during a global pandemic means that most participants attend by video link, rather than in person, although Pekka Haavisto and Finland’s Minister for Development Ville Skinnari (SDP) are in Geneva for the two-day event.

More broadly however, the coronavirus crisis has dented the Finnish publics’ appetite for giving aid to foreign countries.

Haavisto concedes that this year in particular it’s a challenge to convince Finns of the importance of development aid – a recent Foreign Ministry survey found a falling number of Finns are staunch supporters of development aid, although young people in particular are enthusiastic, but still around 20% of Finns have a negative view.

The minister says Afghanistan’s president is appealing to the international community not to forget his country, despite the focus this year of governments on pandemic response.

“It’s not surprising that during the coronavirus time, and during economic difficulties we have at home and domestic difficulties, development cooperation is not so much in the hearts and minds of the people” says Haavisto, adding that Afghanistan continues to be one of the most challenging areas of Finland’s development work, especially when it comes to some of the values the country promotes as part of its foreign policy including, prominently, boosting the role of women and girls in society (“traditionally it has not been very strong” says Haavisto, a whopping understatement).

File picture of Kabul / Credit: iStock

Changes in aid policy

Pekka Haavisto’s involvement in Afghanistan goes back to the early 2000s when he headed the UN’s Environmental Programme UNEP and visited the country to oversee the agency’s work.

He tells the tale of touring a rural community in an area controlled by the Taliban, where local people raised concerns about issues of water scarcity and agriculture, asking what the international community was going to do to help them.

At that time, the policy in Kabul was not to give aid to areas the government didn’t control, something that Haavisto tells News Now Finland was a misstep, in hindsight.

“Now when you look back, and particularly the current situation with the [peace talks] you might ask could another kind of strategy be better for the international community at that time?”

“But you cannot say we have wasted 20 years” he states, citing the participation of girls in education, and the growth of green energy – by necessity, if not design.

“I’ve been just a couple of years ago in the Bamiyan area and the city there you don’t see so many solar panels in other parts of the world in one city. Things have really been developing but at the same time we see the problems, and the stability of the country is the first issue” he adds.

Future of aid in Afghanistan

With Afghanistan still heavily reliant on the international community for development, and foreign troops for security, there will be questions asked at this week’s Geneva conference about how long the country can continue to be a de facto ‘client state’ for aid donors.

Pekka Haavisto says the keys to making sure this isn’t a never-ending scenario are safety and security but also capacity building among Afghanistan’s government at all levels, and civil society too.

An important point says Haavisto is that young people, and educated people, are still too afraid of the future and try to have an exit strategy because they don’t dare to commit themselves to a country that is still not secure and peaceful.

“Having a plan B and a plan C takes energy away from developing their own country.”

The older generations though, remember a time when Afghanistan was a draw for international tourists, when security wasn’t an issue. Haavisto recalls talking with people about the hippie movement of the 1960s fondly, when Volkswagens with tourists from Europe or America would show up.

That vision of the past could be a model for a stable and safe Afghanistan in the future.

“Everyone said this was a totally peaceful country, and we welcomed the tourists who came to enjoy the beauty of the nature, or maybe there were some other reasons they came, agricultural reasons” he laughs “but it was really some nostalgia for that time when the country could be developed and it could be marvelous for eco-tourism” the minister says.

“And that brings me to think it’s not written in the stars it has to be like it is now.”