Reflections on Afghanistan: What future awaits international diplomacy?

This is the third part of our blog mini-series examining the context and impact of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. In this week’s piece, GPG’s Head of Programmes Zafran Iqbal reflects on what this crisis revealed of the state of international diplomacy, and what lessons can be drawn by the international community.

As the dust somewhat begins to settle around the tumultuous events that occurred in Afghanistan over the past month or so, much focus and attention is now upon what the future of Afghanistan will look like, and what international engagement with the country under Taliban rule will mean.

The purpose of this blog is to not comment or provide insights on Afghanistan itself, the war, the Taliban or the withdrawal. There has been plentiful commentary and analysis on that. However, I would like to focus on what lessons the international community, particularly the development community, could learn from almost 20 years of efforts to support democratic change in Afghanistan. Can those lessons help us to improve our efforts for international development, support, and better diplomacy? To do that, we need to examine and ask ourselves some very difficult questions and have open discussions. Did the international development community for example plan for such a scenario currently unravelling? If not, why? What lessons can we take to ensure we are not making the same mistakes across other countries in our important work? Why should other countries be convinced and trust international development agencies in their important work?

Whilst we need to consider the impacts these changes will have on the regional and international platforms, it is challenging to try covering all of those in a short reflection like this. There are evident security, migration, economic, and human rights risks, just to name a few, which will have lasting implications in shaping the future of diplomacy and international development efforts in Afghanistan and beyond. My esteemed friend and GPG Associate, Sir Bill Jeffrey recently reflected on some of the important security issues, risks, and implications in his blog, as did my colleague Elizabett Yashneva upon the risks of human trafficking, human rights abuses, and further years of young Afghan generations becoming significantly hampered in refugee camps and as migrants.

There must be a significant shift in our approaches to international diplomacy. When President Biden recently remarked in his speech at the UN an end to an era of “relentless war” and “opening a new era of relentless diplomacy”, pledging a renewed commitment to the UN and to his nation’s alliances; what does that diplomacy look like and what should the international community be considering?  If we truly understood (from the offset) the complex political, economic and social contexts of Afghanistan over the past decades, then one would not be too surprised at the current state of affairs and how it has played out.

I would like to draw upon the important role of effective Political Analysis and Adaptive Programming when considering the future of international diplomacy and learning lessons from Afghanistan. This is where I believe the international community needs to invest more in its efforts towards a new, changing era of diplomacy. By understanding how political analysis, behavioural change, and adaptive programming can be effectively used in diplomacy and framing international development programmes, we can be more responsive to track and monitor swift pace at which (political) change occurs, identify arising risks and opportunities in the short, medium, and long terms. Uzbekistan was one of few countries that continued to have some level of direct dialogue with the Taliban over past decade, so it was no surprise that it was one of the quickest and most active countries to facilitated effective evacuation efforts, and is in a favourable position to continue dialogue with the Taliban. It was the years of dialogue, diplomacy and level of political analysis that contributed towards that.

Afghanistan is an example that tells us we must shift our thinking away from efforts and initiatives of state-building, and more towards building resilient institutions and systems. Without delving too much into the complexities around this, there are plenty of examples to reflect upon, such as state building efforts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and least not Iraq, to name a few. Is it our international role, under the future approaches to diplomacy, to try to build or govern countries, or would it be a much more effective use of diplomacy to help countries to govern themselves through strengthening the (political) governance of their institutions?

Far too often we have seen huge and ambitious reform agendas and future visions set forth for developing (and developed) countries, with the help of large international consultancies. But they offer very little by way of “how” those reforms and visions can be realistically implemented. Many a time I recall sitting in meetings with senior officials, diplomats and our partners in varying countries, asking for our support in “how” to implement large scale and ambitious plans. Many implementers like us are disadvantaged from the offset, when such reform agendas do not take into consideration how the politics of a country works. There is a consistent mismatch at the top level with that which is realistically implementable on the ground. If we were to look at the issue of violent extremism in the region, as an example, is it far too easy to focus on the ideologies taking root and to try countering them through military action; rather than addressing the root causes and drivers that create such an environment for those ideologies to flourish. Such an environment ranges from poor education systems, social and economic inequalities, lack of jobs, skills and opportunities, underpinned by corruption and poor political institutions that are not doing what they are supposed to – address citizens’ needs and provide basic services. That could be a starting point. There are growing perceptions coming out of countries such as Iraq and Libya that lament on the days of old regimes, which, for all their ills, at least provided some levels of security and economic stability.

GPG has built a strong reputation based on its unique approach to adaptive, agile programming and political analysis, to inform and work on behavioural (political) change, and strengthening the very institutions that should be providing these levels of security and stability. Our paper on Enabling Change through behavioural approaches to political programming explores strengthening representative politics through enhancing institutional resilience representation and responsiveness. GPG’s KAPE methodology (Knowledge, Application, Practice and Effect) encourages and measures this type of behavioural change throughout our projects and programming. And our GPG README methodology (Research/Refine-Engage-Agree-Deliver-Monitor-Evolve) provides a guide to the political economy analysis through our project cycles (or more accurately ‘political analysis’) for political institutions. The underlying theme of these three approaches is that because politics is constantly in flux, and for political insights to matter, analysis and action need to be keeping pace with each other, so that political analysis is a constant feature in actively managing the process of institutional change. Rather than thinking simply in terms of ‘analysis’, politics should be a way of understanding problems, engaging with them and then altering them. We have several examples of how this has worked effectively, whether it is over a decade of our work and impact in Iraq, or over 5 years of our work in Sudan, or more recently in Lebanon, the Gulf or Central Asia; we have continued to successfully work and adapt in challenging contexts that have seen a lot of political, economic and social change.

I recently read a Political Analysis on Afghanistan’s Parliament which our Founder and Chair Greg Power conducted many years ago, and I found it to be an astonishing read because it highlighted and raised red flags of a weak institute which we have now come to see pass before us, in just how quickly those institutions fell. Had those institutions been strengthened, more efforts made to address the challenges they face and those weaknesses, it would have enabled them to demonstrate real change for Afghan citizens, through (for example in the Parliament) meaningful legislation, oversight of policies and legislation and strong representation of needs facing Afghan citizens (the three core roles of a parliament) – there would potentially be some good legacies left behind. Is it so far-fetched to think that even the current day Taliban government might have recognised the benefits of such legacies and models, that would have demonstrated a strong response to support the needs of the Afghan people?

Western imposed sanctions and wars have not worked, not just in Afghanistan, but in many countries. Dialogue, engagement and diplomacy, built on trust and understanding through politically adaptive analysis and programming is ever more crucial towards moving forward. I have not intended to provide a simplistic view to what is a very complex set of topics and issues, in such a short piece of (personal) reflections. But I do hope it opens a space for more difficult discussions, ideas and thinking.