Issue 20 - Article 10

The Strategic Framework Review: lessons for post-Taliban Afghanistan

April 3, 2002
Chris Johnson

The Strategic Framework for Afghanistan was designed to promote greater coherence between the assistance and political wings of the UN. Three years later, the Strategic Framework Review concluded that it has failed. This article summarises the findings of the Review.

Afghans look to the future with a mixture of hope and fear. Hope that, after more than two decades of war, something good will finally happen; fear that the country will return to the chaos of the early 1990s. The Afghan Interim Authority, agreed in Bonn in December 2001, and plans for holding a Loya Jirga and eventual elections constitute a beginning. But a political transition will have to take place if Afghanistan is to see lasting peace. How the political, assistance and human rights objectives of the UN interconnect will significantly affect the chances of that transition being made successfully.

Background to the Strategic Framework

By the time the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan (SFA) came into being in 1998, the Taliban had consolidated their position in Afghanistan. The UN’s work, meanwhile, was in a state of crisis, with the political and aid missions failing to make any significant impact, and often pursuing conflicting courses with scant regard for each other. Externally, two other developments were under way:

  • the role of international assistance in conflict situations generally was subject to growing criticism and calls for reform; and
  • reflecting this climate, the UN was thinking through its role and organisational structure.

The changing relationship between aid and politics had also led to a rethinking of the concepts of peace and security. Since international insecurity is now seen as threatened by forces associated with under-development and exclusion, the promotion of development and inclusion becomes a strategic act that contributes to global security. Thus, aid takes on a security role insofar as its activities are thought to promote peace and stability through contributing to such things as conflict resolution and social reconstruction.

The SFA was an example of the significant change in the way that aid in conflict situations is organised, coordinated and managed. It set out a new role for the UN that involved greater coherence between the political and aid missions in order to maximise the opportunities for peace. Human rights were always integral to the SFA, but it was not until later that they were distinguished as its third institutional pillar. The SFA did not require these three pillars to merge or be brought under common management. Rather, it advocated that political, assistance and human rights actors should ‘inform and be informed by each other’.

The notion of the ‘failed state’ underpinned the SFA. In a failed state, the aid programme is transformed into a series of technologies that promise to rejoin what has been fragmented and rebuild what has collapsed. At the same time, the diplomatic mediation and alliance strategies of the UN Special Mission for Afghanistan (UNSMA) were seen as problematic. For the purposes of peace-making, a failed and criminalised state does not provide acceptable political interlocutors; the only legitimate activity is to build a non-élite politics from below. The failed state notion also justifies the idea of the UN system acting as a ‘surrogate government’ – despite having to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the rulers of this ‘failed state’.

Rather than a ‘failed state’, the review team felt that Afghanistan was better seen as an ‘emerging political complex’, an adaptive system that relied on links to local and global networks and in which new, if often illiberal, forms of economic development and political control and legitimacy were evolving. This posed a series of problems – humanitarian, economic and political – for regional and Western governments that had few obvious solutions.

The SFA in practice

The workings of the SFA in practice suffered from a number of problems and contradictions.

In the field, the relationship between politics and aid was characterised by division and animosity, not unity. The workings of UNSMA and the aid agencies differed in many ways. UNSMA saw Afghanistan under the Taliban more as a rogue state than a failed state, and so wanted to restrict development aid, not increase it. It regarded much of the information it collected as confidential, and had no pretensions to transparency; it was not ‘project funded’, and reported to the Security Council. The Taliban themselves distinguished between aid and politics, and showed themselves adept at manipulation. By closing the UNSMA offices in February 2001, they penalised the latter, though this did not seem to concern many aid actors. The international community too was divided on key questions, such as isolation versus engagement. These are differences that cannot just be coordinated away.

The Strategic Framework also failed to overcome institutional obstacles that worked against a viable strategy for promoting human rights. The problem was not so much with individuals or objectives – human rights were accepted by most to be an integral part of the SFA – but with efforts to implement human rights principles in a culture ill-equipped to deal with competing priorities. Efforts to advance human rights protection in the field were also undermined by the fact that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was left out of the original SFA, and had little involvement in Afghanistan.

Another key problem that the SFA was unable to address was the culture of impunity, an issue neither the Security Council nor the OHCHR tackled with the seriousness it deserved. In the absence of meaningful political attention, and very little commitment to protection concerns both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan, assistance actors were alone in trying to address political/civil rights concerns along with economic and social rights. The UN tended to pursue an incomplete agenda that favoured economic and social rights above others, and addressing human rights in a more coherent manner was not helped by the poor relations between the UN Coordinator’s Office and the Civil Affairs Unit. In the event, changing the Taliban’s approach to rights issues proved almost impossible for agencies. Another concern was the lack of attention to refugee protection, an issue not explicitly addressed in the SFA.

In the assistance community more generally, the diverse political, assistance and institutional agendas of agencies and donors prevented the level of policy coherence that the SFA required. This could be seen in the way that agency agendas dominated the evolution of the elements that made up the architecture of the SFA, and in the resilience of the local, short-term, project-level interventions that characterise most work in Afghanistan. It could also be seen in the resistance of both donors and agencies to coordination over issues of engagement. UN agencies have been notably resistant, yet the UN can hardly expect to lead a coordinated effort if UN agencies cannot coordinate among themselves. While much of the reason for this lies in the institutional agendas of agencies, donors bear perhaps the ultimate responsibility as they simultaneously delegated responsibility for making the Taliban more respectable to the aid system, and undermined the chances of this happening by their funding practices and by insisting on engagement at the project level.

The SFA was also plagued by institutional rivalries and jealousies that did much to discredit what was an imaginative and bold initiative. However, the reasons for its failure were not seen primarily as managerial or organisational in nature. Rather, the relationship between aid and politics represented a major unresolved and inadequately analysed issue between donor governments.

Implications for the current situation

The key lessons of the Strategic Framework Review were that:

  • the international community needed to resolve the conflict between politics and aid – and having decided which course it wanted to take, back it accordingly;
  • the UN system needed to develop ways to reconcile, or judge between, competing priorities;
  • the political mission needed to develop a better understanding of the political and economic networks operating in Afghanistan and their regional and global links, and to adapt its activities to take account of non-state actors;
  • key political problems could not be resolved by delegating responsibility to the aid system: aid cannot fill a broader policy vacuum;
  • the ability of aid to play a strategic role, especially in relation to security concerns, was limited;
  • serious attention needed to be given to addressing the prevailing culture of impunity; and
  • there needed to be a commitment to protection concerns, both inside Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries.

The Review revealed systemic problems and analytical contradictions, both in the SFA itself and among the agencies involved. Rather than a technical problem of coordination, intrinsic and unresolved differences remained over the nature and role of politics, assistance and rights. While the events of 11 September have rendered some of the specifics redundant, the question of how the international community engages with Afghanistan is more important than ever. The Review’s conclusions argue for the continued need to give serious political attention to Afghanistan; for a recognition that there will be no long-term stability unless a proper attempt is made to end the climate of impunity and address human rights issues; and for an assistance community that can put shared goals for a country ahead of agency mandate and the desire for profile. Afghans have suffered much; they deserve no less than that the international community rises to these challenges.

Chris Johnson was the Director of the Strategic Monitoring Unit at the time the Strategic Framework Review was undertaken. She is now a freelance consultant. The Review of the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan, by Mark Duffield, Patricia Gossman and Nicholas Leader, was published in September 2001. See the Afghanistan Assistance website:


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