China offers hope for Afghanistan
Developed nations have always had good intentions towards Afghanistan. But the peaceful and prosperous country envisaged at their first donors' meeting a decade ago remains a dream despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on aid and military operations. Rampant corruption and a Taliban insurgency that seems certain to continue regardless of foreign troops have led to war weariness and donor fatigue, leaving doubts about how much of the US$4 billion in annual aid pledged at a recent conference in Tokyo will be handed over. When it comes to China's help, though, Afghans feel less uncertainty - the co-operation, investment and dialogue that are the hallmarks of Chinese support are sure to carry on.
China's approach was summed up last month when President Hu Jintao met his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai in Beijing. The bilateral co-operation agreement they signed was about 'safeguarding Afghanistan's national stability' through social and economic development. As with Chinese involvement elsewhere, it is about mutual benefit with both sides gaining - Afghanistan through infrastructure, trade and investment, and China with contracts, minerals and improved strategic interests. Military involvement is not on Beijing's radar.
The US and Nato have also signed deals, centred on their gradual withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. Politics and economics are behind their decisions, causing Afghans to fear that a deadline for financial as well as military support is looming. With the European economy in trouble, threatening another global financial crisis, and November's US presidential election approaching, the generosity of past years has to be curtailed. Afghanistan has become an aid-dependent nation and there is no better time to send a clear message about getting used to the idea of standing on its own feet.
That will be difficult to swallow with half of the nation's annual needs being provided by overseas aid. The amount promised by the 80 governments and international organisations in Tokyo falls US$2 billion short of the US$6 billion the Afghan Central Bank estimates is needed each year to foster economic growth over the next decade. Although Afghan security forces now lead almost half of the operations with Nato partners and training schedules are mostly on track, there is concern whether they will be able to effectively fight the Taliban on their own. Donors recognise that corruption has slashed as much as 20 per cent off contributions and the conditions attached to the latest pledges will make the flow of funds even more erratic.
China offers a way forward. The military approach is not working; Western nations have to focus on ensuring security self-sufficiency and fighting corruption. For economic and infrastructure development, though, the Chinese model of soft power is the best hope.