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Afghanistan and the new 'stabilisation' agenda

Time (GMT +00) 17:30 19:00


Jon Bennett - Director of Oxford Development Consultants

Richard Teuten - Head of Stabilisation Unit, DfID


Jonathan Goodhand - Senior Lecturer, Department of Development Studies, SOAS


James Darcy - Director of Humanitarian Programmes, ODI

James Darcy(Director of Humanitarian Programmes) welcomed the audience and introduced the speakers: John Bennett, Richard Teuten, and Jonathan Goodhand. He explained that this meeting was a precursor to an ODI meeting series planned for later in the year on security and development. The trigger was the country programme review done by Jon Bennett for DfID in 2008, the report of which was still going through the internal machinery at DfID. So this meeting was a chance to explore some of the challenges associated with pursuing a stabilisation agenda rather than a review of the specific recommendations of that report.

Stabilisation is really the latest manifestation of the search for policy coherence between different strands of foreign policy in relation to certain kinds of ‘fragile’ state. The foreign policy agenda in fragile states has become more multi-layered, particularly those where trans-national security is a dominant concern. It is not an accident that we are discussing Afghanistan in this context.  We are concerned under this heading with those contexts where Western Governments have attempted to engineer or facilitate a transition towards state security, through various measures (state building, conflict prevention, counter-terrorism/insurgency, narcotics control, SSR, transitional justice, etc) – while at the same time trying to bolster human security through humanitarian and development interventions.

Some guiding questions for this wider discussion might be: What do we mean by ‘stability’ in these contexts and what are its determinants? How to reconcile the different goals involved in this multi-stranded agenda? How to reconcile the means by which those different goals are pursued?

1. Jon Bennett (Director of Oxford Development Consultants) explained that he had recently carried out an evaluation of DfID’s Afghanistan programme. The evaluation was particularly interesting because, over the last three years, the UK’s engagement in Afghanistan has focused on a comprehensive approach linking departments across Whitehall to tackle development and security issues. This approach has broader implications for DfID’s engagement in fragile states.

2.    Two main issues emerge from the evaluation:

a)    The UK strategy to specifically support the Afghan central state has had important implications for UK presence in the country more generally.

b)    DfID’s involvement in Helmand province through Provincial Reconstruction Teams has drawn it into the civil-military nexus.

Support to central state

3.    The UK’s state-building effort (which is supported by DfID) is based on three assumptions: that the formal political transition process will result in greater political and economic stability as long as donors keep an eye on the process; that a legitimate state can be built from the centre and then extended to the provinces; and that formal institutions will be the pillars of growth for the new Afghanistan.

4.    Political stability has, however, been precarious. The new government has lacked legitimacy due to its perceived links to foreign capital; ongoing foreign military presence; and unresolved issues such as the division of resources between Pashtun and other groups. Engagement by donors has focused on building up the technical capacity of institutions - particularly the executive branch – whilst paying little attention to the issue of accountability and supporting civil society groups has therefore inadvertently become part of the problem rather than the solution. For this reason, DfID might want to consider shifting its focus to poverty reduction within the limits of what is possible.

DfID involvement in Helmand province

5.    Military operations have shifted from peacekeeping to counter-insurgency and specific emphasis has been placed on intervention in Helmand province. This is being driven by the Cabinet Office with inter-departmental roles, in some cases, being designed with unrealistic timeframes. DfID has been unable to counter this trend because it has lacked a coherent conflict analysis (only in the last year has there been an initiative to better understand conflict dynamics in Afghanistan). Furthermore, agendas across Whitehall have sometimes clashed since key actors differ in their understanding of development and security. Counter-insurgency, counter narcotics, peace-building and development all run in parallel with no defined or sequential relationship.

6.    DfID’s engagement in Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which aim to “support the extension of the Afghan government and provide the environment for security sector reform and reconstruction projects”, has at times been problematic. The very broad objectives of these teams have caused problems for DfID – particularly around humanitarian space. What is more, their agenda is being driven by the UK military, which is often viewed as the same as its US counterparts. This has ramifications for the acceptance and legitimacy of DfID, particularly since the US has relied heavily on its own contractors or mujahidin warlords in its counter-terrorism and development efforts.

7. Richard Teuten (Head of Stabilisation Unit) began by introducing the Stabilisation Unit (formerly known as the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit) which is ‘owned’ by DfID, FCO and MoD. It aims to facilitate cross-government collaboration around its three objectives: stabilisation, state building and long term development. The Unit also provides civilian support to the military in their operations.

8.    There is no universal definition of stabilisation but, in its broadest sense, it is used to highlight the need for security in order to promote development. Stabilisation, development and state building come together in three ways:

  • First, greater stability is a precondition for development. Support to a legitimate government and external military intervention can help create the space for non-military actors to engage in state building and development. However, military intervention does not automatically create this space and a limited intervention or one that leads to extensive collateral damage can be counter productive.
  • Second, stabilisation activities are consistent with development and state-building principles. Though approaches must take into account individual country contexts, there are a common set of priorities for building legitimate states. These include: building effective institutions and a non predatory political settlement; ensuring macro economic stability; supporting the ability for revenue collection; and, at the sub-national level, supporting provincial government. This approach has been taken in Afghanistan were work has been done to ensure that people see the outcomes of development projects. However, the challenge of combating corruption and rebalancing support for the state with that of civil society remains.
  • Third, stabilisation may also require activities that are not in line with best development practice. Quick Impact Projects, for example, may be justified because they create interaction between groups and (may) provide the space for longer term development initiatives. In some cases, it also may be necessary to bring spoilers into the political settlement. In these cases a clear rationale must be made to explain why best practice is not adhered to. The Stabilisation Unit is currently developing a handbook to further inform these issues.

9.    A framework for action within the UK government is essential for success. In 2007, a common strategy was developed that identified a hierarchy of objectives and sought to smooth out tensions between departments. This has been particularly successful for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, which has been better linked to security, development and governance issues. In Helmand, a civilian command has also been put in place to guide civil-military relations. Nevertheless, more improvements are necessary particularly with regards to coherence among different donors.

10.Jonathan Goodhand (Senior Lecturer, SOAS) made five points in response to the presentations:

  • The fragile states discourse depicts states like Afghanistan as sources of international instability whose solutions require external interventions. This raises questions around the capacities of states to create their own stability and how forms of governance emerge in the absence of external actors.
  • The idea of stabilisation can itself be problematic. What is being stabilised in Afghanistan?By whom and for whom? After all, both the Taliban and the Soviet backed regime were effective at stabilising the country. Will international efforts create stability in the short term but hinder recovery in the medium and long term? Could external presence be a destabilising factor?
  • There is an assumption that critical mass is necessary in state building – that increasing resources or creating a surge will lead to greater stability. However, history in Afghanistan points to a legitimacy problem where foreign intervention has occurred. Furthermore, stabilisation presumes that good things go together, which is not necessarily the case since trade offs often need to be made. Questions therefore need to be asked about who is setting the metrics and whether these decisions have been contextualised.
  • With development responses, tensions exist in trying to push traditional aid frameworks. In a context such as Afghanistan, what do ‘ownership’ and ‘partnership’ mean? Aid in these contexts is often instrumentalised to manufacture consent and is often subject to attacks by the insurgency.
  • What would a political settlement look like? Bonn was flawed in that it consisted of a group of elites and not a grand bargain for the population. What micro bargains are necessary to build a larger legitimacy? How will external players know this? As the ambition of external actors increase, might they be setting themselves up for failure as the level of understanding and resources dwindles?

The following issues/questions and responses arose in the floor discussion:

11.The regional nature of the conflict must be taken into account. Afghanistan forms part of a complex regional system so creating stability will ultimately require dealing with the interests and events of countries such as India, Pakistan, India and Iran.

12.The particular nature of the Afghan state should not be overlooked. During the 1960s, stability was based on a decentralised state so the international community’s current effort to build a centralised state may actually be a major impediment to legitimacy. However, allowing local institutions to nurture themselves could lead to a return of the Taliban. This issue is complex since certain groups within Afghan society (such as the Pashtun) favour a centralised government while the minorities prefer decentralisation in order to maintain control over resources gained from war. There must be a happy medium between these approaches.

13.Accountability and justice issues are central to any new political settlement since Afghans have historically valued security and rule of law over service delivery. Supporting local institutions and civil society is important to enhancing state effectiveness. That said, it is important not to romanticise local institutions as they can sometimes be spoilers.

14.Coordination between International Security Assistance Force members is weak as many actors have different approaches, principles, protocols’ and priorities. The new administration in the US may offer some potential to make progress in creating greater coherence.


The concept of stabilisation has emerged in some major western governments (notably the US, Canada and UK) as a ‘unifying’ concept that serves to unite different aspects of foreign, defence and aid policy in fragile states. The common theme is a concern with bringing stability – understood in terms of both state and human security – to contexts whose defining characteristic is pervasive instability, by combining civil and military approaches. Aspects of peace- and state-building, reconstruction, security sector reform, counter-insurgency, civilian protection, development and humanitarian concern are brought together in an attempt to ensure policy coherence and greater impact for interventions in fragile states and transitional contexts. This presents challenges at various levels: policy, strategy and implementation.

This meeting took the recent review by Jon Bennett of DfID’s programme in Afghanistan as the starting point for a wider discussion about the stabilisation agenda, particularly as it is conceived by the UK Government. We invited those for whom the concept is unfamiliar as well as those who have some experience of it to take part in a discussion of this highly topical agenda.