The message of several key speakers during the German Marshall Fund's Forum in Brussels was that Afghanistan's democratically elected government may be turning into an impediment to progress five years after the collapse of the Taliban regime.
Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. diplomat and peace broker in the Balkans, told the gathering that the Afghan government is "walking away from democracy" and losing its authority.
Holbrooke said he is now more concerned about the weakening of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government than he is by Taliban fighters.
"These recent events, the walking away from democracy, the closing down of [an independent TV station], the alienation of some of the best and the brightest Afghans who had supported the government and now are fed up by it -- these are really fundamental problems."
Speaking on a panel titled "Can We Still Win In Afghanistan?" Holbrooke said NATO has been successful in containing Taliban.
But he said militants are beginning to benefit from the lack of success of the Kabul government. He said Karzai's government has "lost momentum" and transparency, and that its erstwhile supporters in Afghanistan are becoming alienated.
"These recent events, the walking away from democracy, the closing down of [an independent TV station], the alienation of some of the best and the brightest Afghans who had supported the government and now are fed up by it -- these are really fundamental problems," Holbrooke said.
"We don't want to see in Kabul the kind of political chaos which in Baghdad is destroying the coalition effort," he said.
The former U.S. diplomat was equally scathing about how international aid has been dispersed in Afghanistan.
He said there has been "massive waste" of U.S. and European money, and very poor coordination of the aid effort. As a result, he says little of the billions of dollars in aid meant for Afghan reconstruction has gone toward rebuilding roads, schools, and hospitals -- infrastructure improvements that matter most to the Afghan population.
Slipping Democratic Standards?
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer appeared to share similar concerns, hinting strongly that slipping democratic standards could affect international support for Kabul.
"We are, as NATO and as the international community, defending universal values in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Those universal values are important. And that does mean that by definition, the international community is interested in what kind of media law there is in Afghanistan, is interested in how detainees are treated in Afghanistan."
De Hoop Scheffer said that both "parliamentary and public support" in NATO countries for the continued presence of their troops in Afghanistan depends on the respect for universal values demonstrated by Karzai's government.
The only Afghan member of the Brussels panel, deputy parliament speaker Fawzai Koofi, said she thinks the Afghan government needs greater international backing to exert its authority outside Kabul.
"Maybe the system is [too] centralized," Koofi said. "Maybe our international partners need to help us look at the decentralization of the power, because more attention to Kabul, more focus on central power, although the reality is that most of the provinces do not obey the central government."
Koofi also said that Afghanistan's international backers should balance development aid better and not neglect the country's relatively secure north -- where she warned that poverty could start feeding instability.
The problems both NATO and the Afghan government face in the volatile south of the country were underlined by Radek Sikorski, a former Polish defense minister.
Sikorski said Polish commanders stationed in Kandahar Province have told him that that the city of Kandahar -- the second largest city in Afghanistan -- is a "no-go area" for both international and Afghan officials.
De Hoop Scheffer said a "dialogue" with Pakistan about sealing the Afghan-Pakistan border to insurgents remains essential.
The NATO chief also used the Brussels forum to call for the nomination of an international coordinator for Afghanistan, whom he said should be a figure with "real political clout."
De Hoop Scheffer also said he thinks NATO troop levels in southern Afghanistan are now adequate. But he warned that without properly trained and equipped Afghan security forces, "there will be no rule of law" in the country.
He said achieving full-fledged democracy in Afghanistan will take "generations."
Holbrooke described Afghanistan as a "defining issue" for NATO, saying success or failure there will "determine the future" of the alliance.
Impact Of Illegal Drug Trade
The panelists had given relatively little attention to the issue of the drugs trade until an intervention from the audience by British journalist and author Misha Glenny, who is currently conducting research for a book on the issue.
Glenny said the failure to rein in poppy cultivation is threatening the success of the global war against terrorism.
"We have to be perfectly frank about this," Glenny said. "The war on terror -- or the fight against terrorism, whatever you want to call it -- and the war on drugs are not compatible; that as long as you have the war on drugs, you are guaranteeing the financing of the Taliban in their fight in Afghanistan. So, until you address the issue of narcotics law reform, you are not going to eradicate the Taliban because they can make so much money from opium cultivation."
In his writing, Glenny has suggested that the international community is unable to match the Taliban's funds in trying to create alternative livelihoods.
Glenny also argued that to have a tangible effect on the drugs trade, western countries need to take measures to significantly reduce demand for Afghan heroin.
The panelists did not directly respond to Glenny's point. However, Holbrooke dismissed ideas that buying up the poppy crop could solve the issue, saying U.S. experience in southeast Asia shows farmers will simply extend cultivation.
Koofi said that incentive schemes for farmers to switch to other crops also have unwanted side effects.
She said farmers who in poppy-free areas are reverting to poppy growing in a bid to benefit from the same incentives.