In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful,
H.E Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Her Excellency the First lady Ministers Hakimi and Atmar, Ambassador Yamamoto Ladies and Gentleman, Ambassadors, Ministers, distinguished guests, distinguished colleagues, friends.
It is my great pleasure to welcome you to Kabul for today’s Senior Officials Meeting. Our country and our people are honored by your presence.
Today’s meeting is part of a longer conversation about how the world community is partnering with the people of Afghanistan to build a better future. We acknowledge your partnership, and we are grateful that so many of you found the time to join us today for discussion.
Let us begin. In London we presented the Self-Reliance Roadmap, which laid out how Afghanistan would build the foundations for a stable, sustainable country through a long-term process of reform and institution building.
One year ago, we used the Brussels Ministerial Forum to turn that Self-Reliance reliance approach into an operational program. It uses fiscal policy to set realistic priorities, build the country’s revenue base, and turn plans for inclusive growth into a series of policy reforms and programs that bring development to the daily lives of our long-suffering people.
Today, we are more than halfway through our administration. Now is the time to begin the reckoning of what has been achieved and what challenges must be overcome.
Let us begin this stocktaking with a look back at where we started just three years ago.
The National Unity Government took office in the midst of not one but of three crises, each of which was a major challenge to our nation’s survival. First, with the foresight of the international community’s pending withdrawal, Taliban groups and its affiliates launched an unprecedented and bloody attack on our government and people. Let’s not forget that thousands of innocent Afghan children, men, and women lost their lives through attacks on civilian facilities such as schools, mosques, villages, and town centers. I and Dr. Abdullah spent too much of our first year holding bodies of maimed children in hospitals covered with burns from bombs that had been deliberately aimed at ordinary villagers, at football fields, at soccer fields, at volleyball fields.
The assault continues. This was the year when Taliban and their backers thought they would finally seize territory and make a base.
They have failed in achieving any of their strategic objectives. Not one provincial center has fallen. Their cruel, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, which violate all of civilization’s treaties and conventions about human rights, have achieved nothing except to steel our people’s resolve to resist. The valor displayed and the sacrifice endured by our defense and security forces is an expression of our deep-rooted patriotism and our Islamic belief in the justice of our cause. We are confident that terror and violence can be rolled back and beaten. It will neither be easy nor quick; but it will most definitely happen.
The economic collapse that followed withdrawal may not have been as bloody as the terrorist’s assault on civilians, but it had human consequences that were nearly as grave. When growth collapses from 10% to -2% the result is not just a red-colored bar graph in someone’s annual budget report. It means thousands of families going hungry. It means villagers who tell us that they look forward to the season when they can eat once a day instead of once every other day. It means female-headed households sinking deeper into poverty. It means young men and women seeking economic refuge, becoming prey to unscrupulous human and drug traffickers.
And we had a political transition. Many in London in November 2014 doubted that the National Unity Government would survive. And yet today, Dr. Abdullah and myself are here, speaking in a united voice on how to secure the future of Afghanistan for generations to come. Making sure that the presidential election of 2019 meets the highest international standards and that the parliamentary and district council election of 2018 provides the foundation for integrity and transparency is among our top priorities. Having paid a high price for disorderly and violent succession to high office through our history, we are dedicated to ensuring that orderly, constitutional succession, to high office is our legacy to the future.
Yesterday you heard from the First Lady and other Afghan women leaders. You also interacted with Dr. Qayoumi our distinguished international leader on education and infrastructure, and a number of ministers and deputy ministers on drivers of inclusive growth and our programs and projects for infrastructure. The two hours of listening to our women in conversation was a singular pleasure, for it demonstrates the remark of our German colleague that Afghan women now own the discourse and the practice of empowerment. I hope that the other two sessions were equally productive. Leadership and management in Afghanistan is undergoing a generational change and I am proud to be a catalyst in passing the torch into the capable hands of the generation of 1990’s and hopeful that they will leave their mark in our history as the great generation that succeeded in overcoming conflict, criminality and corruption through commitment, compassion and courage. I urge my colleagues to hone in their listening skills to distinguish between noise and emergent patterns and to appreciate the wisdom of our citizens expecting civil servants to be public servants.
Throughout today, you will hear from other Ministers, civil society and private sector on the ways we have tackled Afghanistan’s developmental challenges, not all of which have been as visible as needed. We approached these problems by way of introduction to this Senior Officials Meeting.
First and most importantly, starting in London, we took full ownership of our problems. Securing the country, investing in rule of law, stopping corruption, building up revenue–these are our problems, not yours. Let me repeat, these are our problems, we need to solve them.
Take security. Between 2002 and 2013 there were over 4,000 international troops killed and we pay them tribute, and thousands more wounded. Since 2014 there have been less than one hundred international fatalities. The blood being shed is Afghan, and I make no pretense of hiding the fact that the numbers of dead and wounded on both sides of the battlefield are truly horrific. Taliban groups and their supporters, however, are responsible for this bloodbath, as they rejected the offer of the National Unity Government for peace through political dialogue.
But when war is imposed on us, we Afghans are not shying away from the defense of our country, and I don’t think that a single general from the international community will fail to acknowledge not just the bravery of our soldiers and officers and NCO’s, but of our government’s commitment to improving the quality of leadership and the ability of our security forces to defend the nation. As Commander-in-Chief, I have been privileged to visit 6 of our army corps recently, listening and speaking to all ranks, and am proud to salute their heroism and increasing professionalism. I also acknowledge commitment and the strategic patience of our people, particularly the families of civilian victims of violence, for their dignity and dedication.
We took ownership of our responsibility to be a democratic, peaceful neighbor to the countries of our region. Afghanistan does not and never will be a sponsor of international terrorism or rely on malign non-state actors as instrumental policy. We built bridges to our neighbors – no country in our region has tried harder to sign treaties, develop shared resources, free up trade, and promote the kind of dialogue that will turn peaceful cooperation into greater welfare and security throughout the region, and we are proud that our efforts on connectivity are paying off, Afghanistan will become a hub for regional trade and transit. Taking our partnerships seriously, we work to deepen and broaden them, and Warsaw and Brussels are illustrations
We took ownership of our responsibility to stop corruption. With your help, we established the Anti-corruption Justice Center, which to date has not only tried more than 300 cases of higher level corruption, but for the first time in Afghan history we have sentenced and jailed senior security and civilian officials who have abused the public’s trust. I salute the attorney general, the chief justice and all our officials who have taken, who have displayed remarkable courage and convection to secure these gains for our people and for our citizens. To build on that first foundation of an anti-corruption program, we recently endorsed a highly pragmatic but we believe very realistic national anti-corruption strategy that is already being put into practice.
My colleagues and I look forward to a rich and candid discussion on how to fight corruption. We are proud that our government stands behind the freedom of the press to report on corruption, on the rights of activists to demonstrate against it, and for the independence of the judiciary to prosecute and convict. Hearing about corruption pains every one of us. Our people hate it. Our young people, our women, and especially our poor –the three numerical majorities of our people– hate it. I hate it. I want to assure not just you in the international community but my colleagues and friends from the Afghan civil society and private sector that you have our firm, unwavering backing for continued advocacy and partnership in bringing this scourge to an end.
And we took ownership of our responsibility to the poor, the women and the youth. Helping the poor is not just our Constitutional and political obligation. It is the bedrock of our religion and our culture. That Afghan children go hungry; that widows of our martyrs cannot send their children to school; that farmers who worked all year then see their fruit rot in the fields; this is not your problem as donors to Afghanistan’s development. It is our failing. And it will not continue. It will not be permitted to continue.
In Brussels a year ago we announced that we would soon be launching the Citizen’s Charter, a national priority program to provide basic services to villages across the country. Today the Citizen’s Charter is operating in 2,200 urban and rural communities across the entire country and will not only reach its first year target of 2,500 community councils, but is doing so well that we are already accelerating its scaleing-up. In Brussels, EU Foreign minister Mogherini, the First Lady and I launched the National Program for Women’s Economic Empowerment. As of today, 67,000 poor women have been supported in agricultural activities. Thirty-five thousand women have received training and support in how to raise and market livestock. And our Ministry of Finance has already authorized the hiring of 3,000 women contract teachers so that Afghanistan’s newly returned citizens can be assured that their daughters will be both literate and numerate. If investing in a girl’s education changes five generations, ignoring the poverty of female-headed households condemns several generations to abuse, exclusion, neglect and violence.
The economic empowerment of women is crucial, their biographies of 60 women, addicted husbands, widows, orphans who have changed their lives through becoming modal farmers, and taking a small step each one of them collectively they have taken a joint step. What is the outcome? Children who eat and are not stand, girls who attend school and their stationary is paid for by their mothers, access to protein that was denied to many other households and learning from small we need to learn to scale-up and address the larger problems.
And here I cannot resist a side acknowledgment to the prowess of our amazing girl’s robotics team that recently visited the United States – who by themselves have given a better indicator of our success in changing this generation of girl’s expectations than an entire stack of statistics could have done. I can assure you that there are hundreds of such girls and there will be thousands and then millions.
If taking ownership of our problems was the first pre-condition for action, the second step was to recognize thatwe needed to build better systems and not just better projects.
Our London paper promised to deliver reform in seven key areas.
First, we said that we would tackle the underlying drivers of corruption. You have with you our newly issued national anti-corruption strategy. The strategy rests on five pillars: national leadership; security sector reform, with a particular emphasis on reforming the police; improving the quality of civil service recruitment; effectively prosecuting corrupt people; and increasing our ability to oversight how money is transferred and spent. And while anti-corruption will always be a whole of government effort, to be realistic we gave first priority to aggressively pursuing corruption in our nine top security, revenue, and expenditure ministries, with particular roles for private sector and civil society engagements (monitoring and advocacy).
However confident we are in this strategy, one major area where we have not yet had the space to act as decisively as needed is in controlling the linkage between the narcotics trade and corruption in government. We have not forgotten or ignored this issue; however, we first need to provide the reinforcements that our security, judicial, and anti-money laundering institutions will need for those efforts to succeed. And I am very pleased to share that ministry of finance’s central bank have been removed from gray list on financial flows and we have fully accredited member for banking transactions with the international banking community.
We discovered just how deep-rooted the corruption rot had spread throughout our body politic when our civil society partners and we began doing serious investigations and reviews. I would like to say a special thank you to our friends in MEC, SIGAR, and civil society who are rigorously turning over the rocks to find the corruption beneath. You will be hearing in today’s session the most recent finding-that the education programs that so many of you have so generously supported over the years nevertheless proved to be riddled with politically inspired corruption. It takes a special form of perversion to steal the education from a child, and you can rest assured that there will be a thorough response that includes criminal prosecutions at the very highest levels and a total overhaul of that ministry.
Second, we promised to provide better governance. Electoral reforms are underway. We are keeping our commitment to holding parliamentary elections on July 7th 2018. We have also proposed accelerating the deployment of biometric voting registration machinery to ensure that voting in the 2019 presidential election is as transparent and free of fraud as possible. Dr. Abdullah and I are committed to hear the views of civil society and the Afghan political class on making sure that the Independent Election Commission is responsible. They are independent but they must be supported and recall on international community and civil society to have observers to support.
Beyond elections, we are strengthening governance in ways that reach the lives of ordinary Afghans. Over 30% of our judges and prosecutors have been changed. Every single appeal judge in 34 provinces of Afghanistan has been changed. We spent more than a million dollars from our own budget to hasten the retirement of super-annuated prosecutors with a new generation of certified legal reformers. And with the impending launch of both a new system of land courts and the subnational governance strategy, we will bring a functioning justice sector to the provinces and districts where the majority of Afghans live; and rest assure, whenever government land is involved or government property is involved the dead will be issued both in the name of men and women.
Third, we promised to put the government on the pathway towards fiscal sustainability. By no means would we say that this job is done. But let me pay special tribute to minister Hakimi and colleagues for making immense progress. We have been disciplined partners for the IMF. You will hear from our Finance Ministry that we have exceeded every one of our revenue targets. We continue to put our fiscal house in order after 14 years of wastage and lost opportunity, and I am pleased to invite you to pay special attention to the reforms being put in place to clean up customs and deliver a budget that would be truly predictable in outcome orient.
Managing expenditure within constraints is the other part of fiscal sustainability. This will be the first year that the budget we will be sending to parliament is one reflecting the fiscal realities of our country.
Fourth, we committed to reforming our approach to development planning. The system of Development Councils and National Priority programs that we proposed in Brussels is up and running. Yesterday a question was raised as to how we coordinate how we solve the problem of coordination between ministries, the councils; vis a vis corruption, every report that makes a garb or any other or civil society organization comes to the high council for justice and good governance, economic council series of others are there to make sure that across ministry prioritization and coordination takes place.
National programs for infrastructure, urban development, energy self-sufficiency through public-private partnerships and a distributed program for electricity generation, transmission and consumer and industrial use; and development services for the poor are already operational. 2018 launches are planned for national programs in subnational governance, agribusiness development, and educational reform.
Fifth, we promised to unleash the power of the private sector to create jobs and drive growth. While we acknowledge the costs that conflict places on our already challenging investment climate, we are indeed making progress. We asked our private sector leaders to define the priority obstacles to private sector development. Of their 11 top constraints, we have reformed or removed 8, with actions underway to address the remaining five. Better business licensing has been advanced; punitive tax penalties were abolished, public-private partnership legislation developed, and we are currently looking at innovations such as targeted tax holidays, investment promotion boards, and a high-level reporting mechanism so that demands for bribes from investors get quickly escalated and resolved.
But we are not satisfied. Afghanistan cannot continue growing in single digit figures if we ever hope to escape poverty and bring stability to our country. We must speed up reform. We have built the machinery for investing in growth but now we need to ruthlessly cut out waste and obstructionism. Too many private interests are blocking the public good, and they must not be permitted to do so.
Corruption and red tape are enemies as potent as anything that the Taliban can field against us. For this reason, will be accelerating our private sector reform program, simplifying pro-investment regulations, and encouraging international partners to bring in their expertise and capital to develop our resources and create jobs for our people.
Our commitment to private sector development is not in doubt. Nor is our potential. Afghanistan has tremendous mineral and natural resources, but to get them from deep underground to those places where they create jobs and support national growth will require a commitment to private sector reform that I am here to give you on behalf of National Unity Government today. But for us to create a favorable, predictable, and well-managed investment climate we are going to need a lot of help to build the skills needed to prepare viable, competitive tenders; to manage corruption-free licensing; to manage bids and contracts with full, professional expertise and institutional ability; and to arbitrate disputes fairly and legally. We have been frightened by the curse of plenty and we do not want fall prey to wasting our natural resources for the sake of a small minority and sacrifice the majority of our people. This is a long way to go. But we now have credible reform roadmaps in ministries like Mines and Petroleum, which in the past resisted a change to competitive markets rather than corrupt government controls. We will need your best ideas for what will bring inclusive growth to our country and we look forward to a lively discussion today and in the months ahead.
Sixth, we said that we would ensure citizen’s development rights. I have already referred to the rapid start-up of the Citizen’s Charter, the National Program for the Economic Empowerment of Women, and our work to secure poor people’s land rights from land grabbing and dispossession by the powerful. Clean water; basic health; education; citizen’s access to energy; rising farm productivity; access to jobs: these themes will remain front and center throughout our development strategy and plans for investment.
But today I want to single out a development event that hasn’t happened. In 2015, the first of what became more than one million refugees from Pakistan and Iran joined another million already living in camps for the internally displaced. With all of the other challenges that our country faces, this could easily have become another international crisis.
Instead, Afghanistan welcomed its new citizens home with open arms. Our national unity government came together with our international partners to provide a comprehensive, whole of community policy framework to foster integration and prevent conflict as such large numbers of people arrived to find shelter in already poor settlements.
Our government did not wait for donor support but instead immediately hired and deployed 3,000 women teachers so that the young girls of the returnees would face as few barriers as they enrolled in schools in their new homes. Regulations that restricted their mobility and access to services such as health or education were either modified or abolished. Winterization programs are well advanced. Planning for programs to reduce the time that returnees spend in camps and instead become economically vibrant members of host communities are already underway and will be expanded.
Lastly, we promised to reinvent our approach to development partnerships. I have already referred to our push to build up trade and stability arrangements with all of our partners. I again emphasize our commitment to constructive diplomacy with Pakistan so that our entire region can build the trade machinery that will bring about the peace and prosperity.
We have also done our best to reform aid. By now there can be no doubt that on-budget aid through our national programs such as the Citizen’s Charter or our national health programs is far more effective at bringing the scale and scope of development to large numbers of Afghans in ways that off-budget aid simply is not set up to achieve. We have already described our fiscal reform roadmap, and we continue to work closely with the IMF, World Bank, and ADB to make sure that all on-budget aid will meet international standards for fiduciary control and end use oversight.
But we need to do more. Development assistance needs to work at scale. It needs to build systems, not projects. We need to be able to show the people in newly stabilized regions that our government can bring them sustainable, corruption-free jobs, justice, and services, not one-off programs. This will be challenging but we are no longer starting from scratch. Innovative donor programs such as the EU’s excellent state-building contract, the American government’s New Development Partnership, and the ARTF’s ongoing Incentive Program showed that properly designed on-budget support programs can bring about the reforms and investments that are so badly needed. We would like to see more of your aid go to such programs that are every bit as much in your own national strategic interest as they are in ours.
Our record of matching words with deeds should help convince your governments and people – particularly the hearted tax payers – that you have a partner in the Government of National Unity that shares your democratic values and is focused relentlessly on ensuring our shared interests in security. I thank each one of you and your countries for not only staying the course but also expanding your support in Warsaw and Brussels and through bi-lateral and multi-lateral mechanisms. Together, we have created a platform for cooperation that can result in the replacement of a vicious circle of chain-linked problems with a virtuous circle of chain-linked solutions. Combined development across core functions of the market, society and state is not merely desirable but feasible.
As we are meeting in a changed context, let me urge all regional, international and national stakeholders to take stock of the context and respond to it constructively. President Trump’s imaginative South Asia Strategy is providing a new context for reassessment to renounce violence and war and to embrace dialogue and cooperation. We welcome and strongly endorse the strategy and stress that its primary objective is to ensure security and stability in the region, thereby helping secure the world from the threat of terrorism. We learned to lead and manage under conditions of radical uncertainty, never losing our strategic focus or our strategic patience. As the First Lady stated yesterday, our people are now living and planning within a horizon and context of relative certainty. This is a great payoff of the new South Asia Strategy and we welcome it.
Given the platform for transformation and the changed context, let me conclude with some broader questions that must be considered.
The question of legacy matters. First and foremost, our 2019 election must secure a consensus that the process has been fair and people’s voices have been heard and acted.
Second, democracy must be institutionalized.
I have flagged the investments that we are making in building the foundations for a self-reliant Afghanistan. But as critical as economic growth, regional trade, and even domestic security may be, there is one reform whose importance trumps all of them.
We must advance the rule of law.
The Constitution is our statement of values and of the national consensus for how disputes and disagreements get resolved without the use of arms and violence. Our Constitution defines our people’s rights and it obligations and obligates the state to advance and protect them. It is the bedrock on which all-else stands.
The stories that you hear and the discussions that you will have today are the means by which constitutional government in Afghanistan will continue to replace violence, patronage, and corruption. Our state cannot continue to be the private property of a small and corrupt elite that profiteers on the suffering of our people.
As I was preparing for this speech a friend visiting from overseas was marveling that you could draw a thousand kilometers line from Kabul in any direction and you would not find as much freedom of speech, as much freedom to criticize, or as much commitment to reform as what you see in Afghanistan today. Despite our challenges, we cannot and should not forget that we are indeed making progress.
Third, we must secure peace.
I call, once again, on Pakistan to intensify the state-to- state dialogue with us to secure regional peace and security. Providing sanctuary to malign non-state actors is conduct unbecoming responsible international stakeholders in the 21st century. The successful peace agreement with Hizb-i-Islami should demonstrate to Taliban groups that we have the capacity and the political will to enter and successfully conclude an intra-Afghan dialogue. Opt for love instead of war, ballots instead of bullets, and dialogue instead of destruction.
Afghanistan is undergoing a generational change. We are nurturing a whole new generation of young reformers, and we continue to break the patronage of the past with the practical realization of a government that is based on merit law and rules. If just one of my prayers can be answered, it is this: that the next government continue to build on this foundation that our Constitution provides to make sure that the next generation of children has hope, opportunity, and the chance to never again live in violence and corruption that has been a dark cloud over so many of our lives. We have had five generations that have been divided, we are now looking to a generation compassion, a generation of mercy and a generation of peace.
We have made tough choices. We have fought back against terror. We have tackled the roots of power and corruption. We have challenged the distortions to our religion and culture that blocked women from school and made justice arbitrary and predatory. We will leave the field scarred and bloodied, but determined to succeed.
But we will leave behind hop because imagination and vision has retuned to our country. The land of Rumi-known as Maulana to us—Amir Ali-Shir Nawai, Khushal Khatak and our other literary giants across centuries is, once again, producing first class poetry and prose, 17 years ago it nearly died. From penny novels to epic poetry, from the transient to the enduring, from the existential to the civilizational, our women and men are hard at work to demonstrate that collective imagination is giving voice to our national hopes and aspirations to lead secure, meaningful and prosperous lives.
You have my very warmest best wishes and thanks for being such great partners and friends.