In response to a NATO airstrike on a Pakistani border outpost last week in which 24 Pakistani soldiers troops were killed, the Pakistani government announced that it would boycott Monday’s conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany. This announcement set off a flurry of diplomacy aimed at bringing Pakistan back to the table — and at the time this article is published, it remains unclear whether Pakistan will change its mind.
Pakistan has a clear interest in demonstrating its powerful role in determining Afghanistan’s future and publicly signaling the costs it can exact on the United States if continued unilateral military action — intentional or otherwise — continues on its territory. But its decision to disengage from the multilateral effort carries risks for Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and worldwide, beyond the confines of Bonn.
The conference, which aims to bring together more than 100 countries, is being held approximately ten years after the first major post-conflict conference in Bonn in 2002, which laid the groundwork for the current Afghan state. The odds of any breakthrough at the conference, with or without Pakistani participation, were already slim, and its agenda and objectives remain unclear. A series of recent diplomatic and political initiatives at various levels — inside Afghanistan, in the region, and at the international level, are not as interlinked as they could be to produce tangible results.
Conference planners have hoped to provide a forum for countries to demonstrate their long-term commitment to Afghanistan, to coordinate a regional economic integration plan — the so-called "New Silk Road strategy" — and to discuss a political settlement for Afghanistan. Taliban representation at the meeting was vetoed early on by President Karzai, however, and the conference now appears to be largely about countries making statements in support of Afghanistan, but without ponying up concrete pledges.
The absence of Pakistan will further diminish the chance of meaningful outcomes at Bonn. While Pakistan’s ability to deliver insurgent groups to a peace process remains untested, it possesses significant spoiler powers both for a political settlement and regional economic integration through its ongoing support for Taliban insurgents and ability to curtail significant trade with Afghanistan. With the exception of Afghanistan itself (whose current political system remains highly centralized and not amenable to reforms that could entice insurgent reconciliation), Pakistan, more than any other country, has an ability to determine whether Afghanistan can experience long-term peace or war.
Pakistan is playing a risky game by sitting out the Bonn talks, however. First, it fuels an increasingly strong impression among leaders in the United States, Afghanistan and other countries that Pakistan is not a constructive player in Afghanistan and that it should be confronted directly rather than accommodated. While the deaths of the soldiers in Mohmand is a tragedy, the deaths of American and Afghan soldiers fighting Pakistan’s proxies is no less so, and mistrust of Pakistan is already high in both the U.S. Congress and Afghan public opinion. If Pakistan chooses to remove itself from constructive discussions about how to fashion a political settlement in Afghanistan, it may find those discussions dominated by arguments for a containment and isolation strategy of Pakistan worldwide.
Moreover, the breakdown of Bonn would strengthen the argument for rapid disengagement from the mission in Afghanistan, which is increasingly seen as a futile and expensive endeavor with little hope of progress. Publics around the world, especially in Europe and the United States, are increasingly opposed to pouring more money and lives into an endless quagmire. Because most analysts and policymakers see Pakistan as being essential for long-term peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s rejection of Bonn makes prospects of failure appear even more likely, and thus the patience for engagement less.
For Pakistanis, a complete breakdown of the Afghan state and all-out civil war may be more dangerous than the status quo; rapid international withdrawal and dramatic funding cuts will increase the risk of both. Afghanistan’s instability has long-term security implications for Pakistan, including large refugee flows and growing security vacuums where militant groups can operate. The Pakistanis have already complained that Pakistani insurgent groups are using Afghan territory to increase their attacks on Pakistani soil; this would only increase if chaos were to ensue on Pakistan’s border following the international withdrawal.
The Pakistani absence from an international forum also prevents them from presenting a set of demands or engagingin a constructive dialogue on Afghanistan. Pakistan has real concerns about the coordination of military operations in Afghanistan, that military operations are not synched with a diplomatic strategy, that Pashtuns are not sufficiently represented within the current power structure in Afghanistan, and that India is utilizing Afghan territory to advance their strategic interests. But ceding the debate to other actors, most of whom have less at stake in Afghanistan than the Pakistanis, will be to the detriment of Pakistani interests in the region.
It is also not clear that their leverage is advanced by such a maneuver. The Obama administration has already elevated Pakistan’s centrality in its strategy toward Afghanistan. It has argued that Pakistan is one of the main players in Afghanistan, reducing its pressure on the Pakistanis to mount direct military operations against insurgents based in the frontier areas while asking for their assistance in bringing them to the negotiating table. It has pushed back against Congressional calls to isolate Pakistan further and made the case for engagement, not isolation. But the administration’s strategic patience with Pakistan, already strained by mutual mistrust, is not unlimited.
While the Pakistanis have legitimate concerns about the Mohmand attack, taking the ball and walking off the field does not assist them in advancing their desired future in Afghanistan and the region. Rather than presenting a strategy in opposition to NATO, the United States and the 100 countries that are attending, the Pakistanis would be wise to clarify their demands and outline concrete steps that would assuage their fears and advance their interests. Bonn could have been an opportunity for such a presentation; instead it has been used as another way to obstruct.
Caroline Wadhams and Brian Katulis are Senior Fellows at the Center for American Progress.