Bonn and beyond: Afghanistan’s uncertain future

In less than a month, world leaders will once again convene in Bonn, Germany to lay out a roadmap for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and its future beyond 2014. Chaired by the Afghan government, "Bonn+10," as it is now known, is expected to include representatives from dozens of countries and international organizations. It aims to devise ...

By , a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and former Afghan ambassador.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

In less than a month, world leaders will once again convene in Bonn, Germany to lay out a roadmap for Afghanistan's fledgling democracy and its future beyond 2014. Chaired by the Afghan government, "Bonn+10," as it is now known, is expected to include representatives from dozens of countries and international organizations. It aims to devise an effective plan for the ongoing security transition to Afghan control, accelerate the contentious Afghan reconciliation process, and delineate long-term regional and international engagement of Afghanistan beyond 2014.

In anticipation of the meeting, the second phase of shifting security responsibilities to Afghan security forces was decided upon at an international conference in Istanbul on November 2. The Afghan government and twelve regional countries signed the Istanbul Declaration whereby the leaders of those countries, including Pakistan, India, China, Iran, Russia and some Central Asian Republics, expressed their support for Afghanistan and committed to cooperate in the Afghan reconciliation process and combat terrorism and insurgency. However, many Afghans view these developments with skepticism. They worry about the country's uncertain future as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to withdraw some troops and move the remainder into support roles ahead of the 2014 deadline. These fears are even more intense within Afghan civil society, excluded from both the upcoming gathering and the ongoing Afghan peace talks.

Many Afghans believe that another major conference alone will not serve as a panacea, or bring any tangible solutions to their problems, especially when President Hamid Karzai will select most of the participants with only nominal civil society representation, including NGOs and traditional local and tribal leaders. Such concerns were further escalated after Karzai asked to convene a traditional Loya Jirga (grand assembly) that would guarantee the primacy of his inner clique in the gathering, and hence a continuation of the present dysfunctional political system. The five-day Loya Jirga is scheduled to begin in Kabul on November 16, and will bring together around 2,000 influential Afghan political figures, warlords, former anti-Soviet mujahideen and jihadi leaders, local and tribal leaders, and civil society representatives to discuss the upcoming conference and the much-anticipated U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership. These doubts were intensified most recently when the Taliban published a 27-page document it claimed to be the official security plan for the so-called "slave jirga." If the document is proven to be authentic, it would represent a clear blow to the Afghan government, particularly the security apparatus, and would show the Taliban's ability to infiltrate even the most highly secured areas of government. The jirga's promise appeared further threatened when key Afghan opposition figures, including Abdullah Abdullah called it "illegal" and "unconstitutional," and said he will not partake.

In less than a month, world leaders will once again convene in Bonn, Germany to lay out a roadmap for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and its future beyond 2014. Chaired by the Afghan government, "Bonn+10," as it is now known, is expected to include representatives from dozens of countries and international organizations. It aims to devise an effective plan for the ongoing security transition to Afghan control, accelerate the contentious Afghan reconciliation process, and delineate long-term regional and international engagement of Afghanistan beyond 2014.

In anticipation of the meeting, the second phase of shifting security responsibilities to Afghan security forces was decided upon at an international conference in Istanbul on November 2. The Afghan government and twelve regional countries signed the Istanbul Declaration whereby the leaders of those countries, including Pakistan, India, China, Iran, Russia and some Central Asian Republics, expressed their support for Afghanistan and committed to cooperate in the Afghan reconciliation process and combat terrorism and insurgency. However, many Afghans view these developments with skepticism. They worry about the country’s uncertain future as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to withdraw some troops and move the remainder into support roles ahead of the 2014 deadline. These fears are even more intense within Afghan civil society, excluded from both the upcoming gathering and the ongoing Afghan peace talks.

Many Afghans believe that another major conference alone will not serve as a panacea, or bring any tangible solutions to their problems, especially when President Hamid Karzai will select most of the participants with only nominal civil society representation, including NGOs and traditional local and tribal leaders. Such concerns were further escalated after Karzai asked to convene a traditional Loya Jirga (grand assembly) that would guarantee the primacy of his inner clique in the gathering, and hence a continuation of the present dysfunctional political system. The five-day Loya Jirga is scheduled to begin in Kabul on November 16, and will bring together around 2,000 influential Afghan political figures, warlords, former anti-Soviet mujahideen and jihadi leaders, local and tribal leaders, and civil society representatives to discuss the upcoming conference and the much-anticipated U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership. These doubts were intensified most recently when the Taliban published a 27-page document it claimed to be the official security plan for the so-called "slave jirga." If the document is proven to be authentic, it would represent a clear blow to the Afghan government, particularly the security apparatus, and would show the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate even the most highly secured areas of government. The jirga’s promise appeared further threatened when key Afghan opposition figures, including Abdullah Abdullah called it "illegal" and "unconstitutional," and said he will not partake.

Additionally, concerns abound across Afghanistan that President Karzai may abuse his executive powers to alter the Afghan Constitution and remain in office after ending his current term in 2014, despite his recent statements to the contrary. This potential move by Karzai is widely seen and construed, mostly by members of Afghanistan’s United National Front, as a safeguard of his power in the case of waning support in his native south or a political gridlock in Kabul.

The escalation of violence over the past few months has further magnified some Afghans’ doubts about the U.S. strategy of trying to reconcile with the Taliban. Many Afghans are concerned that next month’s conference may well set in motion ten years or more of yet another dysfunctional and corrupt governance for Afghanistan and that planning for the future will be pointless and trivial without security and stability on the ground. However, others fear that "Bonn+10" will fail to bring any tangible change to Afghanistan because the focus of the meeting will not be on reconciling with the Taliban. Many Afghans, as well as non-Afghans, think it was a mistake to exclude representatives of armed insurgent groups, including the Taliban, from the last Bonn meeting in 2001, ignoring even those who reconciled, and that the likely reoccurrence next month will inexorably mean failure for the conference. They believe the Taliban’s exclusion from the conference means the meeting will be merely for show and not for a political settlement. Worse still, the Taliban’s exclusion may well result in their challenging the outcomes of the conference just as they did after the first Bonn meeting in 2001.

The various Bonn participants have expressed divergent views on the Taliban’s presence at the upcoming conference. President Karzai has repeatedly stated that he will not participate in the meeting without the Taliban, and the United States and its NATO allies appear to have left the decision up to the Afghan government. However, the U.S. envoy in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, has categorically stated that there is no chance for the Taliban to participate in the conference. While the Taliban has rejected nearly every attempted negotiation, operating with such lack of coordination, transparency and leadership on an issue of national and international priority sends mixed and confusing messages to the Taliban leadership.  This lack of unified voice has further complicated the already fragile peace process.

There are many contradictory views and misconceptions about the reconciliation process, and whether and to what degree to engage the Taliban as the United States assumes a non-combat and/or support role. While Afghanistan’s reconciliation and reintegration process, ostensibly led by the High Peace Council, provides an official address for peace talks, it lacks the inclusiveness and national support necessary for successful implementation. The High Peace Council has become a talk show of incompetent representatives picked personally by President Karzai and has been largely unsuccessful in addressing the fears of most Afghans. While the reconciliation process is meant to achieve a timely and constructive peace deal with the Taliban, it also plays a crucial role in the transition process and supports the responsibility of both Afghan security forces and leadership. Afghanistan’s current transition process is designed to produce better governance, catalyze economic development, and institutionalize the rule of law ahead of the 2014 U.S. withdrawal deadline. If the reconciliation with the Taliban does not materialize or fails, there will be no successful security transition.

Another impediment and an apparent challenge to the peace talks at Bonn next month is the realignment of anti-Taliban constituencies in the north of Afghanistan. This opposition includes primarily non-Pashtuns – Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras – who all fought against the Taliban under the umbrella of the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. Vigorous critics of both President Karzai and the Taliban, these elements believe they have the most to lose from any negotiated peace deal and strongly oppose any talks with the Taliban. It is widely believed that these groups will put together a unified voice to oppose and challenge the current reconciliation process in next month’s conference. This belief was solidified last Friday after the former Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud – a younger brother of the late anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud – announced the formation a new political movement known as Jabha-e Milli-e Afghanistan (the National Front of Afghanistan). The movement that includes several key leaders of different minority groups has already taken a potent stance against the current Afghan government by denouncing and boycotting the upcoming Jirga.   

Many Afghans also doubt that the conference can elicit increased or perhaps "sincere" regional support and commitment from neighboring countries. While the 2001 Bonn conference was successful in bringing together a large alliance and laying out a plan and groundwork for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, one of the mistakes it made was ignoring regional countries and not curtailing their interference in Afghanistan. This gave Pakistan (and other external elements) a free hand to continue covertly supporting and providing sanctuary to subversive groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, resulting in the killing of many Afghan, American and NATO soldiers. The Bonn conference next month is a good opportunity to garner and ensure such kinds of regional pledges and commitments with sticks and carrots.  

In light of the difficulties and looming uncertainties ahead, it is unclear whether another Bonn conference will help Afghanistan positively shape its future. While there is no silver bullet for Afghanistan’s ills, next month’s meeting will at least provide an opportunity for the United States and NATO to lay out a functional roadmap ahead of and beyond 2014 for a successful political, security and economic transition, good governance, peace and reconciliation, and rule of law. There is also still time to ensure that the conference is truly representative of all Afghans, including different ethnic and social groups, to decide their uncertain future. It is equally important for Bonn+10 to ensure an authentic political will and sincere commitment to peace building in Afghanistan, and for Afghans to constructively engage in nation building process in the years to come.

Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is Program Coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.

Javid Ahmad is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2020 to 2021. Twitter: @ahmadjavid

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