The elephants in the room at Bonn

While the upcoming Bonn conference on Afghanistan coincides with the ten-year anniversary of the Bonn Agreement that formally ended the Afghan conflict and formed the basis for a new Afghan government in 2001, its sponsors have spent the past several months stressing that it is neither an assessment of the past ten years, nor a ...

OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images
OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images
OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images

While the upcoming Bonn conference on Afghanistan coincides with the ten-year anniversary of the Bonn Agreement that formally ended the Afghan conflict and formed the basis for a new Afghan government in 2001, its sponsors have spent the past several months stressing that it is neither an assessment of the past ten years, nor a forum for a "Bonn II Agreement" to end the current insurgency. This downplaying of expectations is appropriate, given the recent setbacks to the peace process. But this changed set of goals does not diminish the need for both an honest assessment of how the Bonn Agreement has fared for Afghanistan and a path toward a political settlement that would address its deficiencies.

The Bonn Process -- which includes the agreement that created the interim government as well as the 2004 Constitution and the country's first presidential and parliamentary elections -- is credited with several important successes. It ended (unfortunately, temporarily) the decades-long armed conflict between Afghan ethnic and political factions; established democracy as the basis of the Afghan political system; established protections for individual rights in line with international standards, particularly the rights of women; and brought with it international security assistance, aid, and political support that could foster stability and good governance in a country that had little of either in the previous 30 years.

The flaws of the Bonn Process are significant, however, and difficult at this point to repair. The conventional wisdom ten years on has honed in on two big ones:  the exclusion of the Taliban from the original peace and reconciliation process and the concentration of power in the central government, particularly in the office of the president. Yet neither issue is on the agenda at this year's Bonn meeting.

  1. While the upcoming Bonn conference on Afghanistan coincides with the ten-year anniversary of the Bonn Agreement that formally ended the Afghan conflict and formed the basis for a new Afghan government in 2001, its sponsors have spent the past several months stressing that it is neither an assessment of the past ten years, nor a forum for a "Bonn II Agreement" to end the current insurgency. This downplaying of expectations is appropriate, given the recent setbacks to the peace process. But this changed set of goals does not diminish the need for both an honest assessment of how the Bonn Agreement has fared for Afghanistan and a path toward a political settlement that would address its deficiencies.

    The Bonn Process — which includes the agreement that created the interim government as well as the 2004 Constitution and the country’s first presidential and parliamentary elections — is credited with several important successes. It ended (unfortunately, temporarily) the decades-long armed conflict between Afghan ethnic and political factions; established democracy as the basis of the Afghan political system; established protections for individual rights in line with international standards, particularly the rights of women; and brought with it international security assistance, aid, and political support that could foster stability and good governance in a country that had little of either in the previous 30 years.

    The flaws of the Bonn Process are significant, however, and difficult at this point to repair. The conventional wisdom ten years on has honed in on two big ones:  the exclusion of the Taliban from the original peace and reconciliation process and the concentration of power in the central government, particularly in the office of the president. Yet neither issue is on the agenda at this year’s Bonn meeting.

  2. The destructive politics of exclusion

    Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy who presided over the initial Bonn Conference, has admitted his regret that no representatives of the Taliban were invited to Bonn in 2001. That mistake could have been corrected, but it was compounded in the following years by the fact that no significant outreach to reconcilable Taliban was conducted while drafting the constitution, forming the interim administration, or conducting the country’s first elections. No one has claimed the Taliban are good governors, but their exclusion from the reconstruction process has fueled the insurgency and attracted support from those Pashtuns who believe that their interests are not adequately represented in the current power structure.

    Reinforcing this perception is the fact that many privileges of power accrued to former Northern Alliance leaders that had fought the Taliban (and had committed atrocities that the Taliban won initial support by opposing). In particular, there has been a perceived ethnic and geographical bias in the buildup of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which have a majority of Northern, non-Pashtun commanders in leadership ranks and consist of relatively few ethnically Pashtun soldiers or police from the Southern provinces where the insurgency has its greatest support. Perhaps more importantly, this composition has raised fears in Pakistan that the ANSF will break into ethnic factions after the bulk of international forces leave and its Northern commanders will become available as proxies for Pakistan’s enemy India or may otherwise oppose Pakistani interests. This in turn gives Pakistan an incentive to continue support for the insurgency as a hedge against potentially India-friendly militias to the North.

    No one can be sure how more concrete overtures to the Taliban would have been received during the Bonn Process, or whether there were, indeed, ‘moderate’ Taliban who could have played a mediating role. It is clear, however, that not trying to reconcile early with the Taliban has had its costs. The resulting alienation and resentment on the part of many Pashtun communities, and the insecurity that generates, has made every element of state building and good governance in Afghanistan more difficult.

    While it should be clear to the Taliban that they cannot win the insurgency, they can still easily spoil a peace process and Afghanistan’s development. Therefore, establishing a structure for dialogue is an essential first step for a peace process that can address legitimate Taliban grievances and marginalize extremists whom the Afghan people do not support. Establishing a Taliban liason office, as the government of Afghanistan has proposed, and appointing an international mediator with responsibility for shuttle diplomacy among regional stakeholders would help to reduce mistrust that has built in the secretive process so far. Ultimately, giving credible Taliban supporters a legitimate stake in provincial and national government is the most likely way to achieve a durable peace with the resources available to the Afghan government and the international community.

    Authority without capacity

    The other flaw in the Bonn process has been an over-concentration of power in a central government that lacks the capacity (and arguably the legitimacy) to carry out effective governance across Afghanistan. Historically, the Afghan central government has not delivered services to the Afghan people, apart from protecting its borders, providing national secuirtyand delivering justice in disputes that were too grave or too big for local leaders to resolve. Political and economic power has been held largely at the provincial or district levels, and the central government maintained its authority by balancing locally held power among ethnic groups or tribes.

    The 2004 Constitution, on the other hand, establishes one of the most highly centralized governments in the world (based on the 1964 Constitution, written when Afghanistan was a monarchy). In a country where the central government has little experience with governing provinces, the President of Afghanistan is responsible for appointing all governors, district governors, and police chiefs nation-wide. Moreover, most resources to be spent on the people are channeled through line ministries headquartered in Kabul and controlled by ministers appointed by the President (and approved by Parliament). 

    The 2004 Constitution establishes some checks and balances for Executive powers, but they have not been realized in practice. Neither District Council nor municipal elections have been held.  Provincial Councils exist but the law gives them no budgetary or decision making authority — only an advisory role to the Provincial administration. The Supreme Court, which leads the independent Judicial branch of government, has shown little willingness to contradict Presidential decisions. More important, the Chief Justice and two more of the court’s nine members are sitting on the bench after their terms have expired. Leaders in the lower house of Parliament have therefore refused to recognize Supreme Court decisions until they are replaced.

    The main Constitutional check against the Presidency that does exist lies in the legislature, which has its own legitimacy problems after a disputed election in 2010 and a spotty record so far at exercising its powers. The lower House of the People (Wolesi Jirga) has rejected several ministers and laws that were favored by Karzai, proving that it is not a rubber stamp for the Executive Branch. But in almost every case their objections have been rendered moot through the appointment of "acting" ministers or the passage of recess decrees (most notably the 2010 Electoral Law). 

    The Single, Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) electoral system adopted in Afghanistan further erodes the power of the legislature by marginalizing political parties and encouraging thousands of candidates to run for 249 available seats. As a result, only one third of the 4 million votes cast in the 2010 elections were for a winning candidate; and only 36 of the 249 members of the Lower House received more than 10,000 votes in a country of 30 million people.  Thus legislators’ authority is derived from an extremely narrow base, giving them few incentives to provide broad constituent representation.

    The concentration of appointment and budget powers in the central government in Kabul and the relative weakness of legislative or judicial checks have enabled rampant financial and political corruption, with exclusive patronage being far more important to the system than merit or the law. Spoils of power have gone to the politically and tribally connected, who wield it with impunity. This has tended to drive Afghans away rather than toward their government. Those who have not found a place in the system have formed opposition coalitions if they are from the North, or supported the insurgency, or at least turned their backs on government, in the South.  If Afghanistan is to achieve stability after the 2014 transition, the imbalance between the central government and the provinces and between political elites in the capitol must be corrected.

    An urgent need for inclusive political reform

    At the moment, amending the 2004 Constitution to establish a different form of government is not a viable option. The international community fears an erosion of human rights protections that may result, and many Afghan stakeholders fear Karzai will use the opportunity to remove constitutional limits against a third presidential term. But there are several legislative and policy changes that are possible within the current constitutional framework to address the problems of political exclusivity and over-centralization of government power. Among them:

    • Ensure that all cabinet ministers, members of independent commissions (like the Independent Election Commission), and Supreme Court Justices are duly appointed and approved by Parliament in accordance with the Constitution and the law.
    • Establish a new framework for negotiations with the Taliban that has more popular legitimacy than the current High Peace Council (HPC) and establishes credible and bona fide interlocutors.
    • Prosecute some perpetrators of the most egregious corruption, such as the leaders of the Kabul Bank fraud or the discredited former Minister of Hajj, to signal a new commitment to better governance.
    • Enact electoral reforms that will promote political party formation and establish a more direct connection between representatives and their constituents.
    • Give some budgetary authority to Provincial Councils and district administrations to independently deliver services to local populations.
    • Establish elected District and Municipal government in accordance with the Constitution.
    • Enforce existing regulations on vetting out Presidential appointees for incompetence or illegal activities.

    While not all of these steps may be politically possible, and trade-offs exist, progress needs to be made on some combination of reforms for political reconciliation to work by the 2014 deadline for security transition. The consequence of doing nothing will be greater fracturing of political consensus in Afghanistan and a more difficult negotiation with the Taliban at best. At worst, leaving the Bonn problems of exclusion and over-centralization unaddressed provides a recipe for renewed and even expanded conflict once the majority of international forces leave.

    Scott Worden is a Senior Rule of Law Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He served as a Commissioner on the 2009 Afghanistan Electoral Complaints Commission and was an observer of the 2010 Parliamentary Elections. 

Scott Worden is an associate at the New York–based law firm Coudert Brothers LLP.

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