The South Asia Channel

The problems and promise of Bonn II

On Monday, Germany will play host to the second Bonn international conference, chaired by Afghanistan and attended by more than 100 delegations. The conference’s opening comes at a time when, once again, tensions are high between Washington, Islamabad and Kabul over a U.S. airstrike along the Mohmand agency’s Salala mountain rangelast Saturday, which claimed the ...


On Monday, Germany will play host to the second Bonn international conference, chaired by Afghanistan and attended by more than 100 delegations. The conference’s opening comes at a time when, once again, tensions are high between Washington, Islamabad and Kabul over a U.S. airstrike along the Mohmand agency’s Salala mountain rangelast Saturday, which claimed the lives of 24 Pakistani soldiers. As a result, Pakistan says it is downgrading its presence at Bonn, opting to send its ambassador in Berlin in place of the Foreign Minister.

The tenth anniversary sequel to the first Bonn conference will attempt to chart a new decade-long (2014-2024) roadmap for engagement between Afghanistan and the world community, as many Afghans are gripped by a sense of uncertainty mixed with frustration, baffled that a decade of staggering investment in their country has yielded such precarious results in areas such as security, political cohesiveness, economic sustainability and neighborly relations.

TheGhost of Bonn

Bonn I has undergone waves of revisionism and debate in the 10 years since it was held, especially among those who claim that it was not inclusive enough, and should have incorporated the then-fleeing Taliban and some of its militant fellow-travelers. But what Bonn I actually lacked — not unlike the recent Istanbul conference on regional cooperation — was a binding political accord with an enforcement mechanism that would have put an end to regional proxy interferences in Afghanistan, thus ensuring the shutdown of cross-border sanctuaries once and for all. That was probably easier to attain in 2001, when the Taliban were on the run and regional conditions more conducive to a dismantling of militant support structures.

It is a myth that Bonn I would have been able to cobble together a near-perfect and fair representation of a war-torn society under prevailing conditions on the ground in December 2001. The objective since then has been to create a political tent inclusive enough to accommodate all political forces, including the armed opposition groups. However, the militants have refused thus far to be part of such a structure.

Hence, the focus of any credible political outreach or reconciliation initiative coming out of Bonn II should be on encouraging the armed opposition to join a participatory and pluralistic peace-building structure leading to democratic governance, tightening the parameters for a just settlement that would leave no wiggle room for forces that adhere to violence.

Furthermore, Bonn I’s weakest points were less about its benchmarks (the source of much discussion among Afghans over the years) and more about the short delivery timelines of tangible results and reforms prescribed in an environment void of any coherent studies on damage and needs assessment in postwar Afghanistan. This rushed feeling was compounded by a lack of strategic resolve to provide appropriate funding during the first five years of the mission in order to lay the foundational elements to fix a failed state. In a country where agriculture and water form vital arteries of the economy and communal life, it took both Afghan and foreign decision-makers at least six years to realize that those two sectors required priority attention. It took us even longer to consider indigenous energy generation as an essential element of growth. Add to that list weak governance, outdated management practices, burgeoning parallel governance and economic structures, a wasteful contracting regime, a decaying system of patronage and impunity for powerful figures, and the inability to enforce basic laws. These fault lines of the past 10 years should no longer be tolerated by Afghans and those who invest in their future.

The promise of Bonn II

While the Bonn I accords generated a blueprint for a post-Taliban political process, Bonn II, which is not billed as a pledging conference, will represent a moment of political reckoning as the baton passes from transitional work to "transformational responsibilities" in the words of conference organizers. Bonn II aims to restore Afghan sovereignty by 2014, when international forces are scheduled to withdraw. It is also seen as a reality-check moment for all sides concerned, as major donors are expected to commit to continue to stand by Afghans during the upcomingdecade. In other words, to shift the focus from military to civilian work and agree to incur new costs to keep the country’s economy and its nascent institutions afloat, especially by providing training and mentoring in securityand governance fields especially, all at a fraction of the colossal expenditures (estimated on the civilian side alone to be more than $50 billion) borne between 2001-2014. The initial yearly financial outlay for the Afghan government beyond 2014 is estimated by Afghan officials to be approximately $8 billion for security and $5 billion for development work. According to a recent World Bank study, unless the international community steps in, aid-reliant Afghanistan will face a yearly budget deficit of $7 billion from 2014 through 2021.

In light of the 2014 drawdown, separate strategic agreements between Afghanistan and members of the international community can also benefit the Bonn process by creating agreements and mechanisms through which Afghanistan will adhere to principles of democratic governance, institution building, and access to economic opportunity, service delivery and resolving outstanding issues on its peripheral flank. It is becoming urgently necessary for Afghans to agree on a legitimate domestic mechanism to discuss the colonial legacy of the Durand Line, and engage Afghanistan’s neighbors on key issues,such as the sharing and management of water resources under international law.

Good news, bad news

In my discussions with officials and participants in the new Bonn process, two majorthemes will emerge that Afghans will view favorably:

  • A shared realization that the incomplete rebuilding mission in Afghanistan, begun after the fall of the Taliban, has garnered international support and commitment for the next phase of transformation, with international partners set to focus on governance, reconstruction and institution building.
  • A message relayed to the international community that Afghans yearn for stability, prosperity and democratic governance. And a message in turn from the international community to Afghans that the former will not allow a repeat of the 1989-1992 debacle, when a premature Western disengagement followed by Soviet suspension of aid precipitated a power vacuum that led to civil war and the Taliban.

However, there is also bad news:

  • The Afghan government is accused of going to Bonn with little regard for parliamentary and democratic opposition, women’s groups, and civil society input. All four pillars are eager to be part of more substantive deliberations. But with the exception of a handful of members of Parliament and civil society, most others have been shut out of the process. This type of short-sighted political manipulation will not help create the political cohesiveness that is sorely needed in the years to come.
  • Unless Bonn II can address structural and constitutional deficiencies that have gradually eroded trust in government over the last ten years (rising tension between the three branches of government, political polarization, weak transparency and accountability — mainly with foreign aid — and deep disenchantment with the justice system), most other efforts and investments may end up going to waste.
  • The focus of Bonn II is on the new decade (2014-2024) of engagement. However, we may not reach that stage if the immediate period of 2012-2014 is not managed and prioritized accordingly. Dealing as soon as possible with real security, political, transition, governance and perception pitfalls.
  • Following Bonn, the Afghan focus will prematurely turn to politicking and positioning for the 2014 presidential elections, which happens to coincide with the end of the NATO drawdown. This will sap energy and focus from the real work of governance by preoccupying an already weak system with Afghan-style power politics.
  • Having neglected for some time the over-arching objectives of nurturing Afghan unity and shared national identity, dented by three decades of conflict, Afghan political and social leaders have a duty and a new opportunity to help instill a belief in common national interest rooted in moderation and equality that transcends tribal, linguistic and sectarian loyalties.

Pakistan’s boycott of the Bonn conference will not impact the political commitment to help Afghanistan’s transformation phase over the next decade. It will, however, be seen as a missed opportunity for Pakistan — and all concerned parties — to not be part of important deliberations on issues concerning regional cooperation, terrorism and radicalism, and to explore peace-building opportunities, as well as a chance for Pakistan to show that it wishes to be a productive regional partner, rather than an instigator. Independent views on the subject were best reflected in a sobering editorial published this week in Pakistan’s Daily Times that said:

Whilst braving the ‘war on terror’ on the domestic front, we [Pakistanis] have been waging a proxy war in Afghanistan for so-called strategic depth. When taking such risks, incidents such as the one on Saturday are likely. Our shock and response at what is essentially the result of our double game is overcooked. It is time we wage this war in a manner that reduces the fatalities on our side and decreases the potential of having our ‘sovereignty’ violated, by abandoning the proxy war in Afghanistan.

Bonn I and Bonn II are obviously quite different conferences, convened for different reasons under different circumstances; history will judge both based on the deliberations and outcomes, and the way we think about them will undoubtedly change and shift over time. But what will not change is that fact that they were convened because there was a dire need to jump-start efforts to stabilize Afghanistan at critical times, and in the case of Monday’s conference, to absorb the shock of another withdrawal and provide continuity for the vital mission of trying to bring a semblance of order to South Asia’s vital crossroads.

Omar Samad is the former Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011), Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004). He worked as CNN’s onsite commentator during Bonn I.

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