The South Asia Channel

Much ado about nothing

A decade after the first international conference on Afghanistan at Bonn, Germany is hosting a follow-up conference on Monday, widely known as Bonn II. The first Bonn Conference prepared a framework for the newly established Afghan administration and picked Hamid Karzai to lead the interim administration. In 2004 and again in 2009, Karzai was elected ...

PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

A decade after the first international conference on Afghanistan at Bonn, Germany is hosting a follow-up conference on Monday, widely known as Bonn II. The first Bonn Conference prepared a framework for the newly established Afghan administration and picked Hamid Karzai to lead the interim administration. In 2004 and again in 2009, Karzai was elected President of the country.

As always with this war-torn region, there are voices expressing optimism and others expressing pessimism regarding what can be expected of the conference. The recent NATO air strike along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has certainly contributed to the voices of pessimism. Islamabad has declared that it will boycott the conference as a protest to what they’re calling the "unprovoked" NATO bombing that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Although there’s been no change in that official decision, sources have said that Pakistan’s Ambassador in Germany will likely attend.

Pakistan’s rigid stance against participating in the Bonn conference conveys a clear, but dangerous message — that it has no desire to bring stability to Afghanistan.

The conference is expected to focus on three main areas: the transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghan government by 2014, the long-term commitment by the international community to Afghanistan beyond the 2014, and the future political stability of the country.

Ashraf Haidari, Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor for Afghanistan was also eager to remind me, "Ten years have passed since the first historic Bonn Conference that helped chart a political road-map for creating the institutions of a permanent democratic government [in Afghanistan]. That central objective of the first Bonn Conference, along with its other major goals, has been achieved. But our collective efforts to secure the future of Afghanistan are still a work in progress."

Haidari then drove his point home. "The main objective of this second Bonn Conference is for the international community and the government of Afghanistan to re-affirm our shared commitment to a solid, long-term partnership beyond 2014. Such partnership must credibly assure the Afghan people that our country will not be abandoned again. Afghanistan’s enemies must understand that our nation-partners will continue their solidarity and support with and for the Afghan people, until Afghanistan is no longer vulnerable to security threats from the same state and non-state actors which once undermined international peace and security — as we experienced in the unchecked events of the 1990s that led to the tragedy of 9/11."

Afghan women’s rights activist Najla Ayubi has a decidedly more negative view of what the upcoming conference can accomplish. "It is one of several unproductive, symbolic conferences to be held on Afghanistan. Decisions have already been made. Several international conferences were held in the past ten years, none had tangible and effective outcomes for Afghans — this one is not an exception. The Afghan people at large are the victim of regional and international politics. The current Afghan government could not effectively use the previous opportunities opened for Afghanistan and will not be able to appropriately use the new opportunity."

She went on to say, "Afghans suffer from unconstitutional acts, systemic corruption, human rights violations, increasing insecurity, poppy boom, extreme poverty, and more." To address these issues, Ayubi suggests, "If the current Afghan administration has any wish to be honest with its people — which I doubt — it is time for the Afghan authorities to admit their past mistakes and open the door for a holistic approach to overcome the contemporary challenges facing the country, which include increasing insecurity and systemic corruption."

Like Ayubi, Vahid Mojdeh, political analyst and former member of the Taliban’s foreign ministry staff, also voiced pessimism about what the conference can achieve. But Mojdeh is pessimistic for different reasons.  He argues that the first Bonn Conference, lacking the presence of the Taliban and not well represented ethnically, triggered the current chaos and insecurity in the country. And he insists that, "the Second Bonn Conference suffers from similar shortcomings." In addition, Pakistan has boycotted the conference, which will potentially prevent the outcomes of the meeting from being implemented.

Asadullah Walwalji, an Afghan writer and analyst told me that the "absence of Pakistan in such a conference means that decisions made there, will not be implemented; i.e. Islamabad will continue to play its destructive and sabotaging role in Afghanistan."

Sayed Zaman Hashemi, an Afghan political analyst, has a different view about the conference. "I think the first Bonn Conference was to fight terrorism, establish a democratic system, and rebuild Afghanistan. Considering the recession and pressure from the public in those countries, the sSecond Bonn Conference, indeed, is an exit conference and end point to an active presence of the West in Afghanistan. The reasons behind such an exit are clear: systemic corruption within the Afghan administration and the (fact that the) Afghan government has practically changed democracy to demagogy – both of which are unacceptable for the West."

The sSecond Bonn Conference is taking place at a time when the Afghan government is seeking to sign a binding strategic partnership agreement with the United States, while — according to the Afghan government — the United States insists on signing a nonbinding declaration. Before signing the strategic agreement, the Afghan government has set a precondition that U.S. forces stop carrying out night raids on Afghan homes. The U.S. and NATO have long considered night raids one of the most effective ways to fight insurgency in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is also insisting that the U.S. hand over those prisoners dwelling under the custody of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Some Afghan analysts, however, believe that the Afghan government should be more cautious in this regard. "The Afghan people are in need of cooperation by a superpower like the U.S. The Afghan government should not be so insistent regarding its conditions to the U.S. They both had better come to a mutually acceptable agreement that will potentially benefit both countries." states Ayubi.

Helaluddin Helal, a former Afghanistan Deputy Interior Minister, also believes that the Afghan government should not insist on its position. "At this stage, the Afghan security forces are not acquainted with modern military tools. Considering the effectiveness of night raids and the inabilities of the Afghan security forces, how can the government take a leading role in night raids?" Helal asks, arguing that Afghan troops need more time to be trained in order to lead the assaults. In addition, Helal argues that most Afghan security forces are affiliated with different ethnic allegiances and that in the near term, it will be impossible for them to rise above those allegiances in order to align themselves with the national interest.

Equally important, Helal says, the Afghan security forces are unable to take over responsibility for detainees being held at U.S. facilities in Afghanistan. Two prison breaks in Kandahar, in which hundreds of mostly Taliban prisoners managed to escape, exemplify the incompetence of Afghan forces. Helal predicts that a strategic partnership between the two countries will be signed, but that it will take time.

Considering the acute political, security, and economic situation in Afghanistan and proven incompetence of the Afghan government to use international aid effectively, systematically fight corruption, ensure security, prevent poppy cultivation, provide a better living standard for Afghans, and establish an administration based on the values of good governance, it seems likely that the second Bonn Conference will fail to establish a more durable order. Unless the international community puts increasing pressure on the Afghan government to fight corruption and provide better services for the Afghan people, the insurgents will gain strength, more people will join hands with the Taliban, security will deteriorate, and both the Afghan people and the international community will suffer the consequences.

However, something the conference can accomplish is providing the international community with the opportunity to convey its clear message that Afghanistan will not be abandoned again, and that Pakistan will not be given another chance to set Afghanistan’s course, as it did during the Taliban’s time in power.

Khalid Mafton is an Afghan writer and analyst.

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