A dearth of substance plagues Bonn conference

The Bonn conference was full of empty rhetoric and underscored the hurdles threatening the future of Afghanistan.

    President Karzai's ability to undertake promised reforms is questionable given his administration's track record [EPA]

    Islamabad, Pakistan - What didn't happen at the recent Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan is more significant than what did.

    The sponsors wanted the summit of 85 countries to be a signal that the US-led coalition wasn't abandoning Afghanistan and would remain in the country 'for the long haul'. As a pre-cooked expression of continued international engagement, the conference affirmed support for Afghanistan beyond 2014, when the US and NATO combat troops are slated to pull out of the country and hand over the security to the Afghan forces.

    But there were few - if any - specifics, and aid commitments made at Bonn will only translate into financial details at a donor conference scheduled in Tokyo next July.

    The rhetoric embellishing the document adopted at Bonn did little to disguise unanswered questions about the 2014 transition. Nor did the conference, aimed at solidifying regional co-operation, manage to eclipse concerns about the challenge of navigating a palpably more fraught regional environment. This was in turn marked by the dramatic deterioration in the Pakistan-US relations following the November 26 killing of Pakistani soldiers by NATO forces, which led to Islamabad's boycott of Bonn. Washington's hostile relations with Iran and strained ties with Pakistan are not the way in which to achieve a 'successful' transition.

    And that was far from the only example of the gap between aspiration and reality at the Bonn conference.

    "If a successful transition in 2014 rests on reconciliation talks for a peace deal, then Bonn did not contribute to that goal."

    When Bonn II was announced last year - a decade after the first Bonn conference - the original intention was to announce progress on Afghan-Taliban reconciliation, which could provide a way to wind down the war. The conference had initially been seen as a way to highlight this reconciliation process. But with a lack of headway on serious negotiations, this plan was abandoned - as was inviting a Taliban delegation as a "peace partner" to the conference. An announcement to open a Taliban office in Qatar - aimed at sustained talks - was also deferred, apparently due to a last minute change of heart by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

    More fighting seasons

    Now, the US wants tangible progress in opening the talks before the next "milestone" NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012. Until that happens - and if that happens - the security transition will remain out of sync with any realistic reconciliation goals. There have been several setbacks to moving towards a genuine reconciliation process, including the assassination of the head of the Afghan High Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani, which has accentuated mutual Pakistan-US mistrust and mounted Kabul-Islamabad tensions.

    But the principle obstacle continues to be Washington's preference for an approach that combines fighting with simultaneous attempts to reach out to the Taliban. Whatever else this "talk, fight and build" strategy might mean, Pakistan and many of the US' European allies see it as an impediment for serious talks that may lead to a viable political solution. To make matters worse, this strategy does not create a political space in which purposeful talks might start.

    All indications are that the Pentagon wants to fight on until 2014. Many in the US military are convinced that the "success of the surge strategy" must be consolidated, which requires more fighting seasons. Few among them also believe that talks with the Taliban can succeed. The narrative of military progress is barely supported by the facts on the ground, but these claims are seen as necessary to "force the insurgents" to the negotiating table.

    Uncertainty prevails about how these parallel - and contradictory - policies of fight-and-talk will converge to create the conditions for real political negotiations that can actually lead to a peace settlement. The tension latent in the US' approach is the most immediate reason for its sliding relationship with Pakistan; a ramped up NATO or US special operations military effort in eastern Afghanistan will only be a recipe for more turbulence in Pakistan-US ties.

    If a successful transition in 2014 rests on reconciliation talks for a peace deal, then Bonn did not contribute to that goal. The conference deliberations were in fact disconnected from developments on the ground.

    'Joint facilities'

    With progress on reconciliation clouded by uncertainty and the size of the Afghan security forces yet to be determined, the Bonn conference focused instead on affirming principles in support of Afghanistan's future. But even on that count, it wasn't clear what kind of future state and configuration was being endorsed by participating nations and organisations.

    Significantly, the long-term partnership agreement being negotiated between Washington and Kabul has yet to be unveiled. The plan was to do so by Bonn, until it ran into problems. Its conclusion has been delayed by the lack of agreement on two key objections raised by the Karzai government: the end of night all raids and the release of Afghan prisoners held by American troops. Fresh drafts of the partnership agreement are due to be exchanged in the following weeks.

    The agreement is expected to provide open-ended US access to bases in Afghanistan. Regardless of whether they are called "joint facilities", this move is opposed by almost all of Afghanistan's neighbours and near neighbours, and would ultimately hinder the ideal of reaching a regional consensus. It may also be a deal-breaker in talks with the Taliban.

    The Bonn conference sidestepped these issues to focus on the so-called bargain between Afghanistan and the international community's support and commitment to lasting engagement. In exchange for these international pledges, Kabul committed to undertake reforms, crackdown on corruption, and ensure free and fair elections in 2014, the year President Karzai is due to step down. As Secretary Clinton emphasised, the US wants foreign assistance to be reciprocated by better governance and reforms.

    But uncertainty is rife on both sides of the bargain. On the one hand, the Karzai administration does not have an inspiring record when it comes to putting its house in order. And as for long-term financial assistance, the international community's appetite will be tried at Tokyo and beyond. But it is already clear that aid decisions will be dictated by the fiscal constraints imposed by the Eurozone crisis and America's economic troubles and was reflected in the rejection of Kabul's demand for a "transition dividend". All this indicates the shape of things to come.

    What Bonn highlighted yet again was the fact that the timelines set by Washington and its NATO allies were determined by political considerations rather than the situation on the ground. This, in addition to unresolved tensions in the US policy, puts into question Washington's ability to influence regional dynamics. And the complex challenge of brokering reconciliation does not suggest an easy path to an orderly Afghan. With three years left for the 2014 transition, there is much ground to cover in the face of many unknowns.

    Maleeha Lodhi is a special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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