The absence of Pakistan and the Taliban at the Bonn Conference has the potential to cripple Afghanistan’s future.
' They are a nation of tribes constantly at war with each other. They are very heterogeneous, with an extreme ethnocentricity which makes them not only hate or suspect foreigners but Afghans living two valleys away.’
This is the outside view of Afghans who are suffering the brunt of a war, more than three decades old, with no end still in sight.
The December 5 Bonn Conference, generally referred to as Bonn Conference-ii, now seems like a spoiled opportunity which could otherwise be used to devise a path leading to peace in the war-battered country.
The first Bonn Conference convened soon after the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The Afghans, with the support of the international community, installed Hamid Karzai as the interim head of the new government. The removal of the puritanical regime and the installation of a new government instilled fresh hopes among Afghans for finally bringing peace and stability to one of the world’s most unstable but strategically important regions. However, 10 years down the road all hopes evaporated with the Taliban
regaining strength, rising frustration among Afghans regarding security and good governance, blatant interference from neighbors and war-weariness among NATO allies.
Hence, Bonn II was seen as the forum to inject fresh hope particularly with the looming withdrawal of US forces from a country that still lacks a functioning government and a reliable security apparatus. However, the participants and the world at large witnessed the opportunity lost as the two key stakeholders, often seen and referred to as allies, Taliban and Pakistan, refused to attend the conference.
Days before the gathering of international leaders in the German city to discuss the future of Afghanistan, I sat with Afrasiab Khattak to get his views on peace and stability in the region and the expectations from Bonn – II.
A Pashtun intellectual and authority on Afghanistan, Khattak highlighted ‘serious disconnects’ between Pakistan and the United States and Afghanistan and Pakistan before urging an ‘inclusive’ approach ‘inside and around’ Afghanistan with three circles of negotiations to find a political solution to the imbroglio. The three circles included: a) Intra-Afghan dialogue b) Negotiations for regional consensus and c) Negotiations among international players.
In the available circumstances, this seems to be the most viable path leading to sustainable peace in the landlocked country. But ‘making presence felt by their absence’ as aptly mentioned by one media outlet, Taliban and neighboring Pakistan left the summit with little hope to inch forward towards a consensus on the road to peace. Though no quick fix was expected from the international summit, their participation could have conveyed a goodwill message for launching the intra-af- ghan dialogue as well as developing regional consensus on lasting and durable peace in the country.
Noting Pakistan’s absence at the Bonn Conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We would, of course, have benefited from Pakistan’s contribution to this conference.” A majority of the representatives spanning 85 countries and 16 international organizations, also wished to see Taliban representatives in order to add meaning to their calls for peace and help their way out of the 10-year-old war with no end in sight.
To the dismay of many others, particularly Afghans, days after the conference the Afghan government recalled its ambassador from Qatar to protest that Qatari Ameers were allowing the Taliban to open an office, apparently after getting a nod from the US. Alongside, ties between Pakistan and the United States, the two key partners, took a nose dive with both countries sticking to their guns over the November 26 NATO raid at a time when serious diplomatic efforts are needed to curtail the Taliban violence and stabilize the highly volatile region.
Future stability in South and Central Asia hinges upon peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan being the closest neighbor and ally of the Taliban is also bitterly affected from the three-decades of war in its backyard and wants peace. However, Pakistan wants guarantees for safeguarding its geo-strategic and economic interests in shaping the future of Afghanistan before joining a meaningful peace process and nudging its Taliban allies to come forward.
Likewise, South Asian giant, India along with Iran and paired with the Saudis, Chinese and even Russians wants to be included before drawing the peace roadmap. Hence, talks and a consensus among the regional players is the need of the hour.
However, as Afrasiab Khattak pointed out, intra-afghan dialogue is critical to the process. Warlords, unfortunately, have gained more strength and ethnic schism has further widened the multi-ethnic Afghan society over the years. Despite that, one positive aspect is the growth of civil society marked by new leadership comprising young intellectuals, writers and NGO activists that have emerged in the past 10 years. Tribal elders, elected representatives, former warlords and civil society leaders also need to have a say in the peacemaking efforts.
Challenges do exist at every step and heightened involvement on a local, regional and international level is imperative. A sincere resolve to avoid the looming threat to regional stability is the single major stimulus that could push all stakeholders into a give and take solution.
Lastly, stability in Afghanistan mostly depends on good governance, economic development and rebuilding efforts that would remain a dream without sustained support from the Western world and Afghanistan’s neighbors. Much work remains to be done before bringing some sort of order to a country suffering from naked aggression and foreign interference.
Efforts without sincere resolve are little more than flogging a dead horse. The million-dollar question is: Does such a resolve exist? Only history will be the judge.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Bonn. Former CIA Islamabad station Chief, Howard Hart (Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile)