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Bonn conference on Afghanistan fails to achieve much

December 08, 2011 16:50 IST

Beyond assurances of support, the 100-plus delegations that congregated in Bonn failed to articulate anything particularly meaningful, says Amir Mir

The high-profile Bonn conference on Afghanistan has concluded without making any tangible progress on the core issues of peace and reconciliation inside the war-torn country or on working out relations with Afghanistan's neighbours that could promote internal stability. With the Afghan Taliban conspicuous by their absence and Pakistan staying away, the debate on peace-building was reduced to clichés.

However, lack of advancement on these core issues was almost a foregone conclusion due to the boycott of the Bonn conference by two important players -- Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban whose absence was bound to undermine the prospects of progress on the agenda of reconciliation.

Ten years since the first Bonn conference of 2001 set out a road map for what was supposed to be the political transformation of Afghanistan, a second one was meant to help chart a post-2014 course for Afghanistan whose future appears as turbulent as its past.

With two major conferences on Afghanistan this year, Istanbul and Bonn, yielding little by way of developments, there are apprehensions that the upcoming conference being held in Chicago in May next year will similarly fail to produce significant outcomes.

Beyond assurances of support, which may ring hollow to those Afghans who remember the US and how quickly it forgot the country once the Soviet threat was eliminated, the 100-plus delegations that congregated in Bonn failed to articulate anything particularly meaningful.

The conference focused on three key areas -- the transfer of the security responsibilities from the international forces to the Afghan security forces over the next three years (by 2014), long-term prospects for international aid and a possible political settlement with the Taliban for a long-term stabilisation.

But international reconciliation efforts suffered yet another setback with the absence of Pakistan, mainly due to the fact that Islamabad is seen as a crucial player in the region due to its influence on the Afghan Taliban as well as the Haqqani Network -- two major insurgent Afghan groups which are battling the Karzai government and the US-led Allied Forces in Afghanistan.

It was the November 26, 2011 killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Mohmand Tribal Agency in a NATO air strike and the subsequent refusal of the Obama administration to apologise for the ugly episode that prompted Islamabad to boycott the Bonn meet.

Earlier, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani rejected US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's December 3, 2011 telephonic request to attend the Bonn Conference.

The ensuing phone call by President Obama to his Pakistani counterpart President Asif Zardari on December 4, expressing condolences for the deaths of Pakistani troops in the NATO air strike, was too late to persuade him about his country's participation in the Bonn conference.

That Pak-US ties have touched their lowest ebb in recent weeks, especially after the NATO strike, can be gauged from the fact that the Zardari-led government has decided to go for a paradigm shift in its foreign policy, with a flurry of directives making their way from Islamabad to its missions in world capitals.

The government has summoned ambassadors serving in key world capitals for an emergency meeting in Islamabad to review Pakistan's strategy in the war on terror in general as well as cooperation with the US in particular.

Envoys posted in Europe, Afghanistan, India and the US, among others, have been asked to furnish their recommendations to form a strategy in view of the situation arising out of the NATO attack. The consultations with ambassadors correspond with the announcement of a joint session of the parliament in December to be addressed by President Zaradri, where lawmakers are expected to evolve a consensus on ties with the US.

Well-placed western diplomats in Islamabad say Pakistan's boycott of the Bonn event indicates that it is backing away from the grand framework for future peace talks with the Afghan Taliban that are being promoted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At the Bonn conference, she described Pakistan's boycott as unfortunate but added that Islamabad still had a crucial role to play.

"I think it was unfortunate that they did not participate. It would have been better if the Pakistanis had attended. We regret the choice that they made because the conference is an important milestone toward the kind of security and stability that is important for Pakistan as well as for Afghanistan. But we continue to believe that Pakistan has a crucial role to play," she said, adding that she was encouraged by the Pakistani prime minister's remarks that Islamabad will continue its cooperation, including in the fight against terrorism.

Pakistan's boycott is seen by many diplomats in Islamabad as an attempt to retain its ability to use some of the Afghan militant groups to further its interests in Afghanistan. The boycott decision inflicted a severe blow to President Obama's long-term strategy on Afghanistan as Hillary Clinton had obtained certain assurances from the Pakistani security establishment recently on its commitment to the notion that the Afghan conflict must end through peace talks and that the Afghan Taliban should be willing to negotiate.

On the other hand, military circles in Rawalpindi justify the boycott decision, saying the recent NATO strike which killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers has proved that the US-led Allied Forces in Afghanistan are still treating them as the adversary rather than as partners.

However, Pakistan's boycott decision was not appreciated by the country's liberal English media either, which questioned the rationale of the move, saying the Bonn meet was an extremely important gathering of concerned players in which Pakistan figures prominently and anything related to the Afghan situation directly impacts Pakistan.

The country's leading English daily Dawn stated in its December 8 editorial, "For Pakistan, Bonn was a missed opportunity. The consensus outside official circles is that the boycott was not in Pakistan's best interests. That no decisions detrimental to Pakistan's interests were taken at the conference means Islamabad has not lost ground. But neither has it pressed its case any further in the international community".

Earlier, in its December 4 editorial, Dawn newspaper maintained that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan in future is linked to two basic issues: an internal reconciliation process with the Taliban and an external arrangement with Afghanistan's neighbours that would help keep the peace inside Afghanistan.

"To both of those processes, a Pakistani role is considered key. Rather than boycotting the conference, Pakistan could have focused on the opportunities at Bonn-II", the newspaper added, concluding that isolationism as an expression of anger at this point does not suit Pakistan.

Another mainstream English newspaper Daily Times stated in its December 4 editorial titled "Isolation looms in pursuit of strategic depth" -- that the anger in Pakistan over the deadly NATO attack is justified but in its wake it has led to some unwise decisions being taken by the Pakistan government and the military leadership.

"By deciding not to participate in the Bonn conference, whether advertently or inadvertently, Pakistani leadership is giving an impression that it does not want to settle the Afghan issue but might want to take it in another direction altogether. If the world community and regional stakeholders reach a decision at the Bonn Conference, though unlikely, it may turn out that they will not consider Pakistan to be a peace partner. In that case, Pakistan may come out looking like an enemy. There is already a perception that we are not part of the solution but rather part of the problem. Boycotting the conference may well lead to solidifying this view. In the end, if this perception grows internationally, we will be tipped into isolation," it said.

While reminding that the Pakistan Army is already accused of supporting and backing the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the Daily Times editorial stated, "We may well be facing sanctions and aid cuts in the precarious position of being charged by the world community with supporting terrorism. Thus, Pakistan's future looks bleak in such an eventuality. Instead of non-cooperation, here is our chance to present our side of the story to the world if our civilian leadership chooses to participate in the Bonn conference. Granted that the civilian government is more or less helpless in stopping the military top brass from engaging in its disastrous strategic depth policy in Afghanistan, but it should not raise the risks by not being part of a discussion on Afghanistan's future. Pakistan's military also needs to get its act together and stop pretending that its policies have benefitted the country. Conquest by proxy wars must be ended if we are to survive as a nation. We must not forget that such policies are fraught with the threat of international isolation," it added.

Therefore, whether true or not, the best course for the Pakistani military establishment is not to engage in brinkmanship with a superpower that often makes rash decisions.

Amir Mir