The Bonn Conference: Can Afghanistan Be Saved Without Pakistan On Board?

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Frank Augstein / AP

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai addresses the delegates at the former German parliament during the International Afghanistan Conference Dec. 5, 2011 in Bonn, Germany.

It’s rarely a good sign these days when a summit gets referenced by the city that hosts it: Kyoto is now synonymous with the international community’s failures dealing with climate change; Oslo has become another watchword for the disappointment and collapse of the Mideast peace process. So, as delegations from 85 countries convene in Bonn, will the former West German capital be remembered for the world’s doomed attempt at stabilizing war-torn Afghanistan?

The signs don’t augur well. Ten years ago, the conference staged under U.N. auspices at Bonn ambitiously charted out a future for Afghanistan, garnering pledges of billions of dollars of aid from the international community and culminating in the anointing of Hamid Karzai as the head of the then interim government in Kabul. The U.S. was a swaggering power, recent liberators of Afghanistan from the Taliban and fueled with the righteous zeal of a Bush administration gearing up for years of war. A decade later, the gloom and cynicism surrounding Bonn II is hard to miss.

That’s not least because Pakistan, one of the most important players in the region, is absent from the talks. Islamabad’s boycott follows the NATO bombing of Pakistani military positions Nov. 26, a strike which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and inflamed already strong anti-American feeling in the country. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani warned that “business as usual” could no longer continue with the U.S. — though those with even a casual knowledge of Islamabad’s double-role in the region may wonder what particular business he was referring to.

While Pakistan has played a significant role in bolstering and supporting the American war effort against al-Qaeda and its allies — at the cost of thousands of Pakistani lives, both civilian and military — elements within the country’s powerful army continue to abet militant groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, including the al-Qaeda linked Haqqani network. An article in China’s People’s Daily, a Beijing mouthpiece usually friendly to Pakistan, flatly summed up the dilemma:

Different strategic objectives are basic causes behind the unsustainable US-Pakistan anti-terrorism coalition. The main anti-terrorism objective of the US in Afghanistan is to strike [at] the al-Qaeda network and ensure existing US interests in that region. On the contrary, Pakistan’s main objective is to eliminate local security troubles and obtain adequate strategic depth in the western region.

That “strategic depth,” of course, involves Pakistan’s longstanding ties with the Taliban and other extremist groups as proxies in Islamabad’s geo-political contest with India. Following the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani earlier this year, a former Afghan president who had been Kabul’s chief negotiator with the Taliban, President Karzai pointed the finger at Pakistan, suggesting that if any reconciliation was to be achieved with the Islamist militia, it would only come via politicians and military officers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. According to reports in Pakistan, planned talks between Western, Afghan, Pakistani and Taliban representatives were called off following the NATO strike. Still, despite the general anger in Pakistan over the NATO’s violation of Pakistani sovereignty and the death of Pakistani soldiers, at least one editorial in a leading Pakistani daily called for reflection:

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.

That’s a message many at Bonn would welcome. But don’t expect to hear it. With neither Pakistan nor the Taliban participating, diplomats will muddle along in talks over the looming 2014 withdrawal of international forces. The cash-strapped, aid-dependent Karzai administration is expected to ask for over $10 billion in annual funding from international donors for the foreseeable future, a sum some say is exorbitant. There are legitimate concerns over Kabul’s decade-long record of shoddy governance and alleged cronyism and corruption in Karzai’s government. One Afghan parliamentarian, speaking to Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty, spoke bitterly of the legacy of the 2001 Bonn conference:

The international community prepared a very good framework for Afghanistan. We were provided with nice and modern offices with expensive furniture. But unfortunately, a military commander was assigned for the electric department and a warlord was assigned for the agriculture department. A huge stream of foreign aid came to Afghanistan, but the government misused it. And due to lack of good management, we lost the chance.

And the chances for meaningful progress following Bonn II are slim. The Afghan war under the Obama administration has seen a spike in both U.S. and NATO casualties as well as the Afghan civilian death toll. In recent months, Taliban bombers have launched a number of unprecedented, daring raids in the heart of Kabul, a sign of their confidence and reach. Accommodation with the Taliban, or at least a considerable element of the rebel militia, is essential. Anatol Lieven, a British academic known for his deep sympathy for Pakistan, wrote in the New York Times that strategists in Washington still need to wrap their head around the fact that Islamabad’s top brass may never see eye-to-eye with the U.S. on Afghanistan.

Seeing Pakistan as an ally has not only obscured the reality of the situation, but has bred exaggerated bitterness at Pakistani “treachery.” And since Pakistanis also believe that America has “betrayed” them, the result is a thin veneer of friendship over a morass of mutual distrust and even hatred…. Instead of pushing at a Pakistani door that will never open, the Obama administration instead should treat Pakistan as a sponsor of the Taliban and on that basis involve Pakistan in talks on Afghanistan.

Such rhetoric may be a diplomatic non-starter now, yet it’s hard to imagine how much further U.S.-Pakistani ties could deteriorate after a year of rancor and acrimony. U.S. and Western officials at Bonn are now trying to downplay the implications of Pakistan’s boycott. Sadly for all involved, it seems the struggle over Afghanistan will continue to be measured out in blood on the battlefield and not papers shuffled in Bonn’s rarified conference halls.

Ishaan Tharoor writes for TIME and is editor of Global Spin. Follow him on Twitter @ishaantharoor and on Facebook.