Bombs Explode in Afghanistan, While Seats Go Empty in Bonn

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Frank Augstein / AP

Hamid Karzai, takes his seat during the International Afghanistan Conference, Dec. 5, 2011 in Bonn, Germany.

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with some 100 high-level Afghan and International delegations, met in Bonn for a conference on Afghanistan’s future on Dec. 5, the star-studded (at least in the foreign policy firmament) gathering was made more remarkable for who didn’t show up: Pakistan’s foreign minister and a representative from the Taliban. Considering that those two elements hold the keys to Afghanistan’s long term stability, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Bonn II, held exactly 10 years after the first international conference on the country’s future, would be more fizzle than pop. Early U.S. hopes that Bonn II would unveil a political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban were scotched in September when the insurgent group demonstrated its intentions with a turban bomb that killed a top peace negotiator. And Pakistan pulled out in a huff last week after NATO forces mistakenly killed 24 soldiers in a cross-border conflagration in November.

Still, not all was a loss. Karzai tamped down his recent displays of bombast with a humble request for continued assistance. “The Afghan people do not wish to remain a burden on the generosity of the international community for a single day longer than absolutely necessary,” he said in his opening remarks. “But to make our success certain, and our progress irreversible, we will need your steadfast support for at least another decade.” The Europeans in turn pledged not to withdraw their aid with their troops in 2014, and Ban Ki Moon made it clear that the UN was in for the long haul. The Americans, as expected, were effusive with pledges of support, but vague on the details.

Perhaps the most encouraging was an unexpected show of force from Afghan civil society. Human rights activist Barry Salam made an impassioned plea for “peace and reconciliation, but not when it jeopardizes our fundamental rights and freedoms.” It was a clear, and perhaps uncomfortable, message for international supporters edging for the exit: peace at any cost is not a viable option. And as the Afghan Analysts Network’s Thomas Ruttig pointed out in his blog post  on the conference, the sole female speaker made it clear that the mistakes of Bonn 2001, in which warlords accused of human rights abuses in both the civil war and in the US-assisted defeat of the Taliban were rewarded with positions of power, should not be repeated:

[Activist] Selay Ghaffar, strongly advocated an ‘end [to] the prevailing culture of impunity’ and for transitional justice. She made clear that Afghanistan’s problems do not only lie in the Taleban or al-Qaida. She said that, ‘in the current system, there are elements in power who committed war crimes [and] need to be brought to justice. […] Giving a ministry to those who committed rapes and war crimes is like committing these crimes again.’ This is the strongest message of the day, and an explanation of the current quagmire which is not only military, but also moral. It is a message that Western governments probably still don’t want to hear.

Of course Bonn II was organized to plot Afghanistan’s future once the planned withdrawal of international forces concludes in 2014. As the death of 59 Afghans  in a three-city coordinated attack on Tuesday’s Shia holiday celebrations well demonstrates, a lot can happen between now and then.  It was the first specifically sectarian attack in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and heralds a troubling new chapter in Afghanistan’s downward spiraling violence. A caller who identified himself as a spokesman for the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami claimed  responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to a Reuters reporter. He said that the Shia community was the target. Reuters reports that the caller, who identified himself as Abu Bakar Mansoor, was not known to the agency, and that former militants once linked to the group didn’t recognize his name either. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group quasi-tolerated by Pakistani authorities, is one of Pakistan’s most violent anti-Shia organizations. Attacks on Pakistan-based Shia gatherings such as Tuesday’s Ashoura observations are hallmarks of its sectarian campaign. It is also thought to have links with al Qaeda.  Karzai, who was in London at the time, cancelled meetings to rush back to Kabul. He pointed the finger directly at Pakistan, saying “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which is based in Pakistan has claimed responsibility for this attack … We will investigate the issue very carefully and will discuss it with the Pakistani government.” An Afghan Taliban spokesman denounced the attack as “inhuman” and against Muslims, but analysts in Afghanistan note that  it would be impossible for a Pakistani group to conduct such a sophisticated multi-city attack with no local support. If that is the case it’s a worrying indication that the insurgency on both sides of the border is spiraling beyond anyone’s control. Empty chairs at the Bonn conference notwithstanding, somebody made sure his point—official or not—was getting across.