Family photo with Hamid Karzai, Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle at the Afghanistan Conference in Bonn (photo: dapd)
Afghanistan Conference in Bonn

Pakistan Is Critical to Any Settlement

The international community met this week in Bonn to discuss its strategy in Afghanistan from now until the West's withdrawal in 2014. Representatives of about 90 states travelled to Germany for the conference. According to Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan plays a critical role in Afghanistan, and its decision to boycott the Bonn conference was a serious mistake

Pakistan's decision to boycott the Bonn conference is a great mistake. The staggering loss of life it suffered from the US bombings of its border outposts in which 25 soldiers, including two officers, were killed has shocked the nation, but there is a great deal of domestic politics at play here.

The civilian government has been at odds with the army over the resignation of Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, and his possible involvement in a memo that asked the US to take action against Pakistan's generals. The government has now gone overboard in siding with the army over the deaths of its soldiers.

The Afghanistan Conference in Bonn (photo: dapd)
Although the West is likely to pledge continued economic aid and support for Afghanistan after 2014, Afghan officials question whether this will ever happen given the worsening economic situation in the US and Europe, writes Ahmed Rashid

​​Bonn 2 – a meeting of the international community attended by about 90 foreign ministers marking the tenth anniversary of the first Afghanistan Conference in Bonn – seeks to lay down the world's future course in Afghanistan until the West's withdrawal in 2014. Pakistan is an essential component in that process. It needs to be there and take part. It already faces severe diplomatic isolation in the region and among its allies despite its ongoing tensions with the US.

By silencing its own voice at such an important conference, it is blaming not just the US but the entire global community; it is creating further doubts about its intentions over its future role in Afghanistan – something that will deeply trouble the Afghan government; and it is signalling that it wants its own solution for Afghanistan rather than one that is in step with the world.

Bonn 2 will reassert the commitment of the international community to helping Afghanistan after 2014, by which time most Western military forces will have left the country. That commitment is becoming more necessary as many Afghans fear a breakdown in law and order after 2014.

At the same time, in order to break the mould of the plethora of sterile conferences held this year, there are some hopes of a breakthrough on reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

But delegates at Bonn 2 must also pledge to grapple with the problems the Western alliance is leaving behind in Afghanistan and to help the Afghan government find solutions for them. About 90 foreign ministers, over 1,000 delegates, 34 members of Afghan civil society, and 3,000 journalists will be in Bonn to commemorate the first Bonn conference in 2001 that created the Afghan interim government led by Hamid Karzai.

Negotiations with the Taliban

Pakistanis in Hyderabad standing on the American flag and demonstrating against the NATO air strikes in Pakistan (photo: dpa)
Growing anger about NATO and the USA: Pakistan boycotted the conference in Bonn in protest at the US bombing of a military outpost on the border to Afghanistan

​​It is still hoped that a real breakthrough on the ground will take place with the announcement in Bonn that the Taliban, the US, Qatar and Germany will agree to open an office for the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, so that talks between all sides can continue in a more permanent manner. However, much depends on how quickly the Americans, who are deeply divided on the issue of talks with the Taliban, agree among themselves.

Earlier hopes that the Taliban might send representatives to Bonn 2 appear to have been dashed by the lack of progress in the secret talks following the murder of peace advocate and leader of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, on 20 September. Well-informed sources say that the secret talks between the US and the Taliban, which were brokered by Germany and Qatar and began earlier this year, have continued since Rabbani's death. Progress has, however, been slow.

The nations in attendance in Bonn will no doubt give a rhetorical endorsement to continued economic aid, training for the Afghan armed forces and help in governance after 2014, although many Afghan officials question whether economic aid will actually flow given the worsening recession in the US and Europe.

Three urgent problems facing Afghanistan

There are, however, several problems that the international community ignores at its peril. Firstly, there is the danger of economic collapse in Afghanistan after Western forces leave. Tens of thousands of young Afghans who work at Western military bases and embassies – the very generation that the West has nurtured over the past decade – will be rendered jobless.

Some 90 per cent of the US$17-billion Afghan budget is foreign funded, while US$5–6 billion is needed to maintain the newly trained Afghan army. Future funding for all this is promised by the West, but no concrete steps have been taken to guarantee the money and reassure the Afghans. The Afghan economy cannot sustain its population at present, let alone the infrastructure the West has built.

Ahmed Rashid (photo: AP)
The Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid (63) is the author of a number of books on Afghanistan and the Taliban; he has set up a fund to promote independent media in Afghanistan

​​Secondly, the internal problems faced by Afghans are multiplying. These include increased ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns – which some Afghans feel are deteriorating rapidly – the reluctance of many non-Pashtuns to accept reconciliation with the Taliban, the continued uncertainty about the reconciliation process and the future of the Afghan constitution.

The next presidential elections are due to take place in 2014. Although Hamid Karzai cannot stand for another term and the field will be open to all-comers, there are growing demands that the constitution be reopened, examined and changed from a presidential form of government to a parliamentary system. There are demands that the highly centralized powers of the central government be devolved to the provinces and calls for decentralization and devolution.

Moreover, if peace talks with the Taliban bring about a ceasefire, and if substantial power-sharing negotiations between the government and the Taliban then take place, it is likely that the Taliban will also want to reopen the constitution and will demand amendments to it. All sections of Afghan society are demanding political changes within the next 24 months, but neither the Afghan government nor the international community is prepared for this. Any such changes must be carried out peacefully through debate and not through the force of arms.

Thirdly, there is the regional problem, the role of the neighbouring states and the continued interference of some of these states, including Pakistan, Iran and India. Last month's Istanbul conference was supposed to ease regional tensions, but in fact worsened them by highlighting how deep the divisions between the countries really are.

Pakistan holds the key

Pakistan, which hosts the bulk of the Taliban leadership, is critical to any settlement. Unless the Pakistan military cooperates with the Afghans and the international community, acts more flexibly than it is doing at present and unless the ever-worsening US-Pakistan relations improve, progress on reconciliation will be deadlocked, and improvements in Afghan-Pakistani relations will stagnate.

An enormous amount is at stake in Afghanistan, and a great deal needs to be done before Western forces leave. Bonn must take a long, hard look at all these problems and come up with some answers.

Ahmed Rashid

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2011

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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Comments for this article: Pakistan Is Critical to Any Settlement

How unnatural the whole tone of this artícle is! People like Ahmad Rashid don't realise that there are other "staggering losses" running into billions of dollars and thousands of lives, the ruining of people's lives and cities, to mention but a few of the blessings this utterly senseless "War on Terror" has blessed Pakistan with, and that the sustained bombing of its military posts over many hours and the killings of its soldiers was simply crossing the red line. Or maybe they do, but prefer to take up the usual adminishing line with Pakistan. Actually it's quite amazing how much Pakistan has put up with without reacting. This is why everyone is so surprised. I for one would want a great deal more reaction from Pakistan. Countries also have their self-respect, and Pakistan has been far too indulgent, facilitating the war next door and enduring all kinds of humiliation that it got in return.
Does anyone realize that Pakistan is a democracy, and that EVERYONE in Pakistan, not just the army, as the author suggests, is furious at the outrage that was carried out by NATO, American Special Forces or whoever it was? Ever heard of the last straw??

Palvasha von Ha...09.12.2011 | 17:43 Uhr

How unnatural the whole tone of this artícle is! People like Ahmad Rashid don't realise that there are other "staggering losses" running into billions of dollars and thousands of lives, the ruining of people's lives and cities, to mention but a few of the blessings this utterly senseless "War on Terror" has blessed Pakistan with, and that the sustained bombing of its military posts over many hours and the killings of its soldiers was simply crossing the red line. Or maybe they do, but prefer to take up the usual adminishing line with Pakistan. Actually it's quite amazing how much Pakistan has put up with without reacting. This is why everyone is so surprised. I for one would want a great deal more reaction from Pakistan. Countries also have their self-respect, and Pakistan has been far too indulgent, facilitating the war next door and enduring all kinds of humiliation that it got in return.
Does anyone realize that Pakistan is a democracy, and that EVERYONE in Pakistan, not just the army, as the author suggests, is furious at the outrage that was carried out by NATO, American Special Forces or whoever it was? Ever heard of the last straw??

Palvasha von Ha...09.12.2011 | 17:43 Uhr