Bonn Talks on Afghanistan: Doomed to Fail?

The one-day conference aims to chart a course for Afghanistan after NATO troops pull out in 2014. (AFP)

Bonn Talks on Afghanistan: Doomed to Fail?

Without Pakistan and the Taliban at the table, most observers believe conference on Afghanistan will have little impact.

Ten years ago, an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, set out to plan the future of the recently invaded country. Goals were set for the transfer of power in Afghanistan, as well as for security and for the development of institutions to uphold human rights.

A decade on, as yet another conference to plan the the future of the country convenes in the same German city, Afghanistan's future remains uncertain.

The country's economy is far from stable, and its domestic security is rocked by regular explosions and assassination attempts targeting members of President Hamid Karzai's inner circle.

Moreover, despite the big names and plenitude of national delegations, two parties are notably absent from 'Bonn II'.

Neither the Taliban, who in recent months have been making their way back into Afghan politics via fragile peace talks, or Pakistan, a major influence on Afghanistan's affairs, which is still fuming over a NATO air strike which left 24 of its soldiers dead earlier this month, have chosen to attend.

It remains to be seen if, and how, the latest conference on Afghanistan will improve the country's situation, but the adsence of both parties, both crucial to security and stability in Afghanistan, does not bode well.

'Original sin'

While the Taliban fell just days ofter the 2001 Bonn conference, its critics point to the freezing out of the group from the talks as a major blunder, something Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, referred to as the "original sin".

In recent years, Karzai's government has made various attempts to negotiate with those elements of the Taliban deemed ready to lay down their arms, but the group has consistently maintained that it will not do so until all foreign troops have ended what they term the "occupation" of the country.

On September 20, 2011, the Taliban killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president who was spearheading Karzai's efforts to engage in dialogue with what his government considered reconcilable elements of the group.

Following the attack, Karzai pointedly said that talks with the Taliban would have to be suspended until after Afghanistan was able to arrange talks with Pakistan, implying that Islamabad was the real reason for instability in his country.

Moves were made to invite the Taliban to the conference in Bonn, sources told Al Jazeera, but the attempts were ultimately fruitless, as members of the group did not agree to the preconditions that were being asked of them.

Pakistan's 'missed opportunity'

A spokesman for Afghanistan's foreign ministry downplayed the importance of Pakistan's presence at the Bonn conference, telling Al Jazeera that it would not have an impact on Afghanistan's long-term plans.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, told a press conference on Wednesday that the boycott was "regrettable".

"Nothing will be gained by turning our backs on mutually beneficial co-operation," she said.

As important as Pakistan's relationship and co-operation with Afghanistan is, communicating its anger over the NATO strikes is taking priority at the moment, said Talat Masood, a security analyst and a retired lieutenant general from the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers.

Masood said that Pakistan had been playing the cards it had been dealt, via either suspending NATO supply lines or boycotting the Afghanistan conference.

"The reaction from Pakistan has been strong, there's no doubt about it, because Pakistan feels that it has contributed so much [to] the war on terror and has been one of its first victims," said Masood.

"In spite of that, it's not even considered an ally, but sometimes as an enemy."

However Masood, who feels that skipping the conference represents a missed opportunity for Pakistan, cautioned against assuming that the boycott of a single conference spelled disaster for co-operation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"One is never so sure as to exactly what impact it will have," he said.

'Failure to deliver'

The list of conferences working on Afghanistan during the past ten years is long. Over the years, Afghan delegations have met with world leaders to plan the future of the country in several world capitals.

But what have all the talks in Paris, Moscow, Rome, London and Berlin actually yielded?

"The bulk of them haven't produced much at all, because for the first seven or eight years after the allied forces went into Afghanistan, the allies talked a good talk, but didn't back it up with resources," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy.

"So you had one conference after another in which promises were made, and there was a failure to deliver on them."

It was not until 2009, said Riedel, when a real deployment of resources in Afghanistan, especially in terms of troop numbers, that the talk became action.

But those troops will be leaving in the next few years, so what this conference must achieve, said Riedel, is to nail down a fiscal commitment to support Afghan troops and maintain economic stability.

So far, Riedel said the only thing Monday's conference had achieved was to serve as a reality check in terms of Pakistan's role - that is to say, that it is not willing to focus on joining negotiations and helping bring the Taliban, with which it is believed to have close ties, to the table.

"This conference, ironically, is a clarification of the war in Afghanistan - which now, in many ways, is a proxy war between NATO and Pakistan," said Riedel, adding that NATO supported the Karzai government while Pakistan supported the Taliban.

There will have to be international economic support for the Karzai government for at least ten more years, said Riedel.

Regardless of spoken commitments, the level of support remains to be seen, he added.

"It's nice to hear promises, it's nicer to have the cheque," he said.

'On the Titanic'

A decade after the US-led invasion, roughly 90 per cent of the Afghanistan's national budget is foreign-funded, and the World Bank has issued an alert, predicting the country will be hit hard by a recession in 2014 after international troops leave.

Much of that funding is tied to US security spending, which could vaporise with troop withdrawals, and much of the debate surrounding the conference is centred on how foreign powers will negotiate leaving Afghanistan while helping it maintain security.

"I personally believe that we need to have lowered expectations from this conference," said Thomas Lynch, distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defence University in Washington.

The preconditions for making this a positive step toward, if not crises termination, then at least partial crises resolution in Afghanistan, have not been met."

"And they haven't been met in a couple of areas. First, we, being the Americans, have not been able to come to a strategic partnership accord.

"And in my mind, that's about the only thing we can do right now to counteract the presumption that exists throughout South Asia, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that we are going to precipitously withdraw."

Lynch said that US President Barack Obama's announcement that all US combat troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014 "has convinced them that we've got one foot out the door and one foot on a banana peel".

Without a strategic framework that extends beyond 2014, and without the participation of the Taliban or Pakistan (which Lynch said not only supports the Taliban but also uses Afghanistan as a battlefield in its fight against India), the Bonn conference appears doomed.

"We're on the Titanic. This thing has hit the iceberg and is going down - from the perspective of reducing violence, or mitigating against continuing warfare and bloodshed in Afghanistan," he said.

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