The December 2011 Bonn Conference: a farewell to Afghanistan?

Several new elements are added, almost daily, to worsen the complexity of the situation, and rumours of an imminent military coup in Islamabad do little to clarify matters.
Carlo Ungaro
1 February 2012

In December 2001, just over ten years ago, allegedly in the ‘wake of rapid victory’,  a  much heralded International Conference on Afghanistan took place in Bonn, the actual, original ‘Small Town in Germany’. Its task consisted mainly of setting up a future road-map for that unfortunate Central Asian country torn by years of foreign invasion and civil war. A “democratic” constitution was drawn up, and many extremely sagacious decisions were taken, including the creation of an, ‘International Security Assistance Force’, or ‘ISAF’ to oversee and guide Afghanistan towards peace, stability and development, through a rather novel type of ‘Civilian-Military cooperation’, which proved to be unwieldy and therefore only partially successful. Some viewed this as an audacious leap into the future. Realists, however, preferred to think of it rather as a brave, perhaps utopian attempt to reset the Afghan calendar to a situation at least as promising as it appeared before the Soviet invasion of 1979. 

At the time, even old Afghan hands who had been sceptical and apprehensive of the west’s military involvement in that difficult mountain state, had greeted the Bonn Conference with relief and some optimism. After all – as president Bush himself solemnly assured us – the enemy was ‘on the run’, and the military problem in Afghanistan appeared to be practically solved, with only civilian reconstruction tasks remaining. 

In the light of subsequent developments – after an initial period of moderately justified confidence – the Bonn  Conference of last December 5 can be viewed only with profound scepticism and more than a touch of melancholy. Indeed, in spite of the forced note of official optimism echoed by some of the more obedient International Media, there are reasons to believe that this will most probably be the final curtain call for the west’s  involvement in the very gloomy and apparently hopeless Afghan picture. 

The original, exclusive, war aim put forward to justify the invasion of Afghanistan was to “get” Osama Bin Laden. This was achieved ten years later, in another country, with Bin Laden by then perhaps more of a symbolic figure than a real threat. An impressive subsequent string of alternative ‘war aims’, none of which either convincing or even partially successful, were subsequently presented to explain the need of a continued and growing western presence in Afghanistan.

It is amazing, even appalling, to consider, today, that behind the theatrically arrogant   sabre-rattling in the aftermath of 9/11, there apparently was only minimal political or strategic planning.  Important and profound historical realities were apparently not taken into consideration before embarking on a military venture in an environment which had proved fatal to many invaders, including the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Some of the most essential aspects, such as the inevitability and complexity of Pakistan’s involvement, were treated very superficially, perhaps even overlooked. When Richard Holbrooke, years later, tried to tackle the matter, events had already taken a definite turn for the worse and were probably beyond the control of either ISAF or the United States. 

A potentially sinister and dangerous consequence of this has been the threat of the destabilization of Pakistan, all the more perilous because of Pakistan’s modern and well-equipped nuclear arsenal, which must absolutely not fall into the ‘wrong’ hands. 

One of the very first issues which ought to have been tackled, as soon as Pakistan’s involvement appeared inevitable, was the persistent border problem raised by the infamous 1894 “Durand Line”. No Afghan government has ever recognized this border, and also the local populations in Pakistan's North West Frontier area do not see it as a real barrier to their movements.  For an appreciable amount of time the present conflict has had this porous, traditionally perilous border area as one of its focal points, but there is no evidence of the problem having been taken into serious consideration either in 2001 or ever since, except, perhaps, from an exclusively military point of view. 

At the present stage it is probably too late to emerge from Afghanistan having achieved even an acceptably honourable defeat, and only a belated, rigorous attempt at a totally new approach to the problem, beginning with an open minded assessment of past errors and miscalculations could perhaps avoid total disaster and humiliation. 

The current tendency of hurling accusations of “duplicity” and “treachery” at Pakistan, along with the continued dissemination of rhetorical declarations and shibboleths, coupled with patently false and self-serving versions of past events (including the origins of the Taliban) will, instead, in no way contribute to clarify the situation, which now, more than ever before, demands a clear-headed assessment. 

The accusation of ‘duplicitous’ behaviour levelled at Pakistan takes many forms. Most recently it has been stated that the Pakistani armed forces have taken military action against the Taliban in Pakistan, but are reluctant to do so on Afghan territory. This would  appear as the result of a reasonable Pakistani analysis of its own national interests, rather than the proof of double-dealing. The Pakistani Taliban are hostile to the Islamabad Government, which they accuse of being far too submissive to US demands, while the Taliban in Afghanistan could well be an influential component of a future Afghan government, and would certainly remember any aggressive military action taken against them: Pakistan can ill afford to have an antagonistic neighbour to its North-West, and Islamabad’s view of itself as surrounded by hostile forces - whether justified or not  - cannot be ignored and needs to be respected. 

Several new elements are added, almost daily, to worsen the complexity of the situation, and certainly the persevering rumours of an imminent military coup in Islamabad do little to clarify matters. The continued, insistent use of pilotless drones – the surgical precision of which can easily be questioned – has added a new dimension to the hostility with which the entire operation is viewed in Pakistan, while, in Afghanistan itself, the recent murder of four French ISAF military personnel on a training mission by one of their Afghan trainees serves to show that hopes of leaving the country in a sufficiently stable state are unrealistic. 

It is perhaps too late, at this stage, to  reconsider the entire venture and to bring it to a relatively peaceful and dignified end. When the Soviet troops left, after a ten year occupation, marching across the bridge on the Oxus, they, at least, were going ‘home’, and, above all, to a  place from which they could  indirectly protect the puppet government they left behind – this, naturally, only until the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no comfortable, nearby place from which the  NATO allies can exercise this kind of immediate, close range surveillance and protection of whatever political structure they will be leaving behind in Afghanistan: the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia cannot be considered dependable and the nearest alternative, Turkey, is already quite a way off. It is difficult to imagine an Indian option which would not further and deeply irritate Pakistan, and, as a result, Afghanistan appears destined to be left to itself, in hopeless isolation, just as it was in 1989. 

The damage done to Afghanistan and the Afghans will, in any case, take many years to repair, and continued military action against targets in Pakistan is certainly not the answer.

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