December 8, 2011

At Bonn, Half of Winning Was Just Showing Up

My article co-authored with Javid Ahmad appeared as a German Marshall Fund 'Transatlantic Take' on December 8, 2011. The full text can be read here.

World and Afghan leaders convened in Bonn earlier this week, a decade after that city hosted the first major conference to chart Afghanistan’s future following the ousting of the Taliban. Key priorities on the Bonn 2011 agenda naturally included the ongoing security transition to Afghan forces, reconciliation with the Taliban and armed insurgent groups, and the continuing international commitment to Afghanistan. Considerable emphasis was also placed on the country’s political and human development — particularly women, health, and corruption — and the durability of the Afghan economy. But while symbolism overshadowed any substantive developments, the summit’s participation provided a good sense of the ever-evolving strategic contours of the Afghan conflict.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai initiated discussions with an impassioned (if obligatory) plea for continued assistance from the international community. Only the week before, he had unveiled the second phase of the Afghan security transition, which would result in Afghan security forces assuming security responsibility for over 50 percent of the country. This had followed a consultative Loya Jirga, where more than 2,000 representatives agreed unanimously to support enduring relations with the international community, including the United States. Both developments marked important steps as Afghanistan prepares itself for a lighter Western military footprint, and were repeatedly referenced at Bonn.

Of greater significance at the summit, however, was the high-level official representation from the transatlantic community, which clearly indicated the West’s continued commitment to Afghanistan at a time when economic and political challenges at home might suggest looking inward, rather than at important challenges farther afield. While leaders generally avoided addressing the specifics of any long-term commitments to Afghanistan — such as a notional U.S. security agreement until 2024 — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did emphasize that “2014 doesn’t mean that the Afghan Security Forces are totally on their own,” a sentiment that was echoed in the joint statement issued at the conference’s conclusion. The United States and its NATO allies also made specific promises to help with Afghanistan’s reconstruction and institutional capacity.

Perhaps just as consequential as the West’s reassurances was Pakistan’s absence. Its boycott was the result of last month’s NATO strike in Mohmand, which resulted in over two dozen of its soldiers being killed. That clash and Pakistan’s response — coming soon after the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, blamed on Pakistan-based militants — have further eroded the pretense of its being a supportive ally in efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. Tuesday’s attack in Kabul on the Shi’a holy day of Ashura, which resulted in over 55 deaths and was claimed by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also points to a dangerous new strain of sectarian violence spilling over from Pakistan.

Finally, the high-level presence of other regional actors — Iran, India, and China — proved a good indicator of the importance these powers accord to Afghanistan irrespective of the United States’ and NATO’s presence there. Karzai singled out Iran’s position at Bonn as a particularly positive indicator of Tehran’s intentions toward Afghanistan, but Iran’s statement also underscored the difficulty of reconciling its cooperation on Afghanistan with growing U.S. and European concern over its clandestine nuclear development. The delegation from India, which recently signed a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, highlighted the continuing challenge Afghanistan faces from cross-border terrorism. Meanwhile, China’s foreign minister stressed the need to bolster Afghanistan’s sovereignty and autonomy, a careful message that conveniently lends itself to contradictory interpretations: Afghanistan’s independence from U.S. influence and security provisions on one hand, and its ability to counter Pakistani proxies on the other.

The Bonn summit may not have led to any concrete breakthroughs. The conference conclusions were not unexpected, and indicated a shared commitment to upholding the Afghan constitution, political institutions, and human rights; supporting Afghan security (including on counterterrorism and counternarcotics) after 2014; promoting Afghan-led political reconciliation under strict conditions; bolstering economic growth with international assistance; and facilitating regional normalization and integration. While such lofty ambitions may not necessarily result in the eradication of Afghanistan’s daunting challenges, they will help shape the country’s uncertain future. The responsibility for a stable and secure Afghanistan rests ultimately with its people, and the summit was simply a demonstration of continued faith in the country’s future. But, as they say, half of winning is just showing up. And at Bonn, the international community — with one notable exception — did.