Afghanistan between the Bonn Conference and fears of sectarian warfare

On 5 December, the international community marked the tenth anniversary of the conclusion of the Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan with yet another International Afghanistan Conference held in the former German capital to consider (once again) the future of a country which, after a decade of heavy (handed) international involvement has made considerable less progress towards stable peace, democracy, and sustainable economic development than one might have hoped for in 2001. Much of this event, of course, was overshadowed by the two suicide bombings in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif which killed some 60 people and raised fears of a sectarian conflict in the country.

These attacks underscore that Afghanistan continues to represent a major challenge for internationalised peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts and that the fundamental problem remains wide-spread insecurity. However horrific, the two suicide attacks are but the tip of the iceberg: a recent Report of the Secretary-General on Afghanistan Reports/110921 SG Report on Afghanistan FINAL.pdf notes that by “the end of August [2011], the average monthly number of incidents for 2011 was 2,108, up 39 per cent compared with the same period in 2010.” Of these armed clashes with insurgents and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) accounted for the vast majority of incidents, two-thirds of which occurred in the south and south-east of Afghanistan around Kandahar. This is a depressing statistic, not least in the light of a schedule that will see ISAF forces being withdrawn by 2014.

Despite a strong international troop presence and continuing training of Afghan security forces, the Taliban insurgency has continued because it does not lack in motivated fighters, has sufficient means to pursue its campaign, and has opportunities to do so. Motivation, for the most part, is a mix of Islamic fundamentalism; nationalist resistance against a perceived foreign occupation; and resentment of a corrupt, only moderately effective, Pashtun-dominated central government. Means are sufficiently available in the form of cheap and plentiful small arms and of the “ingredients” to mass-produce IEDs, as well as funds from transnational organised crime, especially the drugs trade. Opportunities that the insurgency continues to have stem from the longstanding expertise in fighting an insurgency in a country that has been engulfed in civil war for decades and from porous borders, difficult terrain, and largely ungoverned areas in neighbouring Pakistan that provide safe havens and training grounds for insurgents. The insurgency thus is far from unified, and it may well be possible to negotiate with at least some elements in it, even though the track record of doing so is less than promising.

So, after the London Afghanistan Conference of 2006, the Paris Afghanistan Conference of 2008, another London Afghanistan Conference in January 2010, the Kabul Afghanistan Conference in July 2010, and the Istanbul Afghanistan Conference of November 2011, what could have been expected of the Bonn Conference?

Three necessary messages needed to come from the conference, and they were, at least partly, delivered.

  • PEACE BUILDING. The commitment to continued international support for peacebuilding in Afghanistan, including after ISAF’s withdrawal is complete in 2014, was clearly delivered. The Conference Conclusions commit the international community to train, equip, finance and to support the development of capabilities of the Afghan security forces, albeit on a gradually decreasing scale in line with a concrete plan to be developed over the next year. The Conference recognised the complexity of the security challenges that Afghanistan faces, including terrorism and organised crime, and the need to pursue a meaningful and inclusive peace process alongside the development and continued deployment of robust security capabilities.
  • STATE BUILDING. There is also agreement among the 2011 Bonn Conference participants that “protection of civilians, strengthening the rule of law and the fight against corruption in all its forms remain key priorities.” Participants also emphasised “the principle of mutual accountability”, which is, hopefully, a round-about way of emphasising that continued international support is conditional on efforts by the Afghan government.
  • REGIONAL STABILITY. Building on the commitments of the Istanbul Conference in November 2011, the participants in the Bonn Conference emphasised the importance of regional stability for the success of peace building and state building in Afghanistan. The country is at the centre of a geopolitically highly significant yet volatile region that includes Pakistan, Iran, and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. Yet it is difficult to see how, beyond a rhetorical commitment, real follow-through in this area will be possible. The deterioration in NATO/US-Pakistan relations following the recent border incident, and the subsequent boycott of the Bonn Conference by Pakistan clearly creates a major obstacle, as does the even more serious deterioration of relations between Iran and the West, exemplified in the ransacking of the British Embassy in Tehran, and the subsequent expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London.

Above all, the 2011 Bonn Conference needed to make clear that the Afghan government and people and their partners in the international community are united in their efforts to make tangible and sustainable progress towards a more stable Afghanistan in an equally more stable region. On paper, the Conference delivered on these expectations, but so did any of the previous five major such conferences since the Boon Agreement on Afghanistan a decade ago. Afghan and international commitments to peace and stability have barely changed over the past ten years. As a demonstration of determination, this is impressive; as a show of delivery capability it is truly depressing. In three years, when the 2014 date for ISAF withdrawal is upon us, we will look back at this week’s international conference most likely as the last opportunity that Afghanistan, and hopefully not one that was subsequently squandered. The alternatives to a finally successful partnership embodied in the Bonn Conference are unpleasant to contemplate for the international community. Even more so, Afghans do not deserve a return to Taliban rule or all-out civil war.

Date

8 December 2011