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At Bonn II, Challenge Is To Bypass Recriminations, Build Afghan Consensus

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle speak to reporters upon Karzai's arrival in Germany for the Bonn II conference on December 5.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle speak to reporters upon Karzai's arrival in Germany for the Bonn II conference on December 5.

When the world last met in Bonn to discuss Afghanistan, it was just a few months after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Then, anything and everything seemed possible. A U.S.-backed northern coalition had toppled the Taliban, Osama bin Laden was on the run, and hopes that Afghanistan could be freed from being a base for terrorism and then rebuilt ran high.

Now, on December 5, the 10th anniversary of the Bonn Agreement to rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban -- world leaders will return to Germany's former capital to renew their commitment to help. But the challenges have not grown any easier.

The new Bonn conference -- known as Bonn II -- is bringing together foreign ministers and other top officials from some 90 countries to discuss two of Afghanistan's most pressing problems.

The first is how the international community plans to support Afghanistan after 2014, when multinational forces complete their withdrawal.

But hopes for outlining a clear future in Bonn have received a last-minute blow with Pakistan's apparent withdrawal from the conference in protest at last month's NATO attack on two of its border posts, which killed 24 soldiers.

'Cooperation Is Essential'

Pakistan's future security role is vital, because militants use its border region to launch attacks into Afghanistan and then retreat to safety.

"To bring peace to Afghanistan, cooperation from its neighbors is essential, especially if peace is to be reached in the near future," Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and a key figure in the first Bonn conference, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA). "This means that if Pakistan doesn't cooperate and continues its fight against efforts in Afghanistan, then this process will take much longer."

A banner, hung by demonstrating students, is seen near the U.S. consulate in Peshawar in late November.

A banner, hung by demonstrating students, is seen near the U.S. consulate in Peshawar in late November.

Islamabad has said it cannot attend the conference when its own territorial security is not guaranteed -- a signal that it might yet attend if some conditions are met. But the current high tensions between Pakistan and NATO make presenting a united international front at Bonn difficult under any circumstances.

U.S. President Barack Obama on December 4 spoke with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to again offer Washington's condolences over the Pakistani soldiers' deaths. Obama said the deaths were "regrettable" but that they were not the result of a deliberate attack. It is not known if the Bonn II conference was discussed.

Apart from Pakistan, hopes for clearly defining Afghanistan's post-2014 future in Bonn have also been clouded by the failure by Washington and Kabul to sign a strategic partnership pact before the meeting. Such a deal would have provided the framework for other countries to announce they are ready to commit themselves to similar agreements.

The U.S.-Afghan strategic pact -- intended to outline their future security collaboration -- has run aground over issues such as whether U.S. soldiers would be immune from prosecution by Afghan courts. It is likely to be months more before any deal is finalized.

Talking To The Taliban

The other pressing problem for Afghanistan is also not likely to be solved at the conference. That is, how to better stabilize Afghanistan by bringing elements of the Taliban into the country's peace process.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel, the conference host, underlined the importance of the issue last week, saying some Taliban could contribute to peace if they cut ties to Al-Qaeda and renounce violence.

But early hopes that the Taliban -- who were excluded from Bonn I -- might attend Bonn II have yet to materialize. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar last month dubbed the conference "symbolic" and vowed the Taliban would not participate.

That leaves plenty of room for the Bonn conference to get tied up in reviewing the past without making clear and decisive steps toward defining the future.

One contentious issue certain to come up is whether the start that Bonn I gave the Afghan government a decade ago has proved to be a wise one.

The Afghan representatives who attended Bonn I set the course for much of the country's current executive, legislative, and judicial structures when they created a commission to draft a new constitution and appointed an Afghan interim authority headed by Hamid Karzai.

'We Lost The Chance'

Ten years and two elections later, Karzai remains president of Afghanistan as his critics say the constitution gives him too much power. At the same time, his government is widely viewed as having been corrupt and inefficient in handling the billions of dollars in foreign aid that has come into the country.

A German ISAF soldier surveys the terrain during a patrol securing the surroundings of Camp Marmal near Mazar-e Sharif on December 1.

A German ISAF soldier surveys the terrain during a patrol securing the surroundings of Camp Marmal near Mazar-e Sharif on December 1.

One such critic is A. Jabal Qahraman, a member of parliament.

"The international community prepared a very good framework for Afghanistan. We were provided with nice and modern offices with expensive furniture," Qahraman told RFE/RL. "But unfortunately, a military commander was assigned for the electric department and a warlord was assigned for the agriculture department. A huge stream of foreign aid came to Afghanistan, but the government misused it. And due to lack of good management, we lost the chance."

The government defends itself against such charges, saying that the setbacks during Afghanistan's last 10 years should not obscure its successes.

"Most of the Bonn I decisions and plans were implemented in Afghanistan," says Mahmood Hakimi, Karzai's media adviser. "And we have gone a long way toward the finishing line."

Nonetheless, ahead of the one-day conference, President Karzai told the "Spiegel" weekly that Afghanistan would still need funds until around 2024 to build up the police, army, and state institutions.

The challenge for the Bonn II meeting will be to move beyond recriminations and build a consensus for solving Afghanistan's problems.

In 2001, delegates to the weeklong Bonn conference thought they had achieved just that. Now, it is up to Bonn II to try again.
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