Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Scepticism Over Bonn Conference

Critics say planning for the future will be meaningless without security on the ground.
By Khan Mohammad Danishju

Afghans interviewed by IWPR are concerned that a landmark conference on their country’s future this December will fail to bring real change because the primary focus will not be on making peace with the Taleban.

The summit, which will include representatives from scores of countries and international organisations, will take place in Bonn, in a conscious echo of the first such meeting ten years ago, which set out a roadmap for post-Taleban Afghanistan and approved an interim administration led by current president Hamid Karzai.

This year’s conference is expected to review progress since 2001 and to discuss the kind of political process needed to make the country stable, plans for managing the period once NATO-led troops withdraw in 2014, and what shape engagement by the international community will take after that date.

“The agenda for the conference is in preparation,” Hakim Asher, head of the government media centre, said. “The international community's performance over the past ten years will be discussed, as well as development programmes for Afghanistan over the next ten years, particularly after 2014.”

Asher said the question of a Taleban presence at the Bonn talks did not feature in the agenda discussions. Negotiations with the insurgents were going on, but in a separate context, he added.

“The Afghan government continues its peace efforts outside the Bonn conference,” he said. “President Karzai’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with the Saudi king were part of the country’s efforts in that direction.”

Asher added that the Afghan armed forces had built up the weapons and capacity they needed to provide security by themselves.

“Even if the second Bonn conference does not discuss security issues, that does not mean that the Afghan government has not made peace and security a priority,” he added.

Critics say that it was a mistake not to include representatives of groups like the Taleban and Hezb-i Eslami in the 2001 Bonn conference, and that repeating that error will inevitably lead to failure.

“The non-participation of armed opponents of the government in the second Bonn conference means the event will be purely for show, like previous conferences,” political analyst Abdul Ghafur Lewal said. “If armed opposition [groups] do not take part, they will challenge the plans of the second Bonn conference just as they did after the first one.”

The international community’s position seems to be that Taleban participation is up to the Afghan government. Speaking on August 16, Britain’s Ambassador to Kabul, Sir William Patey, said there was “no question” of anyone but the Afghan authorities inviting insurgent representatives to attend.

“Whether the Taliban or any other groups are represented in Bonn will be a matter for the Afghan government…. there will be one Afghan delegation, but who is in that delegation is a question for the Afghan government,” he said.

Asher, meanwhile, made it clear that insurgent groups would need to sign up to the government’s reconciliation programme if they wanted to be part of the Bonn meeting. That seems highly unlikely, since the insurgents are reluctant to take part even on their own terms. The Taleban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, ruled out sending a delegation in a statement to mark the end of Ramadan at the end of August. He dismissed the Bonn conference as pointless, saying it would not be genuinely representative of the Afghan people.

Masihullah, a student at Kabul University, said achieving peace and security had to come top of the Bonn meeting’s list of priorities, arguing that “if it only discusses development programmes, it would be as if our house was on fire but instead of putting out the fire, we consulted our neighbours and relatives about how to paint the walls and windows, what kind of carpet we should have, and what kind of furniture we needed”.

Aside from the question of a Taleban presence, some analysts say the Bonn conference should be used to secure pledges from countries with an interest in Afghanistan – and in some cases a history of interference – that they will work towards a better future.

“I think the roots of the problems in Afghanistan need to be discussed at the conference,” political analyst Faruq Bashar said. “In addition to the armed opposition, some regional states like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and even India and Saudi Arabia, should be involved in the conference so that these fundamental problems can be identified, and guarantees obtained from these countries in order for peace in Afghanistan to be assured.”

Pessimists, meanwhile, believe the conference has little hope of success because of the Afghan government’s own record since 2001.

“There are two reasons why I don’t have faith in the outcome of the conference,” political analyst Harun Mir said. “First, the Afghan government is mired in corruption and lacks the capacity to chair the conference, so it’s hard to anticipate that the outcome will be ideal. Second, the present government will be subsequently be replaced, so how can one expect that new government to implement decisions approved at this conference?”

Kabul resident Emal Faizi said the problems of poor governance, corruption, lawlessness and unfulfilled development all came back to one issue – the failure to establish a secure environment.

“That means that security has to be made a priority at the second Bonn conference,” he added.

Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.