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

Afghans Unenthused by Bonn Conference

For many, talks did little to drive progress in their country.
By Khan Mohammad Danishju
  • Participants in the second Bonn conference. (Photo: Canada in Afghanistan/Flickr)
    Participants in the second Bonn conference. (Photo: Canada in Afghanistan/Flickr)

The second Bonn conference has drawn mixed reactions from Afghans, with some observers praising the event as a sign of how far the country has come, and others deriding what they see as a symbolic gathering that produced little of value.

The December 5 meeting brought together delegates from more than 100 countries and from international organisations. They drafted a 33-article resolution that focused on international support for Afghanistan after the pullout of foreign troops scheduled for 2014.

Participants pledged help to Afghanistan until 2024, but repeated previous conditions for this aid, including action on corruption, the drugs trade and governance.

The meeting came ten years after the first Bonn conference, held in December 2001 following the ousting of the Taleban government, and focused on the appointment of Hamed Karzai as head of an interim administration as well as the creation of election mechanisms and a new constitution.

Member of parliament Shukria Barakzai praised the conference, saying the high-profile figures who attended it demonstrated the credibility of the Afghan government.

She added that the assurances of support until 2024 should be seen as a major achievement, but that the next decade should see Afghanistan becoming increasingly self-reliant.

Political analyst Faruq Bashar said it was important that the Afghan government itself chaired the event, since the first Bonn conference ten years ago was led by the United Nations.

Bashar welcomed the emphasis that the 2011 event placed on long-term economic assistance and support for a broad-based peace process.

He also noted that the conference showed how the country remained a focus of international attention.

“Afghanistan still has an opportunity to use the world’s attention to improve the domestic situation and boost our reputation in the world,” he said.

However, others warned that the achievements claimed for this conference were remarkably similar to those that came out of previous summits, in which a great deal was promised but little was delivered.

The second Bonn conference, they argued, had many failings in its scope and in its range of participants.

“The second Bonn event was like a fancy reception where countries gathered and presented statements at special ceremonies,” Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, spokesman for the opposition Coalition for Change and Hope, said. “The only outcome was fawning over Karzai’s government.”

Sancharaki said too little attention was paid to the issue of corruption. Despite billions of dollars in aid money, Afghanistan remained in poor economic shape.

“Peace and security issues should have been discussed first,” he said, “because some parts of the country are still controlled by the Taleban, and so development programmes cannot be implemented there.”

Ahead of the conference, concerns were raised about the failure to include insurgent groups, with some arguing that inviting the Taleban would have helped move the peace process along.

Two former Taleban figures, Mullah Abdol Salam Zaif and Abdol Wakil Motawakkel, both now living under the protection of the Afghan government, did take part.

But no new strategy was presented for achieving reconciliation with the Taleban. The forum simply reiterated the official line that the Taleban can participate in a peace process provided that they accept the current constitution.

The lack of Taleban involvement pleased some civil society groups, which held a demonstration in Kabul on December 10 to insist that members of armed groups who had violated human rights should be prosecuted, not granted amnesty.

Yunus Akhtari, a human rights and transitional justice activist, told IWPR that he and his fellow protestors demanded that all those suspected of crimes – both on the government side and outside it – should be held to account.

Pakistan was notably absent from the conference, staying away in protest at a NATO air attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on November 25.

Some observers felt that Pakistan, which many Afghans often accuse of harbouring or supporting insurgents, was such a key player that its presence was essential.

However, Karzai dismissed Islamabad’s boycott of the summit, telling reporters that “Afghanistan has lost nothing” from it.

Bashar, too, was dismissive of the idea that a Pakistani presence might have had positive effects.

“Has Pakistan ever fulfilled any of its commitments?” he asked. “Pakistan has even violated the official treaties it has signed with the Afghan government. So its participation or lack of participation can have no impact on the process.”

Ordinary Afghans interviewed by IWPR found it hard to summon up enthusiasm for yet another international meeting when the effects of three decades of conflict were still all too evident.

“Now is the time for actions, not words,” Kabul university student Shabnam said. “There are more and more conferences but people have no faith in them, because nothing practical has been achieved.”

Like many Afghans, she sees Pakistan as the real problem.

“If the international community does not eradicate terrorism in neighbouring countries, and if the Taleban continue to be present in Afghanistan and the terrorists in Pakistan, neither Afghanistan nor the world will ever be safe, and none of the development programmes discussed at the Bonn conference will ever be implemented,” she said.

Bashir Ahmad, 30, a resident of Kabul’s Khair Khana district, agreed that counter-insurgency was key to success.

“We don’t want money, and we don’t want assistance. If the international community really has sympathy for the people of Afghanistan, we want to destroy the nests of corruption and insecurity – and it’s clear where those are located,” he said, in a clear reference to Pakistan.

As for the talks in Bonn, he said, “We hear about a conference every year, but we don’t feel the effects of it in our own lives.”

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