Despite the pomp and ceremony – and the presence of more than a thousand delegates from scores of countries – the just-concluded conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, fell flat on its face. Convened precisely 10 years after the December, 2001, Bonn gathering that created the political framework for post-Taliban Afghanistan, this week’s meeting was originally designed a year ago for the express purpose of providing a stamp of approval for what the United States hoped would be a political accord between Afghanistan, the U.S.-led coalition, Pakistan, and the Taliban.
But the Taliban, which has been flirting with peace talks for years, and whose representatives, it was hoped, would at least be present on the sidelines at Bonn, didn’t show up. Worse, neither did Pakistan, the Taliban’s chief patron.
With U.S forces heading for the exits – at least 30,000 will be out by next September and, if the Obama administration sticks to its timetable, more will follow on the path toward a complete withdrawal of foreign forces by 2014 – the White House had hoped that at least the broad outlines of a political settlement would be in place by now. Since late 2010, the United States has held three meetings with Taliban representatives, according to veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid – last November, in February, and again in May. In February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton modified the conditions that the United States placed on the Taliban for its participation in talks, and last summer, with U.S. support, the United Nations prepared the ground for lifting sanctions imposed on Taliban officials since the 1990s in order to encourage its leaders to set up an office, perhaps in Turkey or Qatar, as a headquarters of sorts for a negotiating team. Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted the event in Bonn – with the participation of Russia, China, Iran, and many other interested parties – played a crucial role behind the scenes in trying to coax the Taliban into talks.
Perhaps the principal reason why no breakthrough occurred is that Pakistan, which created and armed the Taliban in the 1990s and still to this day harbors and protects its leadership council in Quetta and its chief allies, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s forces and the Sirajuddin Haqqani group, have become increasingly alienated from the process. Pakistan is seething with anti-Americanism and anger over a series of incidents that have inflamed U.S.-Pakistan relations, from the January killing in Lahore of two Pakistanis by an armed CIA officer, Raymond Davis, to the lightning raid on May 1 into Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, to the drumbeat of drone attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In late September, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said that the Haqqani group was a “veritable arm” of the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence service, breaking a taboo on stating the obvious. For Pakistan, the final straw was the November 26 U.S. attack on a border post that killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
In response to that still unexplained atrocity, Pakistan declared its boycott of Bonn. In addition, in a move designed to remind Washington of the leverage it has over the American war effort in Afghanistan, Islamabad closed the two main border crossings into Afghanistan through which the United States ships a vast part of its supplies. And, adding insult to injury, Pakistan also told the United States to vacate the secret base in Balochistan out of which the CIA operates a fleet of Predator and Reaper drones – even though Pakistan doesn’t officially admit that it provides the base for the United States and the U.S. doesn’t admit using it.