Features | Politics | Central Asia

Bonn Meet Falls Flat on Face

Without Pakistan and a Taliban presence, the Bonn conference on Afghanistan was always going to struggle. A conflicted U.S. policy doesn’t help.

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.

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Underneath its reaction to the recent event, however, are Pakistan’s real, strategic concerns. Since the 1980s, Pakistan has viewed Afghanistan as a buffer against India, and its military leadership – including the army and the ISI – has held fast to the Taliban and other groups as vehicles for extending Pakistani influence. Following this year’s cascading series of events that have roiled U.S.-Pakistan ties, neither side can any longer maintain the fiction that their relationship isn’t adversarial and that they have sharply divergent objectives in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have thrown down the gauntlet. For the United States, that means that going forward it must do everything in its power to make a deal with Pakistan over the future of Afghanistan.

But it isn’t at all clear that the administration, which is pursuing what appears to be a hopelessly contradictory policy of war-making, peace talks, and development assistance – what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “fight, talk, build” – knows what it’s doing.

According to Vali Nasr, who was an adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke when he handled the portfolio on Afghanistan and Pakistan, there isn’t one, but two, American policies on the war: the White House and State Department, which prefer to talk, and the CIA and the Defense Department, which prefer to fight. (Reportedly, Obama, under pressure from the Pentagon, hesitated for more than a week before he phoned President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan to provide a qualified apology for the November 26 killings.) Ever since U.S. intelligence agencies unveiled a National Intelligence Estimate last year warning that Pakistan’s sanctuaries for Afghan insurgents were a major obstacle blocking U.S. military progress in the war, there have been calls for NATO to carry the war across the border. According to The Guardian, the military commanders organizing an imminent NATO offensive in eastern Afghanistan “have not ruled out cross-border raids with ground troops.” The former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald E. Neumann, writing in the Washington Post, says that the United States has no choice but to “begin going directly after the sanctuaries.”

If the military is indeed thinking about escalating the war into Pakistan, was that the message lurking behind the November 26 attack on the Pakistani border post? If so, the White House needs to yank strongly on the Pentagon’s leash. For its part, the U.S. military command says that the assault on the border post – a sustained, two-hour attack involving artillery and aircraft fire – was an error and not intentional, but Pakistan says it was a deliberate case of  “aggression” by NATO. Wherever the truth lies, it’s imperative for both countries to get relations back on track, since both countries desperately need each other.