More harm than good ?

Les ministres des Affaires étrangères de quelque 90 pays convergeront le 5 décembre vers Bonn pour discuter de l’avenir de l’Afghanistan. Leur rencontre se tiendra exactement dix ans après la constitution, par la précédente conférence de Bonn, d’un nouveau gouvernement pour ce pays, après la retraite des Talibans de Kaboul. Jonathan Steele, éditorialiste au Guardian, la replace dans son contexte dans un article du think tank Chatham House.

While the first conference was chaired Lakhdar Brahimi, a senior United Nations negotiator, the one this year will have an Afghan chair – the intended message being that Afghans are increasingly in charge of their own destiny.

That point will be reinforced by the conference’s main theme : the transition of responsibility for security to Afghan hands as foreign combat troops prepare to leave by the end of 2014. The ministers will also discuss what support international donors intend to provide for Afghanistan’s development for the period after 2014.

Finally, the conference will consider options for a political settlement to end the country’s three decades of conflict, a process that is normally labeled by western officials as “reconciliation”.

The size of the attendance, the shortness of time, and the fact that foreign ministers will be discussing long-terms trends – rather than problems requiring urgent solutions – suggest that it will be a windy affair that will do little more than endorse current American and Afghan government positions.

If concrete benefits are unlikely to emerge from Bonn, there are various risks that threaten to turn the conference into a disaster. One is that of unwarranted triumphalism. Coming a decade after the United States launched its armed intervention in Afghanistan, speakers from the 48-nation NATO-led coalition which Washington assembled after the Taliban fell may succumb to the temptation to read out complacent laundry-lists of achievements over the past decade. The number of girls in school and women in parliament are sure to figure repeatedly in speeches. So will the fact that Afghanistan has drawn up a new constitution and held two parliamentary and presidential elections.

The corruption that marred the most recent presidential poll in 2009 will be ignored. The fraud challenges that led to a quarter of the members being unseated after the 2010 parliamentary elections and prevented the lower house from conducting serious business for almost a year will go unmentioned.

Most importantly of all, it is a safe bet that ministers will gloss over the country’s worsening security situation - the issue that concerns Afghans more urgently than education or formal democracy. Indeed, in order to disguise the fact that things are actually going downhill, representatives of NATO governments will probably use the phrase favoured by General David Petraeus, the US commander who headed ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force) until July : “the momentum of the Taliban has been reversed”.

The United Nations Secretary-General’s latest report to the Security Council in September made it clear that as of the end of August, the average monthly number of security incidents for 2011 was up 39 percent on the same period in 2010. The number of ‘complex suicide attacks’, that is, co-ordinated incidents involving several attackers, was up by fifty percent and their focus was no longer just in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s Pashtun heartland. In Kabul, the British Council, the Intercontinental Hotel and the US embassy all came under sustained attack in separate incidents this summer.

As the conflict is one of ‘asymmetrical warfare’, the Taliban always slip away from direct confrontation with ISAF troops and use other methods to exert their power. Assassinations of government officials continue at a high level and, in a new tactic this year, the Taliban and the other insurgent groups started to impose an evening mobile phone blackout in more than half the country’s provinces. They warn the four mobile phone network providers to shut down from dusk to dawn or have their masts blown up ; a simple but psychologically effective tactic that reminds every frustrated would-be mobile phone user just how extensive the Taliban’s reach has become.

The Bonn conference’s second risk is that it will uncritically support the prevailing ‘garrison strategy’ which lies at the heart of President Barack Obama’s and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s policy. As 2014 approaches, international combat troops will gradually hand their bases and outposts to Afghan troops. This is a recipe for continuing war, with Afghan government troops and the newly created local militias replacing the Americans, British and other allied forces in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgents.

Though the transition may be presented as progress, it will have little positive impact since Pashtun villagers in the south and east – where the insurgency is at its most intense – consider the Afghan national army equally foreign and just as unfamiliar with their language as the Americans. ISAF has been trying to recruit more Pashtun into the army, but it is slow going since most Pashtun do not wish to be seen as collaborators with a foreign occupation. In spite of ISAF’s best efforts, the current proportion of southern Pashtun in the army is less than four percent.

The best way to end the insurgency is through a political process. There has to be a full-scale negotiation with the Taliban. Current US policy pays lip service to the idea of talks but no serious muscle has been put behind it. Testifying before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives in October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated the line she first enunciated this spring. The outcome of any negotiation, she said, must be that “insurgents must renounce violence, abandon al Qaeda, and abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan”. All well and good, but how to get to that point ? If her phrase means the US is still asking the Taliban to surrender, there can be no meaningful negotiation.

The UN Secretary-General reminded the Security Council in September that the Taliban issued a public statement on July 28, asking that they be recognised as a political and military power in order to play a role in the peace and stability of Afghanistan and the region. The creative thing would have been to invite the Taliban to take part in the Bonn conference. Instead, their call was ignored in Washington and Kabul.

Lakhdar Brahimi, who chaired the original Bonn conference, has admitted that the exclusion of the southern Pashtun from the meeting was a mistake. Instead of rushing to nominate a new government when the Taliban withdrew, analysts have long argued that the Taliban should have been given time to get over the shock of their defeat. Moderates might have emerged to take their place in a new coalition government. Instead, the whole movement gave way to anger and resentment at finding itself shut out. When they saw the new government in Kabul being dominated by the Northern Alliance of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara warlords whom they had toppled in 1996, the Taliban licked their wounds, gradually revived, and launched a new insurgency in 2002. To them, Bonn merely represented another swing of the pendulum in the country’s long-running civil war.

Current US policy will do nothing to end this civil war. Indeed many Afghans fear another upsurge of fighting as foreign troops draw down. If Obama is to have any chance of reversing that trend, he needs to do four things :

 1. Accept that the war is deadlocked and that his garrison strategy will make no difference on the battlefield. According to a report in the TheWashington Post this summer, the latest internal CIA assessment repeatedly used the phrase “stalemate”. The Pentagon appears to take a different view. Obama needs to make clear to his team that he accepts the CIA analysis and that from now on his priority for Afghanistan is to focus on a political settlement. If he couples that with orders to halt the US night raids and air- and drone-strikes on local Taliban commanders and replace them with negotiations with tribal elders to implement local ceasefires, so much the better.

 2. Announce that Washington’s goal is to help to establish a government of national unity in Kabul that will include the Taliban and other insurgent groups, as well as representatives of all other ethnicities.

 3. Support the appointment of a United Nations mediator to negotiate with the Afghan parties as well as the regional states, as was done in the Geneva Process that achieved the Soviet troop withdrawal in 1988.

 4. Abandon the current negotiations with the Kabul government for a ‘strategic partnership agreement’ to keep tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan after the combat troops withdraw by 2014. They may be called advisers or trainers but they will still be armed and uniformed US soldiers who will be seen as occupiers. There is no way the insurgency will call off their resistance as long as foreign troops remain.

Without a radical change of course in Washington, December’s Bonn conference is likely to do more harm than good.