Boycotting Bonn: Why Afghan War Conference Is Likely to Fail

Pakistan has announced its intention to boycott next month's Bonn II conference on the Afghan War. Can a conference about the future of Afghanistan survive the absence of its most important neighbor?

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Supporters of Islamic organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa hold party flags and a placard during a demonstration against NATO cross-border attack in Lahore / Reuters

In the wake of a deadly U.S. attack on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the Pakistani cabinet decided to pull out of the Bonn II conference. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar will not attend to protest the attack.

Bonn II, scheduled to take place next month, is meant to be a meeting of the international community to help craft Afghanistan's future. It's being held almost exactly 10 years after the first Bonn conference, which took place in December 2001. In a way, it will be a meeting on the last ten years of the conflict: are the fundamental questions asked a decade ago any closer to being answered?

But the Bonn II conference has met with significant hurdles. Besides Pakistan, Afghanistan's largest neighbor, no one seems to know if Afghanistan's other major neighbor, Iran, will participate (I spoke with officials in the State Department, who would neither confirm nor deny Iran's attendance). U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has told the Taliban they are not welcome to participate either, though German representatives have expressed interest in hosting some Taliban representatives. And Uzbekistan, which the U.S. is counting on as a transit corridor for its withdrawal plans, has been coy about its participation in any international conferences.

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So a conference about the future of Afghanistan that is meant to leave a lasting, workable regional framework in place to manage the many diplomatic, economic, and security consequences of an American withdrawal might not include four of the most important participants: Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, or the Taliban. And yet, the other 90 countries that participate hope to accomplish something.

The sad reality of the U.S. endgame in Afghanistan is that it is happening completely outside a consideration of Afghanistan's politics. The war in Afghanistan is a fundamentally political war, and U.S. policymakers continue to ignore Afghanistan's (and Pakistan's) politics at tremendous cost. The worst political excesses get identified and removed, but the strategic planning -- what little there is -- is happening within American preferences and beliefs, not Afghan ones.

This matters tremendously for a war that relies, ultimately, on Afghan buy-in, participation, and eventual replacement on the ground. The entire transition strategy, whereby discrete pieces of territory are handed over to Afghan control, is meant to bolster the "Afghanization" of the war. Yet it is happening without accounting for the larger political movements in the country.

For starters, trying to exclude the Taliban from the second Bonn conference, as Crocker has suggested he might do, is a terrible mistake. Part of the reason the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan, armed themselves, and set about systematically undermining Hamid Karzai's government in 2003 and 2004 is because of their exclusion from the first Bonn conference in 2001. Continuing to exclude them, when they've created the country's only functioning judicial system and operate at least local government as least as effectively as Karzai's cronies do, would perpetuate the war.

The U.S. demands for the Taliban seem to amount to, give up your weapons and accept the current government and constitution as a precondition for any further negotiations. This is tantamount to a call for surrender first, before anything else happens, considering the biggest grievance the Taliban has is the very constitution it's being told to accept (and the second biggest is the use of force to expand that unwanted constitution throughout the countryside).

In this light, Pakistan's withdrawal from Bonn could be more or less a death-blow to the conference. Without Taliban participation, the conference's utility was going to be severely limited. But missing the Taliban's primary sponsor and support, in addition to the Taliban, and possibly the only other regional player with sufficient clout to alter Afghan politics (after Iran's seizure of the British embassy today there is almost no hope of their attending), there is little hope for Bonn II to be anything other than an expensive piece of theater that will do little to advance or save the country.

Who knows, maybe Pakistan is doing us all a favor. At least now it's undeniable that the conference is a showpiece and not something substantive. Perhaps, if we're lucky, the uselessness of Bonn will help push policymakers into a new direction, one more focused on handling the region's messy politics rather than smoothing ruffled feathers in the West.