LONDON – Another conference on Afghanistan has come and gone, but the problem remains as intractable as ever. No one has any idea how the underlying issues facing Afghanistan and the region will be resolved, but the international community soldiers on in the hope that ultimately there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
The latest gathering in Bonn two weeks ago marked the 10th anniversary of the conference in the same city that established an interim government in Afghanistan after the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
The final communiqué issued at Bonn tried to be uplifting amid the doom and gloom surrounding the issue as it underlined that the international community was ready to stand by Afghanistan after NATO’s withdrawal in exchange for good governance, and that “substantial progress” had been made since the last conference a decade back.
“The protection of civilians, strengthening the rule of law and the fight against corruption in all its forms remain key priorities,” according to the document. It says the international community’s vision for Afghanistan is one of a “stable and functioning democracy … conducive to prosperity and peace.”
Though Afghan President Hamid Karzai highlighted the progress his country has achieved, he warned that “the people of Afghanistan are looking to this conference for clear affirmation of a commitment to make security transition and economic progress irreversible.” In response, the international community underscored its commitment to stand by Afghanistan as it makes this transition.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged that “the United States intends to stay the course” in Afghanistan after U.S. and coalition troops depart in three years, although she also made it amply clear that “Afghans have more work to do” to ensure that the billions of dollars they seek are not wasted.
But the reality is that Afghanistan will soon become a minor story for the U.S. as the real story of this century — the rise of China — tests American resolve and resources. It is already clear that in the coming years, the U.S. will shift its diplomatic and military energies to the Indo-Pacific to manage the power transition in the region and to retain its pre-eminent position as an offshore balancer.
As the economic crisis takes its toll on the West, there is little appetite now either in Washington or in Western capitals for the Afghan adventure. The U.S. secretary of state has already underlined “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of the action.”
Therefore, it is not surprising that conflicting messages are emerging from Washington and the West. It is not entirely clear what the deadline of 2014 really means. What kind of force posture the U.S. will have on the ground in Afghanistan is an issue with which all major regional powers are grappling.
The Afghan government certainly would be interested in a longer-term U.S. military presence, but Washington would like to keep a limited presence given its economic constraints and changing priorities. This uncertainty has led to all major players in the region hedging their bets.
Pakistan is the most important player, and its absence at the Bonn conference made sure that nothing of substance came out of it. Pakistan boycotted the conference to express anger over a cross-border U.S. airstrike that killed two dozen of its soldiers late last month, though Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has said that his nation wants to rebuild ties with the U.S. and that “it won’t take long.”
As U.S. and Pakistan recalibrate their ties, other regional players like Iran are trying to make themselves relevant to the larger process. Expressing displeasure over U.S. plans for a military presence in Afghanistan over the longer term, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi suggested that any continued foreign troop deployment would not help Afghan stability.
China underscored the need to respect the sovereignty of regional states, alluding to U.S. raids inside Pakistani territory.
On the other hand, both Afghanistan and India drew attention to the fact that the problem in Afghanistan cannot be resolved without tackling the issue of sanctuaries in Pakistan. Asking the international community not to repeat its past mistakes and “let Afghanistan slip back,” Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna suggested that “there is need for something like a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Afghanistan, involving all major stakeholders.” He exhorted the international community to stay engaged for the long term to eliminate sanctuaries of terror, and outlined New Delhi’s commitment to the reconstruction of the violence-torn country.
It’s not at all clear whether the Bonn Conference achieved anything substantive. Politically it could be termed a failure as neither Pakistan nor the Taliban attended.
A road map for Afghanistan remains contested as major regional stakeholders hold divergent views on how to prevent instability and radicalism in Afghanistan from posing a threat to regional and global security. This does not bode well either for the future of Afghanistan or the region.
Harsh V. Pant is a professor of defense studies at King’s College, London.