By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
With empty chairs for both Pakistan and the Taliban, two major stakeholders in Afghanistan's future stability, the much-anticipated Bonn II conference in Germany might as well be called Bonn 0.
For sure the two-day conference that began on Monday and wrapped day one with a communique promising sustained international support for the war-ravaged, ethnically fragmented country that has been under foreign troop occupation for the past 10 years, was impressive in terms of the number of delegates (over 1,000) from some 110 nations and international organizations.
But, if the conference's agenda was to make a serious dent in terms of political reconciliation, the linchpin of security in Afghanistan led by a corruption-plagued government and challenged by a dogged insurgency, then there is no doubt that this conference has already been a failure. Henceforth, it should not be remembered as Bonn II in reference to the 2001 Bonn summit that laid the foundation for the present governmental structure in Afghanistan.
To achieve the status of a worthy follow-up conference, this week's conference under the banner of "From Transition to Transformation" required a minimum breakthrough on the thorny question of political inclusion of the Taliban, who boycotted the conference, along with Pakistan, which is still angry over the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attack on its military outposts at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed.
Not even a belated apology by United States President Barack Obama to Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari over the weekend sufficed to change Islamabad's mind, which is full of misgivings about India's increasingly high-profile presence in Afghanistan.
In his speech at the conference, India's Foreign Minister S M Krishna stated that India had already committed US$2 billion in aid to Afghanistan and would strive to make even bigger assistance in the future, calling for a "Marshal Plan-like" international program for Afghanistan. This is in light of a recent World Bank warning of Afghan economic collapse if outside assistance dries up in parallel with the gradual drawdown of foreign troops tied to the final pullout date of 2014.
This may be wishful thinking, however, since even USAID, the US development agency involved in Afghanistan, has seen its budget slashed in half since last year, and the crisis of the eurozone puts a premium on the scope of funds that the European Union is able to earmark for Afghanistan.
Nor is India's greater role in economic build-up of Afghanistan necessarily in tandem with Kabul's security deficit, given the intense Pakistani suspicion of New Delhi's intentions.
Concerning the latter, a Pakistani observer has written:
It is now an open secret that Afghan-Indian authorities have started work on 12 small and medium-size hydro-power projects on the Kabul River on India’s behest, without inking any treaty over water rights with Pakistan. This could lead to a water scarcity .... in the vast area of cultivated land in the surroundings of the Kabul River, including Nowshera. Other regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province [in Pakistan] along with the river could turn barren ... India is busy building dams on all rivers flowing into Pakistan from occupied Kashmir to regain control of the water of the western rivers in violation of the Indus Water Treaty.In other words, the closer the Hamid Karzai government gets to India, Pakistan's arch-rival, the greater the possibility of Afghanistan's future mortgaged to the furnace of the India-Pakistan cold war, with the likely prospect of Islamabad continuing to rely on the Taliban and other insurgents to sow instability in Afghanistan.
Yet, seemingly blind to this issue, the US continues to alienate Pakistan while in effect giving a green light to India to deepen its multifarious presence in Afghanistan.
The naive Western assumption that economic and security steps to help Afghanistan are complementary is untenable and ignores that, from Pakistan's stand point, unchecked Indian influence in Afghanistan creates national security costs for Pakistan that could be avoided only by doing what it can to counter its rival's "sphere of influence".
The conference's declaration of international support for Afghanistan after 2014 may have sounded upbeat, but it can hardly beat the growing cynicism that a short-term security syndrome is on the rise.
Thus the utopian faith behind the recent pre-summit statement of the Council of the European Union (November 14) that paints a rosy picture: "After 2014, a fully sovereign Afghanistan will exercise complete responsibility for its own security." The more likely scenario, raised by Karzai in his opening speech on Monday, is Afghanistan's lapse back to the pre-2001 era if Western resolve to keep the status quo weakens. That is putting too much faith in a much-weakened West.
From transition to transfiguration, that is a more apt description of where fragile Afghanistan is heading, with intense regional rivalries, exhausted foreign donors, internal corruption and feuds and a sustained insurgency plaguing the country with violence and fear.
A creative regional approach is still missing in the various international summitry on Afghanistan, despite Pakistan's and Iran's common call for greater role for the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in Afghanistan's economic development, partly because the US and NATO are wary of undue Iranian involvement directly or through such multilateral regional frameworks.
With respect to Iran, which chose to send a high-level delegation headed by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, the Bonn conference provides an opportunity for Tehran to weigh in on the conference's agenda, with Salehi giving priority in his speech to the need for a complete foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, warning the US to forego any desire to build long-term military bases, something that is definitely on the US military's agenda.
So far, the US has balked at giving a straight answer, for example to Pakistan at the recent Afghan meeting in Istanbul on the issue of the US's intentions to maintain bases in Afghanistan after 2014. Yet all information from the US military suggests that plans are already underway to maintain some combination of soldiers/trainers in US bases after 2014.
The utility of such bases would not be limited to Afghanistan and they could act as forward bases vis-a-vis Iran as well as China, in other words have a broader geostrategic significance that transcends Afghanistan.
With respect to Iran, which claimed it had downed a precious US drone the day before the Bonn summit began, the news gave Iran's presence at the conference a much-needed extra profile, reflected in the host Germany's expression of gratitude for Salehi's presence, which came about despite some reservations in Tehran.
The mere presence of both Salehi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton under one roof is deemed significant by some Iran experts who believe that US and Iran have more in common on Afghanistan than the US has with Pakistan, India or for that matter any regional country.
This may be stretching it a bit, yet it is a foregone conclusion that Iran in the past decade has benefited from the tranquility of its porous borders with Afghanistan, much as it has been rattled by the burgeoning narcotics traffic. Perhaps Tehran and Washington could see beyond their present welter of disputes and realize the importance of opening a new dialogue on regional security issues. .....