Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

AAN Live: Reading between the lines of Bonn 2

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

The Bonn 2 conference was huge – with 100 delegations, it was quantitatively the biggest ever on Afghanistan. Yet expectations had grown progressively more limited over the past few months and the speeches, this morning, from the main protagonists delivered few surprises. President Karzai was particularly bland, repeating again his ‘continued’ commitment to fighting corruption more effectively, reform Afghan institutions and enforce the rule of law.* This followed some days and night of haggling over the final statement. Civil society representatives laid bare just how far practice in all these things lags behind rhetoric – and their speeches, at least, were strong and compelling, reports AAN’s Thomas Ruttig from Bonn.

So much appeared to be possible to Germany when it first offered to host this conference, – a possible breakthrough with peace and the Taleban, stronger regional cooperation. Yet, in the run-up to Bonn 2, events conspired to leach away much of the planned substance of the conference. Leaks from Kabul about Western contacts with the Taleban (when Germany and later the US talked to Mulla Omar’s confidant Tayyeb Agha, without informing President Karzai – that’s at least what he claimed), the assassination of ex-President Rabbani by unknown assailants and the US insistence on simultaneously talking and fighting (and building) deflated hopes that enough progress would be made on the ‘peace process’ to make it an exciting conference topic. For a while, there was even the hope that the Taleban would attend or, at least, send a message that they are ready to explore a political solution.
The same goes for stronger regional cooperation. Hopes of steps towards confidence-building and assurances of mutual non-interference were dashed by Pakistan, Iran and Russia already vetoing any new regional mechanism at the Istanbul conference in early November and China joined in here in Bonn in emphasising that existing mechanisms should be used. The latest Pakistani-US border incident at the Durand Line (see our blog on this here) and the ‘loss’ of a US drone in Iranian territory on Sunday have further complicated this part of the equation. Most importantly, Pakistan chose not to attend the conference and rejected last-minute German attempts to convince it to come after all.

Before the conference started, Germany’s special AfPak envoy, Michael Steiner, had tried to save face by insisting that Pakistan had already contributed to the Istanbul meeting last month, so its absence in Bonn ‘does not change the outcome [… and] doesn’t affect a single comma’ (read the full article here). It is true that Pakistan’s participation would probably have not changed much, but at conferences like these, symbolism is important. It is one of the most important countries in the Afghan equation. Its absence also – hopefully – shows governments that things are much more complicated then they want to make everyone believe with their statements about progress made and challenges soon to be overcome.

The same smoke screen element was used to discuss why talking to the Taleban is so difficult – because their ‘address’ is not known. Karzai said this again in his Spiegel interview. It is, of course, pure rhetoric. The addresses of Taleban leaders are well-known, at least to the ISI, as the quick round-up of them after Mulla Baradar’s arrest in early 2009 showed. It is just that Pakistan stands in front of the doorbell and does not allow anyone else to ring.

China’s proposal to go through regional mechanisms is possibly a good idea, in this context. Currently, it has more influence in Islamabad than Washington. And it could contribute to making the Afghanistan mission that has become a NATO-led one, international one again. On the other hand, a gain of political weight of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member-states might not bode well for the defence of human rights and other freedoms in a future Afghanistan.

Really, one had to start to read pretty well between the lines in order to find something exciting from the morning, but slight differences of approach towards the direction of the international strategy did become apparent. German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, emphasised rather clearly: ‘We have learnt that there is no military solution. There can be only a political solution’ in Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton, unmoved by this, however reiterated the ‘fight, talk, and build’ line. It is the US, of course, who remain the decisive factor in Afghanistan.**

Karzai stated that, although the peace efforts had suffered ‘a grave setback’ with the killing of Rabbani, the recent Traditional Loya Jirga gave him the mandate ‘to pursue our peace efforts’, including with Pakistan. The head of the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Programme (APRP) secretariat, Massum Stanakzai who entered the podium on crutches, still suffering from the injuries sustained in the bomb attack which killed Rabbani, reiterated that the APRP is still the basis of work and that the HPC will focus on activities on the provincial level and with ulema from the Islamic world who should be mobilised to, as he put it, ‘change the culture of war’ in his country and encourage greater efforts towards dialogue.

Chancellor Angela Merkel also made an interesting nuance: She defined ‘the political process’ as ‘reconciliation’ and ‘power distribution [not ‘power sharing’!] that includes all social and ethnic groups’ directly with the fight against corruption, the drug industry and for an improvement of people’s lives – ie to the internal factors that contribute to the insurgency and which are so often ignored by Afghans.

Another noticeable disagreement occurred between Karzai and Clinton. The Afghan President followed his usual line, indirectly accusing the international community for meddling into the elections. He said he wants to ‘reform and Afghanize the election process [in order to] ‘insulate it from fraud and interference’. Incidentally, the letter of his government to the UN demanding a UNAMA mandate is still on the table which, among other issues, includes Kabul’s wish to completely eliminate the UN’s role in elections. Clinton, however, demanded ‘democratic institutions’ and a ‘robust electoral process’, made further financial commitments conditional on reforms and emphasised mutual accountability. The issue of electoral reform reportedly was one of the controversies that held up the drafting of the final statement.

The other issue was the concrete financial commitments the Afghan delegation wished for and the donor governments were not ready – or able (for legal reasons and due to the worldwide financial crises) – to give right now; Secretary Clinton pointed to international ‘budget constraints’. Karzai had suggested concrete sums in an interview with the latest issue of German magazine Spiegel a transition ‘dividend’: if the US, for example, reduced its troop numbers to 20,000 from 2014 onwards, it would probably save US$ 100 billion – ‘five per cent of that sum, ie five billion dollars for aid projects, would be absolutely sufficient for us.’ Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal quoted a World Bank study the day before the conference that Afghanistan’s needs would be rather around 7 billion per year (read it here).

Spiegel online (read it here, in German) just reported that there had been intense haggling over the prepared text of the final conference statement. It says that Kabul, knowing that Western governments are eager to get out, tried to eliminate all concrete commitments on its part, only ready to give in if the West reciprocated with financial promises.

By this morning, however, the common line among Afghans and others was: ‘This is not a donor conference.’ But Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai added very clearly that Kabul is looking forward to more concrete commitments at the May 2012 NATO meeting in Chicago, the June follow-up in Kabul to the Istanbul conference and the July 2012 donor conference in Tokyo. (After Bonn 2, there also will be a Tokyo 2.)

The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland already sent a signal here in Bonn, by announcing that they would increase their development and humanitarian aid (as the UK has also promised). Both countries cannot compete, of course, with the US and will not compensate the loss of the already dropping USAID budget, from 4.5 billion dollars in 2010 to 2.5 in 2011, set to fall still further to around one million in 2014. But large sums alone do not automatically mean high-quality work, and the effectiveness of aid is also at stake, including that of the large amount of USAID funding that goes through the US military. So one can only hope that Stockholm and Helsinki – together with the UK and the EU that also want to keep the current level – is the start of a ‘coalition of the willing’ that will be joined by other countries reversing the expected downward trend in aid.

The UN’s Ban Ki Moon put it differently: he said that his organisation was there ‘well before 2001, and will be there well beyond 2014’. He also introduced the new SRSG Jan Kubis from Slovakia who soon will replace outgoing Staffan de Mistura.

Finally, last but not least (and only because we have reported from their two-day conference on 2-3 December already), the statements from the two Afghan civil society representatives were extremely strong. They did not limit themselves – as I had feared for a moment – to politeness and indirect messages. The two who, deservedly, had more time than most foreign ministers, reiterated their message of the days before. Barry Salam said that ‘we have chosen democracy’ and ‘we want peace and reconciliation, but not when it jeopardises our fundamental rights and freedoms. […] Therefore we cannot change our constitution and compromise on our democratic rights’, Barry Salam stated. ‘We need a government that rules by law but not by the power of individuals’. His demand for the full inclusion of civil society in key decision-making processes could have been more direct, but should not be overlooked just because of this.

His female colleague, Selay Ghaffar, strongly advocated an ‘end [to] the prevailing culture of impunity’ and for transitional justice. She made clear that Afghanistan’s problems do not only lie in the Taleban or al-Qaida. She said that, ‘in the current system, there are elements in power who committed war crimes [and] need to be brought to justice. […] Giving a ministry to those who committed rapes and war crimes is like committing these crimes again.’ This is the strongest message of the day, and an explanation of the current quagmire which is not only military, but also moral. It is a message that Western governments probably still don’t want to hear.

* You can find his full speech here.

Incidentally, the Guardian reported yesterday that Drago Kos, head of the independent anti-corruption monitoring and evaluation committee that was created this year largely at the prompting of the US and British governments, has threatened to step down in protest if Karzai’s government does not start prosecuting senior officials. He severely criticised the two Afghan institutions in charge of tackling corruption: the attorney general’s office and the high office of oversight (HOO). ‘We are not satisfied with their work. If they take the lead, there will be impunity. Nobody is ever brought to court. There are no prosecutions. Cases just stop at the HOO or the police or the attorney general’s office. Orally, they support our work, but nothing is done,’ said Kos., but Kos said so far there had been no prosecutions of top Afghan figures implicated in corruption (read full article here).

** Apart from Westerwelle’s speech, all following quotes are as I took them down while listening to them. Some might not be fully accurate, and may be updated as the official transcripts become available.


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