The author, Francesc Vendrell served in Afghanistan as both the Personal Representative the UN Secretary-General and the EU Special Representative. He looks back on the past decade, describing the pre-Bonn attempts at a political settlement, the first Bonn conference and the opportunities that were missed since then.
Prolonged conflicts are particularly difficult to resolve, often depending on the opening of a window of opportunity that must be seized before it closes again. Afghanistan has been mired in conflict for the past 32 years, and warring parties, foreign intervention, and imbalances of power among different groups have made finding a negotiated solution to this series of wars difficult to achieve.
One opportunity was missed in 1989 when, following the Soviet withdrawal, the United States and Pakistan did not pursue the possibility of reaching a settlement between then-President Najibullah and the anti-Soviet mujahideen. When in early 2000 I was appointed the U.N. Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for Afghanistan, the Taliban regime was in control of over 90 percent of the country and, despite their diplomatic isolation, had little incentive to seek a political accommodation with Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose Northern Alliance (NA) was confined to the country’s extreme northeast.
In an effort to somehow redress the balance between the parties I undertook a series of discreet diplomatic initiatives, one designed to bring about a consensus on Afghanistan’s future among Pakistan, Iran, Russia and the United States, and another with the aim of achieving an approximation between the supporters of the former King Zahir Shah, who retained wide support across the country, some smaller exiled groups, and Massoud’s Shura-e Nazar. These initiatives seemed to be making progress following the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, while the attack on the USS Cole a few months earlier in Yemen and the increased visibility of Arabs in Afghanistan had led some of us to conclude that another attack by al-Qaeda against U.S. interests would likely bring closer American involvement in Afghanistan’s current internal conflict.
The attack against the World Trade Center opened a much wider window of opportunity than we could have ever expected, but it was one which my colleagues in the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA) and I felt had to be quickly seized. We therefore urged UN Headquarters that the exchanges between the King’s followers and the Northern Alliance (where a leadership vacuum had arisen following Massoud’s assassination on 9 September) should be accelerated leading to the convening of a formal meeting, similar to the one held in Bonn two months later, that would agree to the establishment of an interim authority which would inherit the seat in the UN hitherto occupied by the Islamic State of Afghanistan, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani. Such an authority would have requested that the Security Council authorize the early dispatch of a multinational force to those areas of Afghanistan vacated by the Taliban, as the subsequent conference at Bonn eventually did.
The urgency for the meeting lay in our fear that, with the United States having decided against the introduction of large numbers of ground forces, another set of “faits accomplis” would be established, this time by the Northern Alliance replacing the Taliban, before a political agreement could be reached. But UN Headquarters (and, presumably, Washington) felt that nothing should be done at the time, nor was a subsequent suggestion of mine taken up under which the Security Council would have stated that conquest of territory by military force was not to be an acceptable basis for a future distribution of power in Afghanistan.
Once the US air campaign began in early October, the Taliban were ousted in quick succession from most of Afghanistan’s cities with the result that, when the conference was finally convened in Bonn on 25 November, a new asymmetry was in place — this time favoring the Northern Alliance. The participating delegations, representing the Northern Alliance (and its various factions within it), the supporters of the ex-King and two smaller delegations, met not to reach a peace settlement (the Taliban were considered defeated and in, the case of the United States, at least, beyond the pale, through their association with Osama bin Laden), but to agree on a road map consisting of various stages that would culminate with the holding of general elections in the country targeted for mid-June 2004. In the meantime new national security forces and rule of law institutions would be created, human rights monitored, and reconstruction begun in earnest.
However, given the correlation of forces and in the absence of any countervailing American pressure, the Northern Alliance ended up with the plum jobs in the new dispensation, starting with the ministries of defence and interior. Although the position of President of the Interim Authority was reserved for a Pashtun member of the ex-King’s circle, Hamid Karzai, he lacked any military forces of his own, while during the six weeks preceding his installation, the Northern Alliance commanders had taken for themselves the positions of governor and chief of police in most of the country’s provinces. These, as anyone with a minimum knowledge of recent Afghan history knew, were the very people who had destroyed Kabul in the early nineties and whose rapaciousness and ill governance had facilitated the Taliban take-over in 1996.
But while the window of opportunity was narrowing, it had not yet closed. The participants in Bonn pledged to withdraw all military units from Kabul and from other areas in which the UN-mandated forces were deployed and to carry out a process of Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR). But three things happened.
First the Security Council, at the United States’ request, limited the mandate of the International Assistance Force (ISAF) to Kabul at a time when many Western countries would have been ready to provide a larger number of their military forces. Second, no serious effort was made by the United States to force the Northern Alliance to withdraw promptly from Kabul, let alone from other areas. And thirdly, the U.S. government continued its financial and military support to the warlords, while informing Karzai that, were he to encounter resistance in trying to remove them from their positions, he would be on his own, since the United States would not intervene to prevent “green on green” conflict. As for DDR, it became a tragic-comic affair in which the Northern Alliance forces handed their oldest weapon to the Ministry of Defense, at the time headed by none other than Marshal Fahim, the most powerful of the NA warlords.
There remained a hope that the Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ), held in June 2002 (held following my departure as UN envoy but before my appointment as the European Union’s Special Representative to Afghanistan), might be able to set the country on a different course. Thanks to strenuous efforts by some devoted UN and Afghan officials, the ELJ was probably the most representative of any of the Jirgas, or traditional assemblies, convened in Afghanistan. However, its democratic nature was subverted when the senior Jihadist leaders (such as Marshal Mohamed Fahim, Burhannudin Rabbani, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, General Rashid Dostum, Ismael Khan, and others) who were not members of the ELJ arrived at its opening and demanded admission.
Not only were they were allowed in, but they were seated on the front row of the assembly, a none-too-subtle message that they would play a deciding role in its deliberations — which they proceeded to do mindless of the established rules of procedure for the meeting. In addition, the US special envoy, arguing opposition by some warlords, prevailed on former King Zahir Shah, who had opened the Jirga after returning from his Rome exile and who appeared to have the support of around two-thirds of the delegates, to announce that he was neither a candidate nor would he accept being elected to the presidency of the new Transitional Government.
So by mid-2002 the course was largely set. Bad governance, large-scale corruption and impunity became the order of the day. Afghans, who had mostly welcomed the international intervention, became increasingly cynical about its motives and alienated from the new regime which, by and large, had no clear policy nor did it seem to offer an appealing alternative to the Taliban. These feelings were even more pronounced among the Pashtuns, the largest minority in the country and long accustomed to ruling Afghanistan, who perceived themselves as the losers in the new order.
By 2005, the window of opportunity was closing. Western attention had been diverted to Iraq, and fears of a debacle there fed a correspondingly growing appetite for good news from Afghanistan, something that many diplomats, not to mention the military, were only too ready to supply. The Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG), the successor program to the failed DDR, met with the same US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) inertia, and these factors combined with an extraordinary blindness to Pakistani support to the Taliban led to the international community being taken by surprise by the Taliban resurgence in the summer of 2006. The failure to combine a massively increased international presence with a political strategy based on improved governance, anti-corruption measures and an improved justice system meant that the window still ajar in 2008 had closed, perhaps for good, on the eve of Monday’s opening of another conference on Afghanistan at Bonn. It seems unlikely that the participants will seek to pry the window of opportunity open again.
Francesc Vendrell served as the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan between 2000 and 2002 and as the EU Special Representative between 2002 and 2008. He chairs AAN Advisory Board.
This blog originally appeared here on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel.
Francesc Vendrell, served in Afghanistan as both the Personal Representative the UN Secretary-General and the EU Special Representative. He looks back on the past decade, describing the pre-Bonn attempts at a political settlement, the first Bonn conference and the opportunities that were missed since then.
This article was last updated on 5 Dec 2022