President Obama has reaffirmed that his vision for a way out of the Afghan conflict involves a new political settlement in Afghanistan backed up by agreement with the regional powers. This is the line he took while briefing his political and security chiefs on Thursday August 11. The next day he continued to proclaim the importance of diplomacy while talking to President Karzai about the security transition and the upcoming 2nd Bonn conference.
The persistence of insurgent violence across the country in recent months seems to have convinced the US and allies that there is little prospect of a clean defeat of the Taliban and their Al Qaida allies.
The regional environment also dampens hope of any solution to Afghanistan's Taliban problem. The movement still seems to enjoy safe haven arrangements and adequate assistance to fight on. But if the Taliban cannot be eradicated, does this mean that the world now must contemplate the prospect of their restoration?
Afghanistan during the 1990's experienced a bloody civil war. This was the period when the country was torn apart by power struggles and ethnic rivalry. It was during this factional conflict that so much of the capital was leveled. There is a very real prospect of re-ignition of the civil war if Afghanistan's leaders and the country's international allies fail in their management the current conflict and political crisis.
A return to street fighting in Kabul, after a decade of international intervention, would be disastrous for the people of Afghanistan and for the reputation of the United States. What will remain of America's standing in the word if we are forced to watch Al Jazeera footage of flames engulfing the US embassy? This much we can be sure of – if the Bonn Process disintegrates into another round of civil war, the symbols of the western presence will indeed be consigned to the flames. This kind of collapse has become a real prospect because the Karzai government persists in a suicidal course of alienating its allies, while the armed Taliban gain in strength and the western powers tire of the counter-insurgency effort.
Afghans understood that the mission for ISAF and the old Operation Enduring Freedom over the past ten years has been threefold. Firstly they were to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorists. Secondly they were to help provide security for Afghans. Thirdly they were to help set the conditions for Afghans to work gradually towards a better future. All three parts of the mission are in doubt. The fighting Taliban have returned with a vengeance, their alliance with international terrorism and Al Qaida intact. Security for Afghans is deteriorating around the country. Afghans have put on hold hopes of a better future and have reverted to the struggle to survive. For those in power this means grabbing resources and getting foreign papers for the family. For the poor survival strategies involve currying favour with both Taliban and government forces as an insurance against the depredations of both sides.
Instead of rallying democratic forces to defend the Bonn process against the resurgence of Taliban militancy, the Kabul government seems intent, as ever, on crushing parliament, fomenting discord and scheming against imagined critics. As ISAF countries seem powerless to do anything in the face of the political and security meltdown, Afghanistan's neighbours draw their own conclusions and prepare a new strategy of support to Afghan proxies. This is ominous.
The 31 American soldiers killed in a downed helicopter on August 6th reminded us of the scale of the sacrifice the United States continues to make in Afghanistan. But after investing so much blood it is surely inconceivable that the US could contemplate giving up and abandoning Afghanistan to a new generation of international terrorists. The European countries, even more under pressure at home, may be looking longingly at the exits. But NATO, the security alliance which binds the US and Europe, would be left with its reputation in tatters if it were to wind down its UN Security Council sanctioned mission, without credible arrangements to avert the new civil war.
It is right to alert all and sundry to the very real prospect of mission failure and the collapse of the Bonn order. But it is also important to point out that not all is yet lost. With 48 flags still flying over ISAF headquarters and with Afghans on all sides appalled at the prospect they might be pushed back into internecine conflict, there is a last chance to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban armed campaign.
During 2011 there have been tentative moves towards dialogue between the US and the Taliban and the Afghan Government has long signaled its desire to talk to just about anyone fighting against it. This political engagement has to be handled with care, to guard against the possibility of the Taliban using talks to re-legitimise themselves, while never actually committing to cease violence. While the future of the nation depends on how we frame the reconciliation offer and deal with the Taliban, the national leadership has allowed the Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Programme (APRP) and the High Peace Council to become money spinning ventures. Those heading our peace bodies use them to enrich themselves and supporters and pay little attention to the task of assisting those really exiting the conflict.
The Karzai government's addiction to underhand dealing and fake
processes has led the political elements of Afghanistan's non Pashtun ethnic groups to conclude that, in Karzai's hands, the whole reconciliation process, including the High Peace Council, is simply a grand scheme to Pashtunise Afghanistan. Therefore the old allies from the days of the resistance to the Taliban have established a political alliance which is due to be announced after Eid, in early September.
Until now Afghans who have worked for the success of the Bonn process have understood the presence of ISAF as a guarantee against the resurgence of the Taliban.
The build-up of Afghan security forces is supposed be part of this process, guaranteeing that no one can over throw the Kabul order. But the certainties built up over the past ten years are starting to be stripped away. The Afghan National Army looks solid enough today. But if the political order were to collapse into rival factions, the army could melt away like so many other armies facing ethnic and factional polarization.
Of course the Army is not the only institution to have emerged during the past decade. Civil society and the media have thrived in the years after Bonn. They too know that their survival would be threatened by a new civil war and they are already lining up to help forestall it.
2nd Bonn Conference
The best chance for the international community to get back on course in Afghanistan is the upcoming Bonn Conference. Our achievements in building a political system over the past ten years all date back to the first Bonn Conference ten years back on December 05, 2001. It was an historic day for Afghans, a dawn of hope, in which the various Afghan factions under the supervision of the international Community gathered around a table and reached an agreement on how to live next to each other, maintain peace and work for a better and prosperous future. The only Afghan group kept out deliberately was the Taliban, as they were the defeated power. They were punished for having been the de facto regime which had accommodated al Qaeda on Afghan Soil, thus facilitating terror outrage against the twin towers of New York on 9/11.
But there was no equivalent excuse for the failure at Bonn to incorporate an understanding of the diverse nature of Afghan society in the political arrangements the conference put in place. A country deeply divided on ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional lines needed an administration which takes this diversity into account. Instead the team which negotiated Bonn drew upon the failed 1964 constitution to lay the grounds for restoration of unworkable centralization and winner-takes all ethnic competition.
The doomed attempt to put in place overly centralized institutions encouraged some of our compatriots' foolish dreams that a single ethnic group could dominate power. These dreamers have kept cheating the whole world community for the last ten years. They successfully maintained the Taliban as an ethnic war machine and cynically exploited the hopes of peace to disarm all those Afghan forces who had stood against the Taliban. The International Community has long been deaf to the warnings of the Afghan intellectuals and thinkers about where this process was leading.
The controversial presidential election in 2009 was the moment when, for all who cared to look, it was clear that the Bonn order had failed. From this point on NATO found itself propping up a dysfunctional administration which governed without the consent of its population and in defiance of the aspiration of most of the country's ethnic groups. The cost of keeping this mediocre band of hucksters in power has mounted. In the past year we have seen a 120% rise in IED (improvised Explosive Device) attacks.
The 2010 tally of 14661 blasts is truly mind-boggling. ISAF casualties have risen inexorably, with 2583 lives lost to date. No one knows the true toll of Afghan dead but by now it is in the tens of thousands, as Taliban kill members of the Afghan National Security Forces and civilians alike. The intensifying conflict is forcing another generation of Afghans to abandon their homes, whether fleeing from countryside to town or abandoning the country entirely. The government installed at Bonn was not meant to preside over this re-enactment of some of the worst of recent Afghan history. Do not be fooled by those who try to seduce us by highly questionable statistics for education or health coverage.
A glance at ground reality shows that the collapse in security has reversed the precious gains achieved since Bonn. Of course at every possible opportunity the Karzai government blames the US and allies for anything that goes wrong. But western tax payers will not buy this story and increasingly want to know where the money went. As we reflect on the outcome of the ten year effort, we find growing insecurity, bad governance, a corrupt judiciary, official corruption, sabotage of political institutions such as parliament, inexperienced security organs, sluggish pace of economic development, lethargic rebuilding process and stalled political process.
If there is one more chance it is that Afghans will help the international community correctly diagnose the problem, so that at Bonn they can pledge to aid real political reform.
The best way to use the 2nd Bonn Conference would be to conduct an honest evaluation of which parts of the original Bonn package simply did not work. Such an appraisal would put the centralized administrative system under the microscope. It would find that a conspiracy-prone presidential palace in Kabul was simply not the right venue for deciding how health and education are delivered in villages north of the Hindukush and the central highlands. There are ways to fix the Afghan administrative system by decentralizing authority to the country's regions. Maybe at Bonn 2 Afghanistan's allies will finally agree to support the shift to a system which works.
But if Bonn 2 is to even hear the plea for a decentralized approach the host will have to open up the participation in the conference to reflect current Afghan reality. It simply will not work if the presidential palace gets to initial all the invitations. The Arg no longer speaks for all those Afghans who have sacrificed to make the Bonn process work.
We now have a vibrant opposition which is rightly critical of the way the palace has exploited excess centralization for a power-grab. Including a couple of token Talibs in the delegation, to represent its reconciliation work, will not redeem this administration. There has to be proper structured participation of the lawful opposition. The conference has the best chance to succeed if strong Afghan political parties, civil society groups, women and the vibrant Afghan media can share their views and vision with world leaders. It is time to listen to Afghans with different ideas for better future.
The best way of ensuring that the conference makes a solid contribution is to get the opposition there en masse. This will make for a lively event, challenging the Afghan administration on its strategy. Far better the Afghan administration answer for itself on the conference floor than on the battlefield. Let us hope that the conference mandates some serious work - to decentralize administration for example.