The conference might be the last probable chance to rescue Afghanistan
President Barack Obama maintains that his vision for a way out of the Afghan conflict involves a new political settlement in Afghanistan, backed up by an agreement with the regional powers.
He has proclaimed the importance of diplomacy in his discussions about the security transition and the upcoming 2nd Bonn Conference with President Hamid Karzai.
The persistence of insurgent violence across the country in recent months seems to have convinced the US and its allies that there is little prospect of a clean defeat of the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies. But does this mean that the world must now contemplate the prospect of their restoration? If the Bonn process, that saw the replacement of the Taliban regime with an elected government in Afghanistan, disintegrates into another round of civil war, the symbols of the western presence will indeed be consigned to the flames.
The prospect of this kind of collapse have become real because the Karzai government persists on a suicidal course of alienating its allies, while the armed Taliban gain in strength, and the western powers tire of the counter- insurgency effort.
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 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) countries seem powerless to do anything in the face of the political and security meltdown, Afghanistan's neighbors draw their own conclusions and prepare a new strategy of support to Afghan proxies. This is ominous.
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-legitimize themselves, while never actually committing to cease violence.
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 a part of this process. The Afghan National Army looks solid enough today. But if the political order were to collapse into rival factions, the army could melt away.
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 a historic day for Afghans in which the various Afghan factions under the supervision of the international community gathered around a table and reached an agreement on how to maintain peace and work for a better future.
The only Afghan group kept out deliberately was the Taliban, the defeated power.
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 compatriot's 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 per cent 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 deaths 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 tragedies 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 the 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 taxpayers 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 Central Highlands. There are ways to fix the Afghan administrative system by decentralizing authority to the country's regions.
May be 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 establishment 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 a 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 the administration for example.