The Bonn II Conference, held on December 5, 2011, marks the beginning of a process to explore prospects of sustained international engagement in Afghanistan as Western forces drawdown in the next three years. To be more specific, it was an attempt to forge a consensus among reluctant Western countries on the need to remain engaged in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region well beyond 2014. Alternatively, it could also be seen as a façade of continuing Western commitment as prospects of Afghanistan slipping into an open civil war, or greater chaos and anarchy, following Western withdrawal looms large over the wider Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The idea could also have been to temper down the pervasive sense of anxiety and uncertainty over the future of Afghanistan as the West grapples with its own exigencies and policy conundrums.
Around 1,000 delegates from nearly 85 countries and 15 international organisations/regional groupings were said to have participated in the conference. Representation from key Asian regional groupings, especially the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Beijing-centred Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), was notable. The conference was held amidst low expectations and with virtually no participation from Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. It was also held at a time when tempers in the US-Pakistan and US-Iran relations are apparently running high. The conference concluded, and rightly so, without raising much expectations over the future Western strategy. Nevertheless, the outcome of Bonn II made it somewhat clear that at least there is an evolving discourse and a fleeting sense of realisation in Western capitals that Afghanistan cannot simply be abandoned once again as was done in the 1990s.
The theme of the conference suggested that there were basically two major components to it – Transition (of greater security and political responsibilities to the Afghan Government by 2014) followed by a Decade of Transformation (aided by international support from 2015-24). No joint statement was issued; instead, Conference Conclusions were released stating that the “role of international actors will evolve further from direct service delivery to support and capacity‐building for Afghan institutions, enabling the Government of Afghanistan to exercise its sovereign authority in all its functions.” The Conference Conclusions delved on the following issues: Governance, Security, Peace Process, Economic & Social Development, Regional Cooperation, and the Way Forward. Quite expectedly, the thrust of the speeches made therein and the Conference Conclusions was notably high on the process of Transition and low on the said Decade of Transformation.
To further push for transition by way of transferring responsibilities to the Afghan Government, “the phasing out of all Provincial Reconstruction Teams, as well as the dissolution of any structures duplicating the functions and authority of the Afghan Government at the national and sub‐national levels” was stressed. The mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was also said to be “currently under review consistent with the process of Transition that entails the assumption of leadership responsibility by the Afghan Government.”
As for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), it was stated that “the international community strongly commits to support their training and equipping, financing and development of capabilities beyond the end of the Transition period.” The plan for continued assistance to the ANSF is expected to be discussed during the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012. Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly stated that about $10 billion worth of international assistance would be required annually until 2025 in the post-Transition period to sustain the ANSF.
Interestingly, the Conference Conclusions clearly identified terrorism as the main threat to Afghanistan and recognised “the regional dimensions of terrorism and extremism, including terrorist safe havens.” Though counter-narcotics have been largely external to the US-led war in Afghanistan, reference was made to the need for crop eradication, interdiction and promoting alternative agriculture.
As for the peace process aimed at reconciliation with armed Afghan insurgent groups, the conference “stressed the need for a political solution.” It was stated that “a political process is necessary, of which negotiation and reconciliation are necessary elements.” The idea of an Afghan-led and owned peace process was reiterated. The conditions attached for reconciliation with insurgents, as defined during the London Conference in January 2010, the Kabul Conference in July 2010, and the Istanbul Conference in November 2011, were again emphasised.
With regard to the economic revival of Afghanistan, it was stated that the conference “welcomes the Afghan Government’s economic Transition strategy as elaborated in the document Towards a Self Sustaining Afghanistan.” The forthcoming Tokyo international conference on Afghanistan in July 2012 is expected to address the issue of coordination of international economic assistance through the Transition period. Emphasising upon the need to develop Afghanistan’s productive sectors, notably agriculture and mining, the Conference Conclusions stated that “the international community commits to supporting the development of an export-oriented agriculture-based economy.”
On the issue of regional cooperation, it was stated that the forthcoming Kabul international conference in June 2012 is expected to augment prospects of regional cooperation in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. Reference was also made to trans-national energy projects, such as the TAPI gas pipeline, CASA-1000 power transmission project, and railways and other projects. The forthcoming 5th Regional Economic Construction Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) would be hosted by Tajikistan in Dushanbe in March 2012.
The Conference Conclusions did not have much to offer when it came to the Decade of Transformation except for repeatedly reiterating the so-called international community’s commitment towards the stabilisation of Afghanistan in the post-Transition period. Most of the regional countries largely ended up reiterating their known positions and failed to take a long-term view of the future challenges in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. The Indian foreign minister, however, emphasised the need to develop something like a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan to deal with what he termed as transition ‘recession’ whereby international attention and aid would begin to decline as countries begin to pull out troops.
Interestingly, the Afghan Foreign Minister, Zalmay Rassoul, in his address, referred to the prospect of Afghanistan reaching strategic partnership agreements with the US, UK, France, Australia, EU, NATO and others. Bonn II may not have laid out a concrete road map defining the nature and level of the international role beyond 2014; but it certainly can be seen as a cautious step forward at a time when anxiety over the possible fallout of the withdrawal of much of Western forces from Afghanistan is apparently rising. The Bonn II exercise has to be seen as part of a series of conferences lined up for next year in an effort to evolve an international framework to deal with post-withdrawal uncertainties in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
The so-called Transition may not effectively mean the end of the American political, diplomatic and military role in the region. That America will continue to be a dominant factor in the region well after 2014 is no more a matter of conjecture. Elements of NATO too are likely to remain engaged in various capacities, even as the mandate for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ends. Much would also depend on the outcome of the American presidential elections next year and whether elections are held in Afghanistan in 2014 when President Karzai’s second and final term comes to an end.
The consequences of any disproportionate or precipitate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and the costs of a possible re-intervention in future, cannot be completely lost on the American and NATO civilian and military leadership. Developments prior to 2014 could be as significant as after the perceived withdrawal of Western forces. Only time would tell whether Bonn II was a diplomatic exercise in vain or an exercise in realpolitik in terms of the long-term interests of a superpower. As for now, it would be premature to declare the end of the American, and Western, intervention in the region.