Boycotting Bonn: Why It Will Fail

by Joshua Foust on 11/30/2011 · 12 comments

I wrote a piece for The Atlantic about why Pakistan’s boycott has turned an already iffy conference at Bonn into a complete farce:

But the Bonn II conference has met with significant hurdles. Besides Pakistan, Afghanistan’s largest neighbor, no one seems to know if Afghanistan’s other major neighbor, Iran, will participate (I spoke with officials in the State Department, who would neither confirm nor deny Iran’s attendance). U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has told the Taliban they are not welcome to participate either, though German representatives have expressed interest in hosting some Taliban representatives. And Uzbekistan, which the U.S. is counting on as a transit corridor for its withdrawal plans, has been coy about its participation in any international conferences.

So a conference about the future of Afghanistan that is meant to leave a lasting, workable regional framework in place to manage the many diplomatic, economic, and security consequences of an American withdrawal might not include four of the most important participants: Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, or the Taliban. And yet, the other 90 countries that participate hope to accomplish something.

Not exactly earth-shattering, but it needs to be said.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Don Bacon November 30, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Obama, March 27, 2009:
“. . .together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.”

Richard Holbrooke was working on this a year ago.
news report, Oct 18, 2010:
Nearly 50 officials in the international contact group on Afghanistan have discussed progress towards transferring responsibility for security and development to the Afghan government. The one-day meeting in Rome was attended for the first time by a representative from Iran.//

But there are (at least) two problems with this that even the now-deceased Holbrooke was powerless to solve —
1. The ANA is completely incapable of taking security responsibility in Afghanistan.
2. Pakistan and US strategic interests do not coincide in Afghanistan, in fact they conflict.

Will Pakistan’s boycott fail? No. It will favor Pakistan and its Taliban
ally. Time is on their side.

In other news, US Secretary of State Clinton is currently in Myanmar.

TJM November 30, 2011 at 9:27 pm

“Continuing to exclude [the Taliban], when they’ve created the country’s only functioning judicial system and operate at least local government as least as effectively as Karzai’s cronies do…”

This is a minor quibble, but I do not think you can back up that assertion. We can all find reports that draw a contrast between the corruption of many officers of the state judiciary and the often less corrupt shadow courts of the Taliban (for example, Frank Ledwidge, Justice and Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Antonio Giustozzi & Christoph Reuter, The Insurgents of the Afghan North (especially pgs 18-19)). But that is what those assessments are: contrasts. They highlight shortcomings of the GIRoA by documenting instances of the Taliban shadow courts exploiting those shortcomings. They also tend to focus on specific areas where security is lacking.
I am unaware of any thorough examination of the Taliban shadow courts that concludes they are adequately staffed, sufficiently accessible, acceptable to most of inhabitants within their “jurisdiction”, and adequately trained to consistently apply law in a fashion that is predictable, consistent, or acceptable. If anyone is aware of such a report, please let me know. (On the other hand, I recall at least one report of Taliban clerics also taking bribes – albeit smaller bribes – and doling out punishments in which the weaker parties coincidentally seemed to be on the losing end of the decisions, but cannot remember where I read this).
It is a stretch to even refer to Taliban courts as “judicial.” They derive their authority not from judicial competence, but from expediency that waxes and wanes with the security situation. They arguably do not even apply law. They arbitrate according to ad hoc rules that change from situation to situation, rather than from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Additionally, I do not see how one can both claim that the Taliban have established a judicial system and claim that the state has not. If the state were merely held to the standard of the Taliban, then the state has accomplished more. In some districts the Taliban have established dispute resolution tribunals and the state has not, but this is not true in most districts. Most districts in Afghanistan have a Huquq department, a district court, an adequately (not ideally) trained judge, an adequately (not ideally) trained prosecutor, copies of written rules of procedure and written laws, access to appellate review of cases, and the option to use court-connected informal dispute resolution through community based dispute resolution bodies (village councils and district councils).
There are certainly numerous severe problems with the state judicial system (I summarized them here), but the Taliban shadow courts are a far cry from meriting a description as a judicial system and certainly no farther along toward that ideal than the actual judicial system of the state.

Joshua Foust December 1, 2011 at 8:36 am


I was speaking off the cuff, and in a relative sense. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply they were some sort of ideal, just in many cases a better alternative than the state courts.

TJM December 1, 2011 at 10:28 am

Just tying up a loose end from the brief discussion on Twitter.

Mohammed Noori November 30, 2011 at 11:03 pm

None of this matters. The very problem is this notion that a group of theorists disconnected from the reality on the ground will convene in a European nation to decide the fate of a barren, impoverished nation in Central Asia.

To use a hypothetical, imagine you are a villager from Sangin. What’s your view on this conference? You don’t have one, because chances are, you don’t even know how to locate Germany on a map, let alone be aware of the existence of such a conference.

I understand and sympathize with people’s calls for a political solution, but it rests on meaningless buzz phrases like “comprehensive solution” and “political reconciliation”. Yes, I’m sure a long-term strategy will require Pakistan and Iran, but what incentive does Pakistan have to join the negotiation? What’s the carrot? What’s the stick? Why would Pakistan want to play with the US? And even if they did, how much influence do they really have over the rebels? How much influence does Mullah Omar have over the rebels? Will we like them if they join? What would the other Afghan groups think about the Taliban joining in?

So far, I see a negation. We know what we don’t have but we don’t know how to get there, and worse, we don’t know if it will work.

Don Bacon December 1, 2011 at 10:01 am

I sympathize with your disdain for ‘white man’s burden’ thinking by Ameri-European theorists deciding things for the locals, but these Western ‘geniuses’ are already in this fiasco up to their necks and therefore they owe Afghans a sensible exit strategy.

It does appear hopeless that they can fashion anything sensible, which is why Foust is trying to influence them with realities instead of fantasies. Regarding Pakistan, expelling India from Afghanistan with a non-return pledge, and involvement of the Taliban in local/national government, would be incentives for Pakistan to join the negotiation. The US & NATO need to align their strategy with Pakistan security interests. But with Holbrooke gone I don’t see any Western diplomatic capability.

Perhaps they don’t really want to end the endless war. Why should they? There’s so much profit in it.

Junaid Noori December 1, 2011 at 4:54 pm

But these ideas will unearth several other problems we never faced before. India just won’t away from an economic partnership with Afghanistan and nor will the other Afghan political groups allow such a thing to happen.

I appreciate the creativity behind these other solutions but Afghanistan is too fractured of a society to create a solution that would benefit everyone.

Don Bacon December 1, 2011 at 10:10 am

Inexplicably, Holbrooke was excluded from any negotiations with India, Pakistan’s enemy.
from a wikileaked cable:
“He [Holbrooke] reiterated that his portfolio explicitly excludes India, policy for which rests with SCA Blake and Ambassador Roemer.”

Xenophon December 1, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I basically agree with Mohammed Noori: “None of this matters.” It wouldn’t have mattered if Iran, Pakistan, and the Taliban had all attended. There is still no basis for a mutually acceptable resolution of the Afghanistan issue–not remotely. The conference is just so much window dressing as part of the current US policy: Temporizing.

The US knows that there is no workable strategic solution to the Af-Pak quagmire, but it can’t just pull up stakes. To leave now with no access to Central Asia would be–and be seen to be–a huge blow to US strategy and prestige. So the US continues to hang on in its tenuous–and conceptual–Af-Pak-Uz beachhead, hoping that developments elsewhere will allow it to retrieve the situation at some undefined future time. Tactical disasters like the recent shoot-’em-up with the Pak Army further aggravate the strategic environment.

US strategic focus shifted from the Middle East to South/Central Asia with the advent of the Obama administration, but in adherence to the rule of reinforcing success, attention has swung back to the ME. The “Arab Spring” has created targets of opportunity for the US/Israel/Saudi axis. The elimination of Qaddafi has renewed the hope of overthrowing Assad. In conjunction with this gambit, additional sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and the manipulation of Sunni-Shia tensions have been employed in pursuit of the big prize–the devoutly wished-for ouster of the Iranian regime. Such a series of successes would, if realized, relieve the pressure on the US position in South/Central Asia. It’s far from clear that this grandiose design will work, but desperation breeds all sorts of schemes.

This shift of focus from Af/Pak to Iran/ME takes place simultaneously with a renewed aggressive posture in the Western Pacific/East Asia: The new basing agreement with Australia and the transparent attempt to “turn” Myanmar are indicative of the ultimate target of so much of US global strategizing.

As always, the wild card is the tottering global economy. Round and round she goes; where she stops nobody knows.

Uzbek December 1, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I agree with points above and wanted to add that unless things are taken care of in Pakistan, there won’t be peace in Afghanistan. So far Pakistan has been a difficult ally. They also intend to use Taliban for their own purposes and shelter Taliban from NATO attacks.

Moreover, Afghan state is so weak that it will not be able to defend itself when the NATO leaves. From what I have read so far I can say that there is no Afghan identity and people do not associate themselves with Afghanistan but rather with their tribes and ethnic groups. Their loyalty is to their local warlord not to Karzai in Kabul. Karzai’s authority doesn’t expand beyond Kabul if you think about it.

I am also very skeptic about the Afghan Army’s ability and motivation to fight the Taliban. The Afghan soldiers are more likely to drop their weapons and leave the battlefield than to fight the enemy because they don’t have stake in Afghanistan. They think their world is their tribe, the region they live in and the local bosses. It will take many generations to build a viable state in Afghanistan and I am not sure NATO is willing to stay that long.

Don Bacon December 1, 2011 at 7:37 pm

The ANA. Ah, there’s a subject I must mention while Dan Smock is off with his wife. The recent DOD “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” brags on the ANA’s vast size, 170,00 troops. How did it grow so large so fast? The report tells us:

“The ANA has grown dramatically over the past two years and the majority of this force was fielded without receiving any professional training at the branch schools.”

They’ve had no professional training! I guess that’s why their exploits go unreported and why Amlaqullah Patyani, in charge of all Afghan army training, recently said: “We have no clue how to operate the weapons that NATO gives us.”

Mohammed Noori December 4, 2011 at 11:08 pm

The one advantage the ANA have is that they are not seen as being corrupt in the way the police are.

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