December 02, 2011

Afghanistan summit threatens to turn into a 'farce'

Pakistan's decision not to take part has cast doubts over a major international summit in Germany aimed to plot the future of Afghanistan after NATO troops withdraw in 2014.

Delegations from 85 nations and 15 international organizations are to meet in Bonn on Monday to hammer out a roadmap for future international involvement in the country.

But days after a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, Pakistan's refusal to participate has undercut hopes of progress.

A decade after a first Bonn conference that mapped out a post-Taliban political transition, Pakistan is seen as crucial to creating stability in war-torn Afghanistan.

Germany's disappointment

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle referred to the decision as a potential "setback." Germany's press meanwhile did not mince words about Pakistan's importance:

"The entire future engagement of the international community is based on the hope that the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban will progress, and Pakistan is the key to this process," Die Welt newspaper noted.

"The Bonn conference is turning into a farce," wrote the Financial Times Deutschland. "If Pakistan's cancellation is maintained, then the conference will be virtually pointless on many issues."

An 'unripe' conflict

Pakistan's boycott is not the only challenge facing the international community. The United States and Pakistan have yet to sort how many American troops will remain in the country after NATO's mission ends.

"Some conflicts aren't ripe for a political settlement," according to Andrew Exum of the research institution Center for a New American Security. "That's probably the case with Afghanistan."

Exum, who served as a soldier in two Afghanistan missions and later as a civilian advisor to Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, also sees conflict between the US and its allies over the purpose of their Afghanistan missions.

Different aims

While countries like Germany see their involvements primarily as humanitarian efforts, Barack Obama's government has taken a different approach in response to enormous pressure to bring troops home.

"From this administration it's all about security interest, and it's all about disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda," Exum said. "If the United States feels like it's done that, or it has achieved a large majority of its security interests in Afghanistan, then it may not feel like it has as much of a need to continue in Afghanistan in the way that maybe the other NATO allies do feel."

In this sense, Exum sees the US shifting "away from a focus on what we would call nation-building, or a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign to build up the government of Afghanistan - and more really toward just building up the security forces of Afghanistan to a sufficient degree where the United States can then withdraw."

The Bonn summit is not a donor conference, meaning there will not be financial pledges.

However, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, the conference does aim to demonstrate the international community's ongoing commitment to the Afghans beyond 2014.

Meanwhile, it is no secret that US-Afghan relations have largely broken down already.

"I think the US was really surprised by the resilience that President Karzai is showing," she said, in demanding an end to night raids and increased control over the US's detainment of prisoners.

"The US…was caught off guard by how publicly he's committed himself to demanding that the US yield on those two points, whereas the US is very unlikely to yield on them."

Hopes of 'follow-up'

With so much still up in the air, Felbab-Brown argues that Pakistan's presence Monday in Bonn may not make a world of difference.

"What really happens on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of negotiations with the Taliban is more important than what happens at these international summits," she said. "So the fact that they are not present at the summit does not necessarily mean that the process is not possible, or that the accomplishments of the process are not possible."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while voicing great regret at Pakistan's decision, also said she hoped for "a follow-up way that we can have the benefit of Pakistani participation in this international effort to try to work toward a stable, secure, peaceful outcome in Afghanistan."