International meet on Afghanistan begins today

The Taliban's boycott of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan, 10 years after they were absent from its precursor, raises grave doubts about what progress it can make towards peace, say experts say.

The leaders of the decade-long insurgency will not attend Monday's much-heralded international talks in Germany, saying the meeting will “further ensnare Afghanistan into the flames of occupation”.

Pakistan is also boycotting the event after an air strike by NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last week.

Islamabad is considered key to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table due to its historic ties to the militia and claims that elements in its military still support the insurgency to offset the might of arch-rival India.

The absence of two major players has dampened expectations of progress on reconciliation among ordinary Afghans as well as officials.

Fazal Rahim, a 37-year-old money exchanger in Kabul, said: “The Afghan government and the international backers should encourage the Taliban to take part in this conference because the Taliban are part of this land and without their participation, the Bonn conference will not give positive results.”

Their non-attendance also risks making Bonn part of what Britain's former Ambassador to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, called the “charade” of international conferences on Afghanistan, dogged by “diplomacy for diplomacy's sake”.

Violence

NATO and the U.N. may dispute whether violence is up or down in Afghanistan, but a string of high-profile attacks on Western and government targets in Kabul has fed perceptions that security is declining. “What everybody expects is to find ways to bring security and stability to Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Wali, a 29-year-old economics student in the city.

With foreign capitals determined to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014, Western diplomats in Kabul earlier this year talked up the possibility of the Taliban attending Bonn as part of a single Afghan delegation.

But such hopes came crashing down after tentative contacts collapsed and the assassination of President Hamid Karzai's peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani blamed on the Taliban — derailed any prospects of progress.

Diplomats now say the West's relationship with Afghanistan after 2014 and the transition to Afghan control will dominate the conference agenda. “I'm not expecting a huge amount on reconciliation,” Britain's Ambassador to Kabul William Patey told reporters.

“I'm not expecting much other than an affirmation that the Afghan government, supported by the international community, stands ready to talk peace and reconciliation with the Taliban when and if they're ready.”

Another Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, was more blunt. “Nothing will happen at Bonn regarding the Taliban,” he said.

Expectations

Organisers are playing down expectations that the conference will rival one exactly 10 years ago which established an interim administration led by Karzai and mapped out a roadmap for elections.

Soon after that conference, the Taliban surrendered Kandahar, their heartland and last major Afghan stronghold, on December 7, 2001.

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