Pious pledges have been made, during this week's Bonn Conference, of continuing support to Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw in 2014. But financial commitments cannot help paper over the dismal failure of the international community's Project Afghanistan. Even in terms of money, the cut-price promises from the frayed United States and European economies can hardly fill the gaps in the tottering country-building exercise in Afghanistan. In any case, the problem is far more fundamental. It is about who gets to control Afghanistan, which is viewed by several of the world's leading powers less as a country than as a valuable geo-strategic real estate. The U.S. and the West want Afghanistan in the hands of someone who would represent them and their interests. Pakistan, on the other hand, shares 2,500 km of an open boundary with Afghanistan, and sees it as vital to its security strategy against India; it wants its nominees in Kabul. All agree that talks with the Taliban are now necessary to end the war. Pakistan, with its ties to the Taliban and other allied militant groups, sees itself eminently placed to call the shots in the negotiations. Washington, for its part, wants to negotiate only with a weakened Taliban, expecting the Pakistan Army to join in the military effort to this end, impossibly asking it to kill its golden goose. The tensions in U.S.-Pakistan relations, on the boil after NATO's killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, are a reflection of these contradictions.
Pakistan's non-participation at Bonn in protest against the killings of its soldiers was a reiteration that unless it gets it way, it will play the obstructionist in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the futility of Bonn, Pakistan's boycott was poor tactics; it confirms the international community's worst fears of a country that seeks to bargain with a gun to its own head. It is increasingly clear that given the conflicting interests of the main actors, the only way to sort out the mess in Afghanistan is to stop treating it as a playground for international and regional rivalries. As Chinmaya R. Gharekhan and Karl Inderfurth have argued in The Hindu (Op-ed, December 5), lasting peace in Afghanistan and the region will be possible only when all the so-called stakeholders undertake not to interfere in its internal affairs. The Afghan groups made this explicit request at the first Bonn Conference in 2001; this is what the international community should be working towards. For it to succeed though, it would also need Afghanistan to declare neutrality — and pledge that it would not allow itself to be used against another country.