The Bonn conference on Afghanistan was marketed as a watershed. It ended in a whimper.

Ibrahim Haqqani had left Khost a prisoner, after his brother's armies were swept out of the town they once ruled by the searing offensive which followed 9/11. He returned this summer in a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation aircraft, with the immunities military envoys have enjoyed for centuries. In the months after 9/11, Mr. Haqqani was a nameless thing; now, the United States diplomats who sat across the table from him believed he held the keys to peace.

Less than eight weeks later though, a truck bomb went off at a forward operating base, injuring 77 American soldiers — followed up, on September 13, with a murderous assault on the U.S. mission in Kabul. Mr. Haqqani had, diplomatic sources claim, said he would convey the U.S. calls for a dialogue to his brother. Jalaluddin Haqqani, commander of the feared Haqqani network, had sent his reply.

This week, envoys from 100 nations met in Bonn to chart out Afghanistan's political future. Less than a year ago, European diplomats were marketing the Bonn conference as a watershed event that would see the emergence of a power-sharing agreement between jihadist forces and the political order in Afghanistan. Ten years ago, when world leaders met in Bonn to lay the foundations for Afghanistan's political future, figures linked to the Taliban regime had been excluded — a decision many argued had created the conditions for the resurgence of jihadist violence.

Even on the eve of the conference this week, rumours circulated that political emissaries of the Taliban would be present. None came — but no one seems to have a plan for Afghanistan's future.

The Bonn declaration promises an inclusive order, “representing the legitimate interests of all the people of Afghanistan, regardless of gender or social status.” It insists that a future power-sharing agreement must include “the reaffirmation of a sovereign, stable and united Afghanistan;” “the renunciation of violence;” “the breaking of ties to international terrorism;” “respect for the Afghan constitution, including its human rights provisions, notably the rights of women.”

Ibrahim Haqqani's story offers an interesting insight into why these high-sounding objectives are in fact little more than pious hopes: like insurgents everywhere, Afghan jihadists have been prepared to negotiate, experience shows, only in the face of a military defeat.

Early in 2002, the U.S. forces surged through the Shahikot mountains of Paktia province, flushing the Haqqani network's forces out of their traditional strongholds. Mr. Haqqani, faced with near-certain death, surrendered to the Afghan authorities. He was first held, scholar Thomas Ruttig has reported, at the Afghan army south-eastern command's headquarters in Logar, and then at a government guesthouse — a euphemism for an intelligence safe house — in Kabul. There, Mr. Haqqani remained for some years — and then, under circumstances that have never been explained, he disappeared back into Pakistan, home to much of the Haqqani network's core leadership.

In retrospect, it is apparent that Mr. Haqqani's release was part of a series of moves intended to open political negotiations with the Taliban — spearheaded by European diplomats who believed a power-sharing agreement could be put together.

Ever since last summer, the contours of that peace process became evident. In July, al-Jazeera reported that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai had “met Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of a major anti-government faction, in face-to-face talks.” The television station also said that Mr. Haqqani's son, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was “reported to have been accompanied to the meeting earlier in the week by Pakistan's army chief and the head of its intelligence services.”

Michael Semple — an Irish diplomat and Afghanistan expert who was expelled from the country in 2007 for initiating an unauthorised peace process with the Taliban — told the station that he had heard a somewhat different version of events: that there was ongoing “shuttle diplomacy between Ibrahim Haqqani and Karzai's government.”

President Karzai, nudged along by the U.S., also sought to reach out to at least two Taliban commanders from the Haqqanis' Zadran clan — an effort, some believe, to place pressure on the network using kinship ties.

Mullah Sadre Azam, who briefly served as interim head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan's Kabul-based cabinet — but had little power in Kandahar, from where Mullah Muhammad Omar presided over its regime — was one of them. Sadre Azam was never sanctioned by the United Nations, suggesting he had only limited influence.

The Karzai administration also reached out to Mullah Abdul Kabir — a one time field commander with pockets of support among the Zadran clan who made his way to Pakistan, and a life of no little comfort — paid for, it seems probable, by Pakistan's intelligence services. Last year, journalist Willi Germund reported finding him living in “a beautiful house close to the Pakistani town of Nowshera in the North West Frontier Province [now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] and placidly driving around in a posh SUV with a diplomatic number plate.”

Leaders like these, though, proved to have little on ground influence — just like other Kabul-based intermediaries for the Taliban, like its former envoy to Islamabad, Abdul Salam Zaeef. The U.S. decided, as the 2014 deadline for pulling out its troops from Afghanistan came closer, to open a direct channel of communication with its principal adversaries, the Haqqanis.

From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we know what happened next. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Ms Clinton said in an official testimony last month, “asked us to meet with a representative of the Haqqani network. There was such a meeting. There was nothing — it was not a negotiation. There was no follow-up meeting. This was done in part because I think the Pakistanis hope to be able to move the Haqqani network towards some kind of peace negotiation. And the answer was an attack on our embassy.”

Even before the attack, there were plenty of dialogue-sceptics who believed that the reconciliation enthusiasts were chasing a chimera. Leon Panetta, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, bluntly asserted last summer that he had “seen no evidence that they [Taliban] are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce the al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society.”

“Frankly,” he concluded, “my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they're convinced that the United States is going to win and that they're going to be defeated, I think it's very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that's going to be meaningful.”

President Barack Obama's administration, though, was desperate for a political solution — and many within the administration remained optimistic. In a June 29, 2010 interview, Michael Mullen, then chief of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was “hard to rule out that political entities who are now the enemy might be a part of a political solution.”

Even that experience, though, hasn't led the U.S. — and, with even greater intensity, its European partners — to engage with the real world. In September, Ms Clinton said her administration was engaged in a “final formal review that has to be undertaken to make a government-wide decision to designate the network as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.” That review is taking a strangely long time — in the main, sources in the state department told The Hindu, because any further contact with the Haqqanis would be illegal once it went through.

And even though Mr. Mullen went on to describe the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan's ISI, the U.S. has shied away from confrontation with an organisation it has publicly blamed for complicity in terror attacks on its own troops.

The sad truth is that the images of carnage from Kabul, where dozens of Shi'a worshippers were killed in a sectarian attack on the eve of the Bonn conference, are a more likely image of Afghanistan's future than the sight of diplomats in elegantly tailored suits signing on to high-minded declarations.

From Farhat Taj's book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban, we know just what an Islamic Emirate looks like: her work shows how Taliban jihadists massacred Shi'a in Orakzai; how traditional tribal leaders were eliminated; how human rights were degraded — all this in pursuit of something packaged, virtuously, as a negotiated peace.

Even though proponents of dialogue with the Taliban claim it has disassociated itself from the wider global jihadist movement, there is little evidence this is, in fact, the case. Late in November, for example, the Turkish jihadist group, Taifatul Mansura — ‘the victorious sect'— said it had lost 21 fighters fighting with the Haqqani network in a NATO airstrike. Taifatul Mansura was in 2009 created by the Islamic Jihad Union, a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, to meet the need to train the growing numbers of European jihadists seeking training.

Bonn's outcome has been marketed as a roadmap to peace: its words, are in fact, magnificent mainly only in their sheer banality.


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