It's about ‘closing the Afghan playground.' Bonn II, which begins today, could be an important moment to remove Afghanistan as a pawn from the region's chessboard.
On December 5, 85 countries and 15 international organisations will gather in Bonn, Germany, to mark the 10th anniversary of the international conference that convened after the overthrow of the Taliban government. If seized, this could be an important moment to remove Afghanistan as a pawn from the region's chessboard.
A decade after the 2001 Bonn I conference, Bonn II will serve as a ‘reality check' for where things stand today in Afghanistan, including the progress, or lack thereof, on security, economic development, and the on-again, off-again Afghan reconciliation process with the Taliban. Bonn II is also intended to signal a long-term international commitment to Afghanistan, extending beyond the looming 2014 withdrawal of U.S and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military forces.
Equally important, the conference should focus on what kind of structures to leave behind to assure at least a semblance of stability for Afghanistan and the region. The international community did not do this after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, with disastrous, destabilising consequences that continue to this day.
The participants at Bonn II would do well to remind themselves of the Bonn Agreement of 2001, which contains a request to the United Nations from all the Afghan groups represented at the conference to “take the necessary measures to guarantee the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the non-interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan's internal affairs”.
The Afghan groups knew what they were asking for, since they realise better than any non-Afghans that the root cause of most of their troubles has been the rivalries, intrigues, and ‘great games' played by outsiders in their affairs. It is of equal importance for Afghanistan to solemnly undertake not to permit its territory to be used to destabilise another country.
‘Heart of Asia' conference
Belatedly, a start in this direction was made at the recent “Heart of Asia” regional conference in Istanbul. For the first time all the major countries of the wider region surrounding Afghanistan were in attendance — from China to Iran, Russia to Saudi Arabia, and others in between, including Pakistan and India. One report said this grouping read like a ‘who's who' of potential rivals if Afghanistan descends further into civil wars backed by outsiders. The fact that Pakistan, which has had a strong aversion to sitting with India around a table to discuss Afghanistan, agreed to the regional format in Istanbul was notable.
The result of the conference was a document establishing “The Istanbul Process.” It acknowledges that the only way to work toward Afghanistan's stability is through the commitment of all of them not to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. It included a statement of principles of regional cooperation listing political, economic and other confidence building measures to combat terrorism, control drug trafficking, and pursue enhanced trade and commerce across the region.
Now for the harder part, which has become harder still because of Pakistan's recent decision not to attend the Bonn conference in protest of the NATO bombing of two border posts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Hopefully, the efforts of several countries to persuade Pakistan to attend the conference at some level will bear fruit.
While an indispensable first step, the “Istanbul Process” will not, by itself, solve Afghanistan's meddling problems. It needs to be followed by concrete steps, especially a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the commitments assumed by the 13 countries that signed the Istanbul document.
Other issues will need to be addressed: who will deal with complaints of violations? Should there be peacekeeping of some sort?
How to settle, once and for all, the definite boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, because an un- or ill-defined and unrecognised (by one side) border is a breeding ground for suspicion and temptation for further interference and intervention.
Here the United Nations can play a crucial role. The “Istanbul Process” rightly emphasises the central role of the U.N. in the area of maintenance of international peace and security. It is the only organisation with the requisite credentials, experience and expertise to undertake this task.
The upcoming Bonn II conference should take this U.N. endorsement one important step further. After welcoming the establishment of the “Istanbul Process” and offering its full support for this regional initiative, Bonn II should call on the U.N. Secretary General to appoint an international facilitator to consult with all the parties about the best possible, and widely acceptable, way to finally respond to what the Afghans themselves called for 10 years ago at the first Bonn conference, namely “to take the necessary measures to guarantee … the non-interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan's internal affairs.”
The Afghans have another way of putting this. At their 2010 national peace jirga, (or grand gathering), they said Afghanistan did not want to become again “a playground for regional conflicts.” Now is the time to work with the Afghans to close that “playground,” for good.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India's special envoy for the Middle East and is a former U.N. Under Secretary General. Karl F. Inderfurth served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.)