This article is part of a series examining the challenges of ending the conflict in Afghanistan. There is also a companion piece on Pakistan’s absence from the conference and the first part in the series.
The Bonn II Conference on Afghanistan reviewed progress in the country since 2001 and promised international engagement after the withdrawal of most NATO military forces in 2014. One hundred countries and international organizations outlined their support for Afghanistan, including affirmations of support for “a decade of transformation” (2015-2024). What was missing in Bonn is equally, if not more important, than what occurred there. Hoped-for progress on a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban had not materialized, and there was no formal representation of the Taliban at the conference.
How to include the Taliban—including whom to invite—in any political process were the unanswered questions at Bonn. There was no formal Taliban representation at the conference, even as the international community has reached an apparent consensus that stability in Afghanistan lies in achieving a political reconciliation and settlement between the government and the insurgency. The principles for peace talks endorsed by the international community at Bonn remain opposed to the Taliban’s demands. Some, including the issue of respecting the constitution could prove to be a stumbling block, along with the continued presence of foreign troops that is now being negotiated.
There was no formal representation in Bonn from the Taliban. The first Bonn Conference, in 2001, also excluded the Taliban. At the time, geopolitical realities made it not feasible to have them represented, and the international community saw them as comprehensively defeated. Thus, anti-Taliban groups, dominated by the Northern Alliance, were fully supported to build a new state. Lakhdar Brahimi, at the time the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, has said that Bonn I “was not sufficiently representative.” Many see this, and the Taliban’s subsequent exclusion from the political process, as contributing to a sense of exclusion that translated into support for the insurgency.
Views have changed dramatically since 2001, and peace talks are now endorsed as the preferred route to achieve stability. Limited, largely secret, talks with the tacit approval of the United States had started between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives earlier this year. This process has largely collapsed, however, since the assassination in September of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former President and head of the High Peace Council. United States and Taliban representatives themselves have reportedly met directly as well in 2011. A breakthrough to larger talks might soon happen, as the idea of the Taliban opening a diplomatic office also now seems to be gaining strength, though there are sharp disagreements among the United States and the Afghan government about where and how.
Negotiations are further complicated by the question of who exactly represents the Taliban. There are disagreements within the movement of whether to engage in such a process, and so far no prominent Taliban figure has been identified to whom can credibly be spoken. Whether there can be such a figure, other than perhaps Mullah Umar himself or a personal representative, is itself debatable. Previously, negotiators posing as Taliban representatives have turned out to be impostors. The insurgency is also fairly decentralized, with local commanders exercising a great deal of operational and tactical control. Attacks and initiatives are often both claimed and denied by various Taliban spokesmen, such as Rabbani’s assassination or whether talks have even occurred, indicating both the divisions in the movement and the potential for rogue and non-Taliban affiliated armed groups to adversely affect any peace process. Even if the Taliban leadership approves talks, violence will not necessarily stop.
The prevailing strategy is that at least some Taliban might be persuaded and/or coerced into talks. The principles on which talks should occur, that were endorsed by the international community at Bonn, include: cutting ties to international terrorism (a euphemism for al-Qaeda), renouncing violence, and respecting the Afghan constitution. Furthermore, the Loya Jirga hosted by Hamid Karzai last month also endorsed a US presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, which is now being negotiated in a strategic partnership agreement. This could be used as a bargaining chip by Karzai to strengthen his negotiating position, but it could also isolate the Taliban who might be willing to talk, conditional on no future foreign troop presence.
The issue of the constitution also remains a key concern of various groups. Based on the 1964 constitution that sought to strengthen the then-King’s power over the country, the 2004 constitution similarly created a highly centralized state where the President retains a huge degree of power, including the power to appoint all provincial governors. This centralized authority receives a lot of criticism from within and outside Afghanistan. It has made a lot of Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan, from where the Taliban draw their support, worried that they have little say in their government, and raised fears that non-Pashtun groups will control the state, contributing to their sense of alienation. Though Karzai himself is a Pashtun, many senior government officials, and especially officers in the Afghan security forces, are not, and most have some association with groups that fought the Taliban in the 1990s.
On the other hand, non-Pashtun groups and many non-Taliban-supporting Pashtuns have similar concerns about returning to a Taliban-style and/or Pashtun-dominated state where their rights are not respected. The international community also strongly backs the human rights protections and women’s rights protections in the constitution, and many fear that might be lost or softened in talking to the Taliban. Yet on the margins, there are those that argue that an all-powerful yet ineffective central government does not serve the people’s needs well. Discussion about the constitution, including looking at decentralization, will be an important, yet extremely difficult, aspect of talks, which could prove to be a stumbling block and lead to other tensions.
About the photo: Taliban insurgents, April 2010. ISAF Media