The Bonn II Process: Framework Must Work Amid Harsh Realities

This is the first of a three-part series examining the challenges of ending the conflict in Afghanistan. This article looks at what occurred at the Bonn II Conference and some of the challenges facing the process. The second will examine what was missing, given Pakistan’s decision not to participate and the absence of the Taliban. The final article will look ahead to the challenges facing Afghanistan and the international community in 2012.

A thousand delegates representing around 100 countries and international organizations including the United Nations met on December 5th in Bonn, Germany to discuss the future direction of international involvement in Afghanistan. Dubbed Bonn II, this conference occurred ten years after the 2001 Bonn conference which was held shortly after the fall of the Taliban and where the outlines of the current Afghan state were sketched, and where Hamid Karzai was first chosen to be the interim leader of the new regime. Bonn II aimed to bring the international community to an agreement regarding stabilizing the Afghanistan transition from 2014 and beyond, by which time the vast majority of NATO forces are scheduled to leave. Presidential elections are also scheduled for that year, and Karzai is constitutionally barred from running for another term.

Key Conclusions

The Bonn II conference reviewed much of the positive progress made in the past decade and reiterated a detailed outline of how the international community views engagement from 2015-2024, named the ‘Transformation Decade.’ There was widespread participation, along with commitment to continue supporting the Afghan state. In the final declaration, the principles on which peace and reconciliation should be pursued were outlined. These included it being an Afghan-led process, respect for the constitution, and buy-in by regional countries.

Although the Bonn II Process frames the international community’s involvement and creates a diplomatic superstructure to deal with Afghan development and the conflict, it also must confront the reality of the conditions—and especially the violence—in the country and region. So far, it has not managed to end or decrease the violence significantly. The security situation, along with various actors’ perceptions of future prospects, appears to be getting worse. These events, as reflected by the NATO strikes on Pakistani military check-posts and the Ashura suicide bombings, could stymie this process, which despite its shortcomings has a wide range of actors committed to stabilizing Afghanistan.


This conference sought to act as both a review of developments in Afghanistan over the past 10 years since the first Bonn conference, and how to handle a full transition to the Afghan government after 2014. Since the first Bonn conference, a great deal of progress has been made in certain areas in the country. A previously devastated health-care system has now mushroomed to being able to meet many health-related Millennium Development Goal targets; under-five child and maternal mortality rates have decreased dramatically, while life expectancy and GDP-per-capita have risen. This has been attributed in part to the vast amounts of international assistance that has poured into the country since 2001.

There was widespread commitment from attendees about continuing this support beyond 2014. President Hamid Karzai outlined some of the achievements of his government and made an appeal that the country will need international assistance for at least another decade, until 2024 (the ‘Transformation Decade’), while promising to continue reforms and tackle corruption—a key demand of the international community. Hillary Clinton said that “The United States is prepared to stand with the Afghan people for the long haul.” Also significant was the widespread participation of the regional countries (save Pakistan), including Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi addressed the conference, saying that Iran “will spare no effort in contributing to the development and stability of Afghanistan,” but expressed wariness of continued presence of foreign troops, deeming it as “contradicting the efforts to sustain stability and security.”

The final declaration was grouped according to measures related to governance, security, the peace process, economic and social development, and regional cooperation. In Article 18, the declaration set out the views of the international community that the peace and reconciliation process should proceed, under the principles of relevant UN resolutions, in which the process must be inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Secondly, it must reaffirm sovereignty; renounce violence; break ties to international terrorism; and very importantly, respect the Afghan Constitution, ratified in 2004 as part of the Bonn I Process, “including its human rights provisions, notably the rights of women”. The latter principles are those on which the Taliban have been most wary of negotiating (this will be discussed further in Article 2 of this series).

While the Bonn II Process frames the international community’s involvement and reinforces the diplomatic superstructure in place to deal with the Afghan conflict, it must confront the reality of the conditions, and especially the violence, in the country and the region.

The Afghan people are of course, the most affected by the Bonn II Process, but also perhaps those whose voices remain hardest to include in its formal structures. Any broad attempts to understand population sentiments should come with the caveat that, due to security and capacity fears, their representativeness of areas beyond Kabul and other pockets under strict and safe government control can be weak. Efforts to conduct robust surveys though do exist. The Asia Foundation’s 2011 A Survey of the Afghan People, which interviewed people in all 34 provinces, found that 46 percent of Afghans think that things are moving in the right direction, while 35 percent think the opposite (an increase from last year). Eighty-two percent support negotiation and reconciliation with armed opposition. The biggest issue people identified is insecurity, followed by unemployment, and corruption. They also largely expressed satisfaction with the performance of the various government institutions, at central and regional levels, whose development the international community has supported, and the Bonn II Process continues to support.

A United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) report released in September stated that in the first eight months of 2011, the monthly average of security incidents was 2,108, up 39 per cent compared with the same period in 2010. Armed clashes and improvised explosive devices constituted the majority of incidents, with over two-thirds happening in the south and south-east. Over 2,000 civilians had also been killed (exact numbers vary depending on the methodology used), also an increase from 2010. The vast majority of these deaths were attributed to anti-government armed opposition groups. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force disputed these figures, saying that violence actually decreased by three percent, although they also said that civilian deaths from airstrikes were up 18 percent from 2010. Certain humanitarian groups have echoed UNAMA’s assessment. The head of the ICRC recently said that the situation is worsening in the country.

Two significant, violent events—one occurring before the conference, and one after—are emblematic of how facts on the ground could challenge and undermine the Bonn II Process. The first was the November 26th NATO airstrike that killed twenty-four Pakistani soldiers at two military check-posts near the Afghan border. Pakistan boycotted the conference as a result, with its absence casting doubts over the future course it will pursue in Afghanistan (this will be discussed further in Article 2 of this series).

The second event occurred the day after the meeting, the holy day of Ashura, when a series of suicide bombings deliberately targeted Shia pilgrims in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kandahar, killing at least 80 people. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, a splinter group of the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, claimed responsibility for the attack. Its blatantly sectarian nature is an aberration from the pattern of most attacks, which usually involve some military or political target. No one is quite sure yet what the attack means for the broader pattern of violence. Most of the pilgrims’ and Afghan government’s anger was directed at blaming Pakistan, rather than taking on more sectarian tones, indicating that if that was the purpose, it failed. More such attacks however, would certainly exacerbate tensions, either on sectarian or nationalist terms (or both). It also underscores the potential for a variety of groups to act as spoilers, and reinforces the point that no one group has a monopoly on the violence. This is indicative of the insurgency’s decentralized (some would say uncontrolled) nature. The Taliban issued a swift condemnation, but rogue elements might well have assisted the attackers. If they had no local assistance, that is also worrying, showing the influence external groups could have on the violence. This could point to the violence possibly metastasizing, led by lesser-known groups and/or commanders.

Despite its difficulties and issues, Bonn II is an established, on-going process that has so far permitted a wide range of (often-conflicting) actors expressing their commitment to Afghanistan. If the security situation does not improve, Afghans’ disgruntlement with the international involvement might increase, and if the violence continues to increase and become less predictable, this neatly-outlined process could be stymied in the face of the reality on the ground.

About the photo: Hamid Karzai at the Bonn Conference, December 5, 2011 UN Photo/Mark Garten