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Perils of uncertainty

by Saghar Chopan-Daud, Malaiz Chopan-Daub

In depth

Protests rocked Afghanistan in late February after it became known that US forces had burned copies of the Koran

Protests rocked Afghanistan in late February after it became known that US forces had burned copies of the Koran

Transition and Transformation were the key issues at the Afgha­nistan conference in Bonn in December. Delegations from western countries, Afghanistan and its neighbours tried to map out roads to stability and peace. But doing so is impossible without taking into account the real players – the Afghan people. By Saghar Chopan-Daud and Malaiz Chopan-Daud

In the past ten years, the world has seen many conferences on Afgha­nistan. Bonn II was the latest, with a similar agenda as the previous ones: Security, corruption, human rights with an emphasis on women’s rights, narcotics and rule of law were some of the issues discussed. The emphasis was on three points: Transition, the Peace and Reconciliation Process and the post-2014 support for the Afghan state.

So what has changed since Bonn I, the first Afghanistan conference ten years ago? In a nutshell, the hope the first conference created among Afghans has diminished. People see western influence with critical eyes. Internationally, a kind of fatigue has set in, making it economically and politically extremely difficult for western governments to justify the continuation of military presence and economic aid of the current magnitude.

At the Bonn II Conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai focussed above all on self-reliance in the security sector and eradication of corruption. He stressed the importance of taking up peace talks with the insurgents again – despite several setbacks. He wants international support to Afghanistan to continue for at least ten more years, for what he and others call the “Transformation Decade”.

At a glance, President Karzai’s vision for the future may seem a workable plan. However, the realities on the ground speak a different language. We contend that the international actors are self-deceptive, but the Afghan government is even more self-deceptive. The gap between talk and action has grown tremendously. The goals set by the Bonn Conference will not be achieved unless both the international community and the Afghan government change policy seriously and drastically.


The main goal of the transition phase, as laid out by the Bonn Conference Declaration, is that the Afghan government has to take full responsibility for internal secu­rity. To make that happen, the international community has pledged to continue training, equipping and financing the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) beyond 2014. Such support is linked to the precondition that the Afghan government must gradually generate more domestic revenue and eventually pay for its security forces itself. The international community is yet to firmly commit to the future financing of ANSF.

However, the most problematic security issue is the commitment and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces. Senior Afghan cabinet members and high-level military officers confess in private that, without external help, the ANSF would be unable to defend the current government against an insurgent offensive “even for a week”.

The idea of having an Afghan army capable of defending the country is in tune with the construction of a modern state, such as the current leadership is trying to achieve. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account the country’s unique security tradition. Afghanistan has historically been defended not by a regular army, but by its people, who time and again have come to the rescue of its weak states. The only way to diminish the force of the insurgents and avoid a complete collapse is to revive a meaningful pact with the Afghan people. This was accurately predicted in the latest report that was leaked from NATO, according to the BBC.

Furthermore, the Afghan National Security Forces look good in the statistics, with an impressive number of foot soldiers. But they are not going to win the war on their own. The real issue is the commitment and capability of the Afghan officer corps. ANSF’s current leadership seems to lack both. It is vital that quality take precedence over quantity.

The other big challenge is to give the army a good reason to fight against the ­insurgents. It is not easy to find a more ­impressive cause than jihad, the holy war for Islam, with its self-proclaimed guardians – the Taliban. Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, believes that standing for a “clean government” could be the motivation the soldiers need, a just cause worth fighting for.

But in the Afghan context, with its strong religious and tribal links, fighting for a clean government is hardly a competition to jihad. In their current set-up, the ANSF is likely to turn into a mercenary force commanded by different warlords who will control small swathes of territory, thus delaying complete victory of the Taliban.


The Bonn Conference Declaration came up with a set of very ambitious principles. Unfortunately, they are hardly more than rhetoric. Among other things, it calls for an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” process of peace negotiations. This blatantly contradicts reality, as the Afghan people are rarely part of the backdoor deal-making. The Afghan government, as the lone stakeholder of Afghan independence, has been kept out of the process of negotiation with the insurgents. Last year, Washington started secret talks with the Taliban, exploring their willingness to enter into peace talks ahead of the withdrawal of US troops.

When President Karzai learned of these talks, he worried that the United States would broker a deal with the Taliban without consulting the Afghan government. The electorate’s representatives, namely parliament and provincial councils, were largely ignored, both by Karzai and the western allies.

Understandably, the Taliban insist on negotiating only with those who matter – in this case the USA and its allies. The Afghan government is desperate to find a foothold in the process, for obvious reasons: Washington’s negotiated settlement in Vietnam resulted in a complete disaster for its partners and a forthright victory for the insurgents. That deal was done directly with the Vietnamese insurgents, behind the back of the official allies of the USA. The negotiations on Afghanistan seem to be taking a similar turn. Out of desperation, President Karzai has resorted to wooing other less important insurgent groups than the Taliban, such as Hizb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord with a bad reputation from Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s.

According to the Bonn Declaration, the peace process is supposed to be “inclusive, representing the legitimate interests of all the people of Afghanistan, regardless of gender or social status”.

But the current set-up of the so-called Team Kabul, the term coined by the politician Ashraf Ghani, is very exclusive, consisting of the Afghan leadership (the ­Afghan President and supposedly his cabinet, but in reality a few of his aides) plus the commander of the US forces, the US ambassador and the US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

President Karzai has appointed former Taliban adversaries to the High Peace Council. That step was a concession to those who warn against any deal with the Taliban. ­Afghan civil society representatives strongly criticise the Council’s inclusion of former militia leaders among its members, the lack of transparency in its activities, and the lack of clarity in its objectives.

Once again, the Afghan constituents remain at the periphery of the process. Even their elected representatives are kept at arm’s length. By late January 2012, the parliament had not received a copy of the strategic partnership agreements President Karzai had signed with Italy, France and Britain during his latest European tour. Taking all this into account, any hope that the Afghan Parliament might get a meaningful role in the peace process looks unrealistic.

Obviously, the Taliban oppose the ­Afghan constitution as such. But a large number of pro-western Afghan groups, ­especially from the former Northern Al­liance, also oppose some points of the constitution. They may partially accept the constitution and certain parameters of Afghanistan’s present pluralistic system, but only as far as it serves their political needs. After all, they have constituents of their own. However, they may make some concessions. This attitude is evident in their willingness to allow girls’ education, but only in segregated settings, which is not the approach prevalent today.

The Taliban are urged to sever ties with international terrorism. But even if they do so, it may only be a tactical move and whether it lasts is likely to depend on how satisfactory the eventual political
settlement will turn out for them. There is no guarantee they will not re-establish such ties once the international forces have withdrawn.

In the immediate aftermath of the US forces’ withdrawal from Iraq, internal fighting between America’s Iraqi partners flared up. A similar scenario cannot be dismissed for Afghanistan after the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) leaves in 2014.

The Bonn Conference Declaration also calls for “the region to respect and support the peace process and its outcome”. This is a mere wish. Reality is quite different. The region in question is rife with rivalries, aggression and distrust. India and Pakistan are permanent opponents. Iran’s fallout with the rest of the world is nothing new. China remains suspicious of US motives in the region. Russia still considers Afghanistan its backyard, but is willing to concede influence to the US under the condition that the war on narcotics succeeds. Only India remains side by side with the US and its allies and is actively rebuilding Afghanistan. This, however, is bad news for Pakistan.

Pakistan is by far the greatest headache for the US and Afghan government’s ambitions in the region. There are claims that Pakistan supports Afghan insurgents as instruments of an extensionist and self-defence agenda. At the same time, popular myths that were created by the Pakistani army portray Pakistan as the last and most important protector of Islam in the world and celebrate the country’s military strength. Pakistan’s military needs to show enough activity to satisfy a radicalised, misled and extremely divided population that has not much else apart from religion as a common bond. Supporting militant groups outside Pakistan – as the Pakistani secret service (Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI) is said to have done – goes way beyond simply helping Muslim causes. Afghanistan presents a compelling case of this policy.

Pakistan did not attend the Bonn II Conference. This meeting united adver­saries who just about managed to pretend having a common goal. Pakistan’s presence would have helped the outside perception of a combined international effort, but arguably done little in contributing to the peace process.

After 2014

How must Afghanistan prepare for the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in 2014? In substance, the Bonn Conference Declaration envisions the “strengthening of Afghan sovereignty through consolidating Afghan state institutions that are in service of Afghans, a region conducive for peace and prosperity and finally deeper and broader partnership with the international community”. This sounds like utopia.

Afghanistan is a fragile state in a hostile region. The international community is driven by internal dynamics and the imperatives of its member countries whose peoples are tired of the war in Afgha­nistan. At the moment, there is little hope for consolidation of sovereignty and a functioning state.

International conferences have gradually lost their importance to Afghans. There have been too many, and they have achieved too little. Afghan society needs much more time for deliberation, discussion and consensus-building. There has been huge international pressure for rapid decision making, and the Afghan government has been complying. Too many decisions are marked by foreign arrangements, they have overwhelmed the local structures and decision-making culture and alienated the Afghan people from the peace-building process. The dire consequence is disillusioned people who have lost their trust in elected institutions, and more importantly, who have lost their hope for peace and democracy. The prospect for Afghanistan after 2014 is hardly positive.