The World Commits to Afghanistan in Bonn

NATO countries reiterate the importance of stability in Afghanistan. Will money and support be enough?

December 5, 2011 may have been just an ordinary day for most of the world but for Hamid Karzai and his government in Kabul, it represented a day of international solidarity for his country’s fate. 

After quick successes by the United States and heir coalition allies against Al Qaeda and Taliban bases, the war in Afghanistan has grinded on for a decade. Afghans of all ethnicities and tribes have suffered immeasurably at the hands of all sides involved in the conflict. Suicide bombings, unheard of in Afghanistan prior to 2001, are now a facet of everyday life. 

The insurgents have even targeted Kabul, a city that was once relatively insulated from violence in the rest of Afghanistan, with ever more ferocity. The latest suicide attack in the capital striking at the heart of Shia commemorations killed close to sixty innocent people.

It’s not all bad however. Death and destruction may have defined the war effort so far but the Afghan government, the Afghan people and the world are clearly hoping that the future brings more hope. In Bonn, Germany, representatives of a hundred countries and organizations converged to talk about where Afghanistan is headed and what the international community can do to make the lives of Afghans a little less violent and a little more prosperous.

President Hamid Karzai was the keynote speaker during the conference and praised Europe, the United States and the rest of his partners for the immense sacrifices that they have made for the benefit of the Afghan people. For American delegates sitting in on the meeting, Karzai’s remarks, which tend to change as fast as events on the battlefield, were noteworthy in their sincerity and appreciation.

Together, we have spent blood and treasure in fighting terrorism. Your continued solidarity, your commitment and support will be crucial so that we can consolidate our gains and continue to address the challenges that remain.

Challenges there are. Economic growth in Afghanistan has been at a standstill in the countryside where most Afghans live due to the dangerous security situation on the ground.

The government of Hamid Karzai is so reliant on foreign aid that his authority would quickly collapse if the billions of dollars in international spending were to be cut even marginally. As of 2010, the United States alone had donated at least $52 billion to the Afghan government for a variety of tasks, most related to security but others related to reconstruction programs and reconciliation activities.

Yet even that amount has not solved Afghanistan’s problems. The financial constraints on Karzai are so severe that he asked global contributors for an additional $15 billion for 2015 at the Bonn Conference — a pledge that Washington and its allies have nominally supported if the Afghans continue to progress on the political reform front.

Where does this conference leave the United States and their NATO partners at the moment? Right now, the military mission in Afghanistan continues on its present course. NATO soldiers, with embedded Afghan units, are scheduled to take the fight to the enemy in the caverns of eastern Afghanistan, the home base of the Haqqani network and an area that will be extremely difficult to pacify without political dedication from NATO countries and an aggressive counterterrorism approach that will result in at least some casualties.

Unfortunately, even with these force enablers in mind, it stretches credulity to expect these operations to do anything but temporarily dent the insurgency — especially without cooperation from Pakistan, who did not even participate in the Bonn Conference. 

The training of Afghan security personnel will undoubtedly accelerate as Afghanistan’s own army only has a short three years to get its act together before NATO draws down and leaves the nation’s security where it belongs — in the hands of the Afghan people.

Regrettably, the geopolitical aspect of the equation — which must include regional acceptance of Afghanistan as a sovereign and independent state, without interference from its neighbors — and reintegration with the Taliban is a dim prospect. In the end, what the Afghan people do not need is more war, but a political settlement that is acceptable to all of the major players in the country.