Ten years ago, the international community gathered in Bonn, Germany to discuss the transitional government in a newly free Afghanistan. Recently, diplomats came together in Bonn again, to discuss the transformation Afghanistan still so urgently needs.
The Bonn Conference in 2001 and Bonn in 2011 could not be more opposite bookends of a tumultuous decade. As the Taliban regime fell, the world had hoped endless violence in the country would be a thing of the past, and Afghans sincerely believed only good days were ahead. But years of mismanagement, misguided policies and a shattering violence have led the world to realize the challenges Afghanistan faces on all fronts require years of continuous struggle – and the international community’s pledged support. And when it comes to the international community, no country has a more important role to play, or a bigger stake in, securing a lasting peace for Afghanistan than does Pakistan.
That is precisely why Pakistan’s decision to boycott Bonn was so unfortunate. Islamabad’s boycott was a response to the disastrous November 26th NATO bombing of a military checkpoint, which killed 24 of our soldiers. The tragedy understandably set off a wave of anger and was seen as a total violation of our sovereignty. Prime Minister Gilani angrily warned the US that “business as usual” would no longer continue. The government immediately shut down NATO supply routes that went into Afghanistan via Pakistan, and demanded Shamsi Airbase in Balochistan, a launching pad for drone attacks, be completely shut down. As of today, all American personnel have left the airbase. And also as of today, the NATO blockade enters its third week, with the Prime Minister Gilani saying this could seriously last for several more weeks. It is clear we have to convey our grief to NATO, and ensure such an incident would never happen again. Our feelings are warranted, as the safety of our soldiers fighting the menace of extremism must always be a paramount concern to the government.
But combining our gripes with NATO with our desires for Afghanistan is a complete mistake. We chose to disengage with the international community, and by doing so have demonstrated a startling lack of leadership. The fact is we didn’t realize then, and don’t seem to realize even now, that boycotting Bonn was to our own detriment. We simply cannot allow resentment – justified though it is – to spill over into completely separate matters. We cannot, as the gruesome expression goes, cut our nose to spite our face.
When it comes to foreign affairs, we have two paths to choose from. The one we seem to be currently following is the United Kingdom’s isolationist stance vis-à-vis the European Union. David Cameron foolishly thought the UK’s veto would weaken the EU, but it has had the opposite effect: England has now lost out on a chance to participate effectively in regional matters. England now watches as decisions that will shape the future of the continent are made without any input from the country.
The other option we have is to model ourselves after Turkey. Turkey has worked with the US and other countries on a range of issues. The result is its ability to influence matters regarding Palestine, something the Turkish government feels incredibly strongly about. The Turks are now in a place to contribute to discussions, and make demands, and is seen as a valuable partner for Middle East peace.
Instead of going to Bonn prepared to engage and demonstrate our commitment to Afghanistan, we have further mired ourselves in distrust with the very nations we must work with, who now must wonder how constructive and reliable a partner Pakistan can even be going forward. If we continue to react in anger and isolate ourselves from the world – especially when the issue at hand is of such supreme importance – we may soon find ourselves shut out of those discussions, and see decisions made without our input. We cannot take ourselves out of any conversation so intricately tied to our own future.
Whatever happens in Afghanistan is significant to Pakistan. That’s just the fact. We don’t have the luxury of pretending otherwise. Instability in Afghanistan continues to spill over into our borders. Ongoing violence threatens to increase the flow of refugees into Pakistan, and create even more security concerns across our already porous border. Ten years and unaccounted billions of dollars later, we still see that military operations in Afghanistan are not tied to any clear plan to bring cohesion between tribes and the federal government. When American troops leave Afghanistan – which they are slated to do by 2014, these problems will become our problems. Apart from Afghanistan itself, Pakistan has the most to lose if our neighbor isn’t stabilized, and the most to gain if it is.
We have a stake in improving Afghanistan’s economy, not only because it can help improve our own, but also because we can be a key voice in promoting regional economic interests. We should be interested in the idea of the “New Silk Road” – a regional approach to Afghanistan’s economic development – which can only work if both Iran and Pakistan sign off on it. Bonn concluded with glowing recommendations for this approach but there was no concrete plans to move it forward.
That is a shining example of something we could have been a part of, even led on. By skipping the conference, we also passed on a golden opportunity to present ideas. We hurt our own strategic and economic goals.
Suffice to say, we lost considerable leverage with the international community, and perhaps most of all with Afghanistan. Our anger at the NATO attack is a wholly different subject and should have been jumbled up with the talks at Bonn.
Significant discussions took place on the transfer of security responsibilities from ISAF to Afghan forces – something vitally important to us. Debates were held on whether or not reconciliation was a viable option –something that cannot realistically happen without Pakistan’s involvement. And long-term aid and training deals were outlined. A comprehensive Pakistani delegation would have had the chance to articulate our interests in those areas, and furthermore, share our opinions on the policies and projects worth pursuing.
We should have been at the table.
Instead, we decided to sit out. At best we are seen as making a serious mistake in judgment, and at worst, we are viewed as obstructionists to progress. The entire region has a critical stake in the outcome of such talks, but who more so than Pakistan? Our contributions would have been invaluable. By not going, we have diminished the successes Bonn could have achieved, as well as our own image as a serious partner. We can only hope cooler minds prevail in such events going forward, and strengthen our role instead of so erroneously weaken it.