Paul Pillar

The Bonn Conference: Don't Be Discouraged

The conference on Afghanistan that was just held in Bonn was underwhelming in its results, and it was no surprise that it was. The Pakistanis stayed away, the Iranians attended but were rather snippy, aid donors held back to see what other aid donors would do, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai painted a discouraging picture of what looked like indefinite dependence of his country on international largesse. The conference communique hardly broke any new ground.

It would be a mistake to conclude from this result, however, that vigorous multilateral diplomacy involving players in the region should not be a major front in the handling of the Afghan problem in the months and years ahead. The conflict in Afghanistan cries out for heavy regional involvement. The country poses security problems to its neighbors at all azimuths. These include Pakistan's concerns about ethnic separatism, China's concerns about Islamic extremists, Iran's concerns about narcotics, India's concerns about Pakistan, and many other worries among these and other regional players. The players with worries are also players who can be part of the problem in Afghanistan if they are not part of the solution. There is no reason Afghanistan should remain primarily an American project. Because of geographic proximity and other factors, the regional players have plenty of incentive to stay involved somehow, whether or not a constructive and cooperative channel for involvement is provided to them.

The conference came at an inopportune time. It was held amid a downturn in U.S. relations with Pakistan, which is the most important of the regional players. U.S. relations with Iran are as bad as ever, with the surge in militant drum-beating on the U.S side and the incident with the downed drone not helping either. Chalk up the unfortunate timing to the desire to hold a meeting at the ten-year anniversary of the first Bonn conference on Afghanistan, which devised the structure for the current Afghan political order.

The United States needs to keep working energetically on regional diplomacy as a major front in its handling of the Afghan problem, whether it is in the form of more big conferences or less publicized negotiations. This is true regardless of the extent to which Taliban leaders get engaged in an internal peace process. Regional diplomacy aimed at joint tackling of the Afghanistan problem also can have the bonus effect of encouraging cooperation and better relations on other issues between the United States and regional powers, especially Iran and Pakistan.