Karzai at the international summit on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters)
In late 2001, flush with an unexpectedly easy victory over the Taliban, the United States arranged a conference in the German city of Bonn aimed at shaping postwar Afghanistan. The conference charged the United Nations, in the guise of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), with providing the country’s security. And in terms that now seem positively quaint, the conference’s Afghan and international participants looked forward to the creation of a “broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government” in Kabul.
What a difference a decade makes. As international representatives gathered last week for a second conference in Bonn, ISAF troops were still caught between a grinding insurgency led by a resurgent Taliban and an ineffective Afghan government headed by a feckless president, Hamid Karzai. Gone are visions of democracy; now, the mantra is sustainability, as ISAF eyes its planned exit in 2014 with a mixture of mounting alarm and palpable relief.
The twin Bonn conferences neatly bookend a lost decade in Afghanistan. Approximately 10,000 Afghan civilians -- by the most conservative estimate -- have been killed since 2006 (when such information was first systematically collected), and a further 5,600 Afghan soldiers and police have died facing the Taliban in those same years. Since 2001, almost 3,000 ISAF soldiers have died in action, and the United States alone has spent some $444 billion on counterinsurgency and state building. Yet many Afghans still see their ramshackle state as illegitimate, and progress toward rebuilding and stabilizing the country remains elusive.
Judged by any yardstick -- its ability to protect its officials, provide basic services, and control corruption -- Afghanistan has made little or no headway since 2001. The Taliban can claim some of the credit for these failures, but much of the blame falls on the Bonn process itself.
The overestimated the danger of ethnic civil war and so created a hyper-centralized executive office that actually made ethnic conflict more, rather than less, likely. By concentrating the appearance of authority in one office without giving it the means to assert power, Bonn rendered the presidency a lightening rod for the many grievances that emerged once the central government proved ineffective. With no real ability to tax citizens, Karzai and his coterie of confidants played the age-old game of extracting as much revenue as possible from foreigners to placate and buy off internal opposition. But foreign aid, often proudly branded with the flag of its donor, further undermined Karzai by underscoring his reliance on outside forces.
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