In what could be a major setback to the upcoming Bonn II conference on Afghanistan, Pakistan has apparently decided to boycott the event after NATO helicopters reportedly killed at least 25 of its soldiers.
The Bonn II conference comes about a decade after the first Bonn conference that laid the foundations of the new Afghanistan after the Taliban. Bonn II will attempt to secure Afghanistan’s future after NATO.
Among other things, the conference is expected to discuss the path toward reconciliation with the Taliban and other insurgent elements. Pakistan, which is believed to be home to Taliban’s leadership and the notorious Haqqani militant network, is increasingly being recognized as a key player in any future settlement in Afghanistan.
As a testament to Pakistan’s crucial role in the conference, Afghan officials were urging it not to miss Bonn II even before Pakistan had made such a decision in the wake of the NATO attack. That decision was ultimately made and, apparently, is now being revised by Pakistan’s foreign ministry. [See update below for latest]
But that hasn’t stopped the United States from using its influence to urge Pakistan to attend the conference. Among other reasons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be unable to hold scheduled talks with her Pakistani counterpart if Pakistan boycotts the conference. (Clinton had already missed such a meeting at another important Afghanistan-related international conference due to a family emergency.)
To be sure, big strategic decisions do not spontaneously happen at big conferences. Typically, much of the work is done behind the scenes and in the lead-up to the big day in front of the cameras. But Pakistan’s potential absence in this landmark conference is still significant.
The idea of direct talks with the Taliban is now supported by Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan, which is expected to deliver the insurgents to the future negotiating table. That push for reconciliation received extra boost when, just two days ago, hosts Germany came out in favor of talks.
The international strategy for a peaceful Afghanistan is increasingly reliant on a settlement with the militants. Pakistan’s absence will not only put a damper on the conference but will also set a negative tone for its future cooperation with the United States on reconciliation efforts.
With time running out, no one — the U.S., Afghanistan or its international allies — can afford that.