A Review of the 2001 Bonn Conference and Application to the Road Ahead in Afghanistan

By Mark Fields and Ramsha Ahmed Strategic Perspectives 8

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Executive Summary

Ten years ago in Bonn, Germany, the United Nations Envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, and U.S. Envoy to the Afghan Opposition, Ambassador James Dobbins, led a diverse group of international diplomats and warriors to consensus and charted the political course for Afghanistan well into the decade. The process that led to the Bonn Agreement (Bonn 2001, or Bonn I) reflects the best of U.S. and United Nations statesmanship and was the result of the effective application of military and diplomatic power. Bonn 2001 was successful for five reasons:
  • The U.S.-supported Northern Alliance held the clear military advantage. 
  • The U.S. interagency position was effectively synchronized. 
  • Dobbins paved the way for success at Bonn by thorough bilateral preparation and consultations with international actors—he met personally with nearly all the international participants and representatives. 
  • Brahimi and Dobbins merged their negotiating experience and artfully used multilateral negotiations to meld national interests into cohesive commitments. 
  • Bonn Conference objectives were limited and achievable and the U.S. negotiating team was empowered to exercise initiative in pursuit of those objectives. 
As the Bonn Conference’s 10th anniversary approaches, the fundamental challenge is simply stated: how can U.S. national interests in Afghanistan be achieved with fewer resources? This paper answers that question through an analysis of the process that produced the Bonn Agreement in 2001. It offers step-by-step recommendations for U.S. policymakers on how to shape specific conditions in Afghanistan, beginning with Bonn 2011 (Bonn II), for the post- 2014 period. Those recommendations include:
  • The United States must demonstrate long-term commitment to Afghanistan in the form of a formal strategic partnership announced at Bonn. 
  • Following Bonn, the United States must set conditions for a negotiated settlement through military and diplomatic means: 
  • The United States should announce its intention to maintain a reduced military force in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. 
  • The United States should fund the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) at the present manning objective (352,000) through 2015, then reassess this requirement. 
  • The coalition should intensify efforts to kill or capture members of the insurgent leadership. 
  • Bilateral preparation should begin with President Hamid Karzai and the issue of Afghan political reforms. Bonn I was about balancing control of central government offices. Following Bonn II, Afghans should rebalance power between the central government and provincial governments. Insurgents willing to lay down arms could play a legitimate role in local governance. 
  • Bilateral preparation should then proceed to Afghanistan’s neighbors and Russia, China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. This paper offers recommendations for dealing with each country in light of Bonn I and events to date. 
Without U.S. commitment through the end of this decade, Afghanistan will likely fall back into the civil war it experienced in the early 1990s. As fighting spreads, India and Pakistan will back their Afghan proxies and the conflict will intensify. This situation would not only create opportunities for safe haven for extremists, but also invite a confrontation between adversarial and nuclear-armed states. The growing strength of Pakistan’s own insurgency and the existential threat it could pose in the future intensifies this risk. The potential for such an outcome runs counter to U.S. and coalition interests. Bonn 2001 began a journey toward Afghanistan’s stability and representative government that has demanded great sacrifice by Afghans, Americans, and other members of the coalition. That journey has come far from its humble beginning and requires American leadership and energy to remain on course. 

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