Fear of 'farce' looms over Afghanistan conference
A major international conference Monday will seek to chart a course for Afghanistan after NATO troops pull out in 2014 but a boycott by Pakistan has dealt a stinging blow to hopes for a roadmap.
The meeting will bring 100 national delegations to the western German city of Bonn. However a deadly NATO bombing raid prompted Pakistan to scratch its name from the list, jeopardising already modest expectations.
"If they stick with their decision to cancel it would be a setback," the conference's host, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, admitted after Islamabad pulled out in the wake of Saturday's air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops.
A senior Western diplomat went further, calling it a "pretty huge blow".
Commentators said the meticulously planned meeting, 10 years after Germany staged another international huddle on political transition following the fall of the radical Taliban, risked becoming a "farce".
"The entire future engagement of the international community is based on the hope that the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban will progress, and Pakistan is the key to this process," Die Welt newspaper noted.
"The Bonn conference is turning into a farce," wrote the Financial Times Deutschland. "If Pakistan's cancellation is maintained, then the conference will be virtually pointless on many issues."
"Bonn risks becoming just another of those conferences that have brought little benefit to Afghans," the daily Berliner Zeitung added, also speaking of a potential "farce".
German officials expressed hope that Islamabad would still be represented at some level, if not by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
Pakistan is seen as vital to any prospect of stability in the war-ravaged country a decade after US-led forces ousted the Taliban, which had offered safe harbour to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
An analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Christian Wagner, noted that the West and Pakistan had "differing perspectives on the political future of Afghanistan."
He said that while Pakistan saw the Taliban as a potential "bulwark" against Indian influence and Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan, "the international community is holding on to the prospect of a democratic order."
The transition to Afghan sovereignty, stalled efforts to reconcile with the Taliban and international engagement after 2014 make up the main points of the conference's agenda.
The guest list includes Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
NATO-led combat troops are to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when the Afghan government is set to take full responsibility for security.
There are 140,000 international troops in the country, most from the United States, followed by Britain and Germany.
The obstacles to peace and development are seen as enormous.
The UN says civilian casualties were up 15 percent in the first half of 2011 to 1,462 while the local military, which has cost over $11 billion this year alone, still faces major problems including illiteracy and human rights concerns.
Meanwhile Karzai's central government is viewed as weak and corrupt and the perilous security situation, including a rampant drug trade, has undermined efforts to exploit the country's vast mineral wealth and free itself from foreign aid.
German officials say the conference will aim to allay fears that the international community will turn its back on Afghanistan as it grapples with a global economic downturn.
Participants are to hammer out a final document outlining principles for international commitment to the country, while civil society representatives will present an appeal on behalf of the Afghan people.
But protesters have pledged to rally outside and say the NATO attack only underlined "what a disaster the Western militaries have created in the region in the last 10 years," said Manfred Stenner of the Peace Cooperative Network.
© 2011 AFP