Much has happened in Afghanistan since 2001, and there is heightened uncertainty about the country's political future with the security handover being completed, conflict with the Taliban continuing - despite attempts to begin a reconciliation dialogue in Qatar, the withdrawal of international troops proceeding, and the 2014 presidential election approaching. While the situation on the ground is quite different from when the Bonn Agreement was signed nearly a dozen years ago, the Bonn experience can, to some extent, inform current thinking about Afghanistan's upcoming political transition.
The 2001 Bonn Agreement involved an agreed transfer of power from one nominal head of state, Burhanuddin Rabbani, to another, Hamid Karzai, after the fall of the Taliban regime, and occurred without substantial violent conflict both during the negotiations and over the three-year period covered by the Bonn process. This is exceptional given that leadership changes in Afghanistan during the past century have occurred through assassinations, coups, forced exiles, and, between 1978 and 2001, devastating wars and civil conflict. Since a peaceful transfer of power is also a primary objective of the current political transition, it is worth reviewing several key components of the Bonn experience:
Some possible elements of continuity with the current political transition are evident. Many current Afghan political actors were part of or affected by the Bonn process; fragmented, personalized, factional politics remain extremely important; organized political parties (especially nationally-oriented ones) remain weak; there is no obvious candidate for head of state (for the first time in an Afghan presidential election, no incumbent will be on the ballot); and a number of actors - including some members of the "loyal opposition" to the Karzai government - desire to come to a consensus or at least agree on broad parameters in advance of the election. However, the differences are more striking.
First, all aspects of the Bonn Agreement were finalized when it was signed at the meeting, including the choice of interim head of state. A national presidential election is a fundamentally different process.
Second, negotiations at Bonn were kept on-track (and basically not allowed to fail) by heavy international pressure to conclude an agreement quickly and, during the following three years, to ensure timely implementation of the Bonn roadmap. Although the 2014 presidential election provides an ultimate deadline for any pre-election negotiations, their success is by no means assured.
Third, in 2001, the Afghan government had been devastated by two decades of protracted conflict and did not have any impact on Bonn. Now the government has built up considerable capacity and power, which can be deployed to influence the current political transition.
Fourth, in late 2001, the international community's engagement in Afghanistan had just started and was growing, whereas next year's presidential election will occur alongside the international military disengagement from Afghanistan and declining international financial support.
Fifth, the Taliban - widely regarded as defeated and irrelevant during the Bonn negotiations - are currently seen as an important force in the country, and are being actively courted by the international community in parallel reconciliation efforts, which may distract attention from the political transition; moreover, the Taliban clearly have the capability to be a disruptive force in the upcoming elections.
Based on these major differences as well as elements of continuity, here are some questions to consider as the political transition moves forward:
Thinking about these questions probably tells us more about the mindsets of some actors from the time of Bonn who remain significant political players today than about how the 2014 political transition might actually proceed. While some may be enamored with behind-the-scenes negotiations, allocating ministerial and other top positions in advance, and perhaps even hoping for an outside entity to serve as "broker," key factors that made the Bonn process viable and sustained it for three years are no longer present. Whatever may be decided in advance, things could go off-track before, during, or after the 2014 presidential election. Moreover, any agreements reached among various political actors and groupings (sometimes termed a "national agenda") would not necessarily have the internationally-backed force and staying power of the Bonn Agreement. Thus, while there may be similarities to certain features of Bonn, a Bonn-like scenario seems unlikely for the current political transition. Nevertheless, the Bonn experience provides an illuminating counterpoint to weave around and inform thinking about 2014.
William Byrd is an Afghanistan senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
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