The Taliban Story: How winners took it all and shaped post-Taliban regime (Part 18)

By Arun Anand

The Taliban Story: How winners took it all and shaped post-Taliban regime (Part 18)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is 18th part of the series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at Here is the 18th part-

As Taliban got routed within few weeks of the US and its allies’ invasion of Afghanistan, efforts began in November 2021 at the international level to install a new government in Kabul to usher the war-torn country into a new democratic era.

While Osama Bin Laden still remained an elusive figure for the US and its allied forces, ‘an eclectic assortment of Afghan power brokers met in Bonn, Germany to haggle over the future of their country with diplomats from United States, Central Asia and Europe. Led by the United Nations, the gathering took place at Petersburg, a hotel and conference center owned by the German government that was perched on a forested ridge overlooking the Rhine River.’1

The Petersburg served as the headquarters of the Allied High Commission, for Germany after World War II and hosted numerous summits, including talks in 1999 to end the war in Kosovo. The United Nations invited the Afghans to Bonn to discuss an interim power-sharing agreement. The idea was to end Afghanistan’s long-running civil war by bringing all potential troublemakers, internal and external, to the table.

Attending were two dozen delegates from four different Afghan factions -a mix of warlords, expatriates, monarchists and former communists-plus their aides and hangers- on. Officials from Iran, Pakistan, Russia, India and other countries in the region also participated.

Because the conference was held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, most delegates fasted during the day and negotiated late into the night. The hotel assured its guests that it had removed Pork from the menu, though alcohol was still available upon request.

On December 5, the delegates reached an accord that was hailed as a diplomatic triumph. It named Hamid Karzai as Afgahnistan’s interim leader and laid out the process for writing a new Constitution and holding national elections.3

Many analysts, commentators and experts who tracked the Taliban and its role in Afghanistan have expressed similar opinion that the Bonn agreement was flawed because it overlooked Taliban.

Lakhdar Brahmi, an Algerian diplomat had served as the Chief UN representative during the Bonn conference while James Dobbins was a veteran US diplomat who guided these talks with Brahmi. Both of them admitted later that it was a grave error to ignore Taliban and keep it out of negotiations.

Brahimi said an interview in 2009, “We are now paying the price for what we did wrong from day one . . . the people who were in Bonn were not fully representative of the rich variety of the Afghan people.”

Dobbins said in another interview, “I think there was a missed opportunity in the subsequent months when a number of Taliban leaders and influential figures either did surrender or offered to surrender including, according to one account Mullah Omar himself.” He added that he was among those who erroneously assumed that the Taliban “had been heavily discredited and was unlikely to make a comeback.”5

“A major mistake we made was treating the Taliban the same as Al-Qaeda,” Barnett Rubin an American academic expert on Afghanistan who served as an adviser to the United Nations during the Bonn conference, said in a ‘Lessons Learned’ interview… While the Taliban was easy to demonize because of its brutality and religious fanaticism, it proved too large and ingrained in Afghan society to eradicate.

Though Taliban was excluded from the Bonn Conference, it wasn’t an entirely futile exercise as it did pave the way for bringing in democracy to Afghanistan.

Hassan Abbas says in ‘The Taliban Revival’, “It was a useful exercise nonetheless and resulted in the appropriately titled ‘Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re- establishment of Permanent Government Institutions’. Ordinary Afghans, especially those living in the urban centres, were full of hope for a new beginning. The conference’s deliberations duly focused on the political, administrative and security steps needed to chart a new path for Afghanistan. It carefully laid the groundwork for establishing political processes and institutions of governance and then leaving it to Afghans to ‘freely determine their own political future in accordance with the principles of Islam, democracy, pluralism and social justice’.”

Abbas further analysed, “This all-embracing approach made a lot of sense in Afghanistan, where religion and politics could not easily be separated – as in many Muslim states; but at the same time, America had its favourites. Some of them had terrible reputations, but their human rights records were simply ignored. It was agreed that an interim council should be formed, to be led for an initial period of six months by Hamid Karzai, who besides other things was a Pashtun from Kandahar. The choice of a Pashtun was intended to blunt the Taliban’s appeal to Pashtun nationalism. It is unclear whether the American power brokers behind the arrangement fully understood that, without any significant positive change in the lives of ordinary people, the intended impact of this choice could only be short lived. More problematically, the Bonn conference micromanaged the configuration of the first cabinet – even to the extent of its ethnic composition. A balance was indeed necessary, but now non- Pashtuns received most of the important ministries. The agreement also stipulated that a provisional government appointed by a Loya Jirga would take over for two years, during which time a new constitution would be written. This was a clever strategy, as Afghanistan needed time to emerge from the trauma of recent years and start settling down.”

Hassan recalled, “During a conversation in 2013 with a thoughtful mid- ranking American official with field experience in Afghanistan, I asked what he thought was the most important American contribution to the country. He replied that it was ‘the gift of democracy, which Afghans really couldn’t benefit from’. Further probing as to whether he thought Afghans were really incapable of adapting to democracy, or if a better strategy was needed to make it work, elicited an even more insightful response: ‘It is like we presented an Afghan with a new car but he ran towards us whenever he wanted gas or maintenance expenses. It was an unrealistic expectation.’ To take up this metaphor, in an area with no roads or easy access to petrol the choice of a car as a gift was anyway a poor one. This is not to suggest at all that Afghan culture is anti- democratic in spirit. The legitimacy of any idea is in question if it is seen as a gift from foreigners, but especially so if those foreigners are regarded as invaders or occupiers. For a project to have a reasonable chance of success, it has to be Afghan led and Afghan owned. Any hint that outsiders are calling the shots can jeopardize the whole effort from the word go. For the minority ethnic groups, as well as for many educated Pashtuns based in the urban centres, though, the road to democracy promised a route to empowerment. And that was a sufficient incentive to pursue this path.”6

(To be continued)


  1. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the war by Craig Whitlock (Simon and Schuster, Ed. August 2021) (Pp-25)
  2. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the war by Craig Whitlock (Simon and Schuster, Ed. August 2021) (Pp-25-26)
  3. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the war by Craig Whitlock (Simon and Schuster, Ed. August 2021) (Pp 25-26)
  4. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the war by Craig Whitlock (Simon and Schuster, Ed. August 2021) (Pp-26) University Press, ed. 2014) (Pp 26)
  5. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the war by Craig Whitlock (Simon and Schuster, Ed. August 2021) (Pp-26) University Press, ed. 2014) (Pp 26)

6.The Taliban Revival by Hassan Abbas (Yale University Press, ed. 2014) (Pp 83-84)

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