Monday was the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival into the United States. Coincidentally, here in the American Midwest, we had a discussion about the United States’ “arrival” into Afghanistan. We even mentioned the dangers for the United States of being seen as an occupying power promoting a neo-colonial project. But first things first. We kicked it off by talking about the week and months that followed the fall of the Taliban regime. We mostly talked about the Bonn agreement that was signed in December 2001 and the vision of a light international involvement that prevailed at the time (the so-called “light footprint” approach).
Why is the Bonn agreement so important? What is so special about it? And why do people keep mentioning it, almost nine years later? Well, first, it is not even a real peace agreement. The enemy was excluded from the discussions. So it was mostly a blueprint for future power-sharing among the remaining political actors after we got rid of the Taliban (who, up to that day, represented the most powerful political actor). A passionate debate raged in class about whether the Taliban should have been invited to Bonn or not. Some argued that excluding them was a strategic mistake. Others believe that emotions were running so high that it would have been impossible to openly negotiate with the Taliban only three months after the events of 09/11. Nine years later, this is all hypothetical of course. But what should be done now? Is the Afghan government right to talk to the Taliban? What about the other non-state armed actors (the so-called warlords)? Should they also be involved in the future political project?
We then spent the remaining time discussing the “light footprint.” We talked about the many reasons that might explain the adoption of that hands-off approach. We evoked the risks of getting sucked into a new quagmire (based not only on the American experience in Vietnam, but also on the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan and the Bush administration’s defiance towards nation-building), the lack of resources (in part due to the already existing plan to invade Iraq), the dangers of being considered as an occupying force, or the (naïve?) neo-cons’ ideology concerning regime-change.
We pointed out that this Cornelian dilemma (having to choose between a “light footprint” and a heavier one) was something policy-makers had already experienced in the past. The war in Vietnam was taken as an example. We also discussed previous international interventions in Bosnia, East-Timor and Kosovo. We then tried to understand how the international community shifted from a light counter-terrorism operation to a much heavier counterinsurgency. Finally, we discussed the opportunity of going back to a “light footprint” today. Is it feasible, or would it be a disaster for Afghanistan?