Brahimi had returned to work for the UN on Afghanistan as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on 3 October, just a few days before the US started the bombing campaign. He immediately set about canvassing views among state parties and Afghans concerned – except the Taliban. Less than two months later, on 27 November, the conference opened, and only nine days after that, the agreement was signed. In the annals of peacemaking, it was a formidable feat of diplomacy. Even though this was not a conventional peace agreement between belligerents, who often take months or years to hammer out compromises, the speed was remarkable. Speed, it was also clear, went against Brahimi’s instincts. As he later said, ‘We were rushing in all directions ... I was the one who had to say “please, not too fast ... go slow if you want to go fast”.’
Why the speed? There was a race between military and the political logics. As the Northern Alliance militias raced towards Kabul in the second week of November, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell was calling for ‘speed, speed, speed’ to get negotiations going. The Northern Alliance, he feared, might take control of the capital before the other Afghan factions and the international parties concerned had even sat down to discuss the practicalities of establishing a central government and possibly an international peacekeeping force to help secure Kabul. There was also concern that Northern Alliance militias might engage in ethnically targeted massacres in the capital.
In formal terms, only the four Afghan factions represented at the conference were parties to the negotiations – the Northern Alliance and factions organised around exiles based in respectively Rome (with ties to the ex-King), Cyprus (with ties to Iran) and Peshawar (predominantly Pashtun based). Brahimi had insisted and the Security Council concurred that Afghanistan was not to be a UN quasi-trusteeship as in East Timor or Kosovo. The Afghans needed take the lead in the talks – at least formally. Official representatives of other nations were only observers to the conference; they were excluded from the formal sessions among the Afghans that only Brahimi and his advisors attended. The final agreement thus was signed only by Afghans and witnessed by Brahimi. Matters dealing with the role of the UN and ISAF were addressed in appendices and appeared as requests from the Afghan Interim Authority established by the agreement.
Brahimi scripted this structure and directed the talks. By dividing the Afghan and the foreign state delegates organisationally, he created a separate space for a relatively small number of Afghans to find common ground. Afghans and international observers mingled freely and frequently in the corridors, but the formal division gave some power to Brahimi to choreograph the international influence and lessen the complicating presence of external rivalries and patronage ties. Although the regional and international context had become relatively conducive to cooperation – Pakistan was ‘on board’ thanks to coercive US diplomacy, and even the US and Iran recognised common interests – many among the Afghans and the state observers had interests to promote and favours to call.
This did not prevent Brahimi from calling in external state support when needed, as he did at critical junctures. Iran, the UK and Russia were extremely helpful, he later said. The US was in this respect by far his most important asset by virtue of its military position in Afghanistan and consequent leverage on the Afghans. One episode is illustrative. When talks seemed to break up disagreement regarding the division of ministries and a key Northern Alliance delegate threatened to leave, Washington’s advice to ambassador James Dobbins working the conference corridors was clear: ‘Do not let them break up. Lock them up if you have to ... [O]nce you get the frogs in a wheelbarrow, you don’t let them get out’ (Frontline June 2002). When the still-titular Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, sitting in Kabul, became an obstacle, the US made him reassess by firing a rocket next to his home.
The iterative framework, with a two-year tight schedule of transitional steps from an interim authority to the convening of a constitutional assembly, pointed the way towards popularly elected government. Arguably, this made it easier to forge agreement on division of power in phase one, as opportunities for accessing power among those who lost out early in the transition beckoned in later phases. The agreement itself conveyed this point; it was a short, essentially skeletal outline of structures and an inclusive list of broad political and social norms. Constitutional design, such as a unitary versus a decentralised state structure, was not discussed but left for the constitutional process as designated in the two- year transitional timeline.
Brahimi’s skills as negotiator and authority were both formal and authentically steeped in deep knowledge of the region, including previous service as UN Special Representative for Afghanistan in the 1990s. Returning to the job in early October 2001, he worked according to a three-pronged strategy: 1) develop consensus among non- Taliban Afghan factions; 2) obtain agreement principles of the transition among Afghanistan’s neighbours and the major powers, the ‘6+2’ (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, plus the US and Russia), and other states concerned; and 3) prevent the political transition from being overtaken by developments on the ground – as discussed in my 2011 book, When more is less: the international project in Afghanistan. It was a rough plan in a scene with multiple actors and limited space for manoeuvring, and when time was short. By his own description, it was an improvisation. Though stressing the need for preparation (‘make sure you’ve done the ground work, so that when you call them in, you have a chance of getting somewhere’), improvisation is essential (‘it is “navigation by sight” ... just open your eyes and see where the wind will take you’).
Two months later, the Bonn Agreement was signed. Four years later, the political transition had been implemented, a constitution had been promulgated, and popular elections had been held for a president (2004) and a parliament (2005). Yet the vulnerability that Brahimi had reflected upon during the conference had come to pass: ‘Any grain of sand can stop our machine ... this is Afghanistan. There is a sandstorm.’