KABUL/WASHINGTON Next week's Bonn conference on Afghanistan was supposed to offer a chance to renew Western commitment to stabilize the Asian nation as foreign troops head home after a decade battling the Taliban.
Instead it looks set to be a high-profile reminder of the West's tortuous ties with a country where they have sunk billions of dollars, and of Afghanistan's uncertain future as NATO nations facing economic crisis at home try to pull loose from a costly war some believe can no longer be won outright.
A strategic partnership pact between Washington and Kabul that was expected to provide a framework for Monday's meeting in Bonn of officials from dozens of nations has not been pinned down in time -- and may take months more to secure.
Pakistan, an insecure but powerful neighbor and perhaps the single most critical player in efforts to end Afghan violence, is boycotting the meet after NATO aircraft killed 24 of its soldiers in a weekend attack the alliance called a "tragic ... accident".
Hopes for an appearance by Taliban representatives and a breakthrough in reconciliation efforts have also faded.
And hanging over the whole meeting will be the weight of a decade in which thousands of lives and billions of dollars have failed to secure Afghanistan and achieved only fragile gains in education and women's rights, falling well short of the promises made at a conference ten years ago in the same city.
"There is definitely a sharp contrast between this Bonn conference and 2001, when there was hope and enthusiasm in the air and a desire to move beyond the Taliban and do reconstruction," said Kamran Bokhari, vice-president for South Asian affairs at political risk analysts Stratfor.
"Now you have Pakistan not attending this conference, so that does throw a monkey wrench into the system ... it's not really clear what we can expect."
World leaders had high hopes for Afghanistan when they met in Bonn in December 2001, just a few months after the September 11 attacks on New York in Washington prompted western nations to back the toppling of the Taliban government.
It was hoped civil conflict would soon recede into history and that Afghanistan would move into modernity, embracing broadrights for women and chipping away at endemic poverty.
NO HANDOUTS, NEW ECONOMY?
A decade later, the United States and others in the West have dramatically scaled back their vision of what can be accomplished in a country that has earned a reputation over centuries as a 'graveyard of empires.'
Afghanistan itself says it is not looking for handouts.
"Bonn is not about asking the international community for financial help. What we need is a firm political commitment from them to help us stand on our own two feet," deputy foreign minister Jawed Ludin told Reuters.
Western diplomats in Kabul say that the main aim of the conference is to show Afghans they will not hurry away at the end of 2014 as the Soviet Union did after their military withdrawal -- and to remind world leaders to keep Afghanistan on their agenda at a time of many competing crises.
Foreign ministers from around the world are flying into Germany for a meeting that is still likely to make headlines even if there is little of substance achieved.
It will also bring together an unusually diverse cross-section of countries with a stake in Afghanistan's future, from NATO members to Iran, Russia and China.
"When we're done in Bonn, there's going to be a vision for what the future of Afghanistan is going to be like," said one senior U.S. official. "The point of ... Bonn is to send message to Taliban and anybody else that actually international engagement and investment in Afghanistan is not over."
The meeting will showcase a scheme known as "the new silk road" to bolster Afghanistan's weak economy. U.S. officials will also begin pressing fellow donor nations to define future aid commitments in coming months, perhaps with the goal of announcing pledges at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
"FIGHT, TALK, BUILD"
In the past year the Obama administration has embraced a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban as a central goal. But there is little sign yet that embryonic peace efforts have the potential to yield a credible agreement.
"Pakistan's refusal to attend the Bonn conference is indicative of a broader discontent in the region towards the U.S.-led reconciliation approach of 'fight, talk, build,'" said Shamila Chaudhary, who was director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. National Security Council until earlier this year and is now an analyst at the Eurasia Group.
"Many had hoped that the fighting would have stopped in time for Bonn. Since it hasn't, the entire political process remains a big question mark," she said.
Diplomats acknowledge too that without the hoped-for deal with the United States -- the country that will have to foot the lion's share of the bill for Afghan security forces and more in coming years -- the conference will lack force.
"If we had got the strategic partnership with the United States, Bonn would have been more credible," said one senior diplomat in Kabul.
A framework deal with the United States for security collaboration should have allowed other countries to follow up with commitments to keep helping Afghanistan even when their troops are no longer fighting there.
WHO'LL BLINK FIRST?
The Afghans and the Americans both seem to think that the other side need the deal more than they do and are playing a reckless game of brinksmanship.
A main stumbling block has been the night-time raids that have become deeply sensitive after civilian deaths in a string of botched operations. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants them banned; the U.S. military says it can't succeed without them.
Another sticking point is immunity from Afghan courts for U.S. soldiers and the detention of Afghan suspects.
Afghanistan will remain heavily dependent on outside help. It faces a $7 billion annual hole in its accounts after 2014, according to a recent World Bank survey. Its army is unlikely to survive in fighting form without foreign cash.
Yet U.S. lawmakers facing pressure to cut costs are wondering how much they will have to fork out, especially amid questions about the reliability of a deeply corrupt government whose leader Karzai has at best rocky ties with the West.
President Barack Obama, eyeing re-election in 2012, appears determined to withdraw steadily as foreign troops hand control of security to Afghans by the end of 2014, even though his commanders fret about what they can accomplish before then.
But if Afghanistan splinters into civil war, the way it did after the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to army salary subsidies and weapons flow, it risks becoming a haven once again for militants who want to target the United States.
"Done right, our military drawdown will motivate Afghans and their neighbors to negotiate seriously with each other about their future," John Kerry, the influential Democratic senator, wrote in an op-ed published on Thursday. "Done wrong, it could precipitate another war."
The Afghan government is banking on a U.S. desire for future bases allowing it to keep an eye on Afghanistan and Pakistan as it seeks to neutralize a threat posed by militants including the Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda.
Yet the Obama administration is also grappling with another urgent desire: to finally end a long, unpopular war.
Analysts like Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington say militants are well aware of that yearning to go home. "By showing ourselves as wanting to get out, it's like showing red meat to all these groups," he said.
(Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; editing by Missy Ryan and editing by Anthony Boadle)