The smell of fiasco permeated the first hours of a conference in Bonn, Germany, where diplomats scrambled to revive their failing plans for the next decade in Afghanistan.
The one-day meeting was touted as a major step toward ending the war, gathering more than 1,000 delegates from 85 countries almost precisely a decade after the Bonn Agreement gave birth to the new government in Kabul.
As with the previous gathering in this sleepy little city on the banks of the Rhine, however, the talks were undercut by the absence of any delegate with even the slightest influence over the insurgency. A former Taliban ambassador, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, and former Taliban foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, were rumoured to have visited Europe last week for consultations on the process, but did not appear at the conference – and they themselves often emphasize that they don't retain much sway over the fighting.
The country most frequently accused of sponsoring the Taliban also boycotted the talks, as last-minute lobbying from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to convince a Pakistani delegation to make the trip. Islamabad remains furious over the killing of two dozen soldiers along its disputed border with Afghanistan.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Sunday that the boycott was "regrettable," but that Pakistani diplomats assured him they remain committed to peace.
Candace Rondeaux, a Kabul-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said that Pakistan's absence should jolt diplomats into understanding that their efforts aren't working.
"It's a slap in the face," Ms. Rondeaux said.
Even the Afghan President seemed almost apologetic for his delegation's presence, giving only a brief speech to the opening dinner. "We are difficult guests, so it's nice that you treat us with generosity and plenty of patience," Hamid Karzai said.
Few journalists heard all of his remarks, as the video feed into the media centre was plagued by technical problems, at one point, broadcasting a live feed of a closed-door session in which diplomats were negotiating a joint statement expected on Monday.
The gaffe went largely unnoticed, however, because few journalists were present. Only a small fraction of the 900 accredited media bothered to attend the conference after hopes dimmed for a positive result in recent weeks.
Nobody seemed more disappointed than the Afghans. Razi Mohebi, 40, an Afghan filmmaker, gazed thoughtfully at the UN Secretary-General as he accepted a boxed set of Beethoven's music as a ceremonial gift from the mayor of Bonn.
"May the music perhaps inspire and encourage you in your work," the mayor said, provoking a laugh from Mr. Ban.
Mr. Mohebi did not crack a smile. His relatives are from the Hazarajat, the central region that could emerge as the front line of a civil war if no political settlement is reached before international forces withdraw in the coming years.
"This whole thing is fake," the filmmaker said.
As the prospect of peace appears to drift away, many of the Afghan delegates – and some of their foreign partners – seemed intent on drawing up lists of items they would never trade for an end to the conflict. Some of them spoke about the constitution, human rights, or even the percentage of women who should be represented in particular ministries.
Those conversations at Bonn rarely represented broader Afghan opinion; during a forum on Saturday, only one person among hundreds was wearing a turban. But the voices reflected the internal pressures that will face the pro-government side of any future negotiations, perhaps limiting the scope of what Kabul will put on the bargaining table.
Here are some of the so-called "red lines" for negotiations, suggested by the participants.