Having been treated with bitter pill throughout history, Afghans have finally given themselves a chance to write their own future. Will there be a fairy tale ending?
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | June 4, 2014
On Doomsday, I will say aloud, I came from the world with my heart full of hope
–A landai by Zarmina, an Afghan woman who committed suicide because she was brutally beaten for writing poetry
A misleading metaphor
For many, Afghanistan has come to represent the double helix of relentless despair and senseless violence. In a departure from the gloomy reports on the country, last year the New York Times carried a feature on popular Afghan poet Matiullah Turab. It is easier for Turab to write poetry being a male and a Pashtun at that, but the same crime often spells death for women. Notwithstanding the dark lines, poetry seems a rather sanguine form of resistance by a people whose lives and land have been ripped apart by years of incessant and intended violence. A casual glance over the timeline of Afghanistan reveals short interruptions through invasions, occupations and coups, bloody and repressive for most parts. With G Whitney Azoy’s book Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan (1982), Buzkhashi – a violent game in which horse-mounted players attempt to drag a goat carcass towards a goal – has often been used as a metaphor for Afghan politics. ‘Players’ here refers to the various ethnic groups across Afghanistan. This metaphor seems acceptable only if ‘players’ also include various world powers and multinational corporations. Ethnic conflicts have not been the inevitable fate of many states bruised by colonial scourge. It has been the curse of Afghanistan though. Afghanistan also has a far longer history as a distinct national entity than most in its near abroad. Hence, the weak/failed state syndrome in the case of Afghanistan can only be understood within a broad geopolitical reality where the state has served as a swivel for foreign manipulations and proxy wars that have given rise to particular dynamics of ethnic formations.
The demarcation of the nation-state of Afghanistan was negotiated through diplomacy and war over a period of 100 years. The foundation was, however, laid during the 2nd Anglo-Afghan war when the Durand Line (border between Afghanistan and the undivided Indian subcontinent) was created. The British invaded Afghanistan in 1879 and established Abdur Rehman as king. This was the first onslaught of direct foreign interference in Afghanistan. Rehman turned out to be a terror – notoriously called ‘Iron Emir’ – and created hostile dynamics between the various ethnicities which haunts Afghanistan till date. The Hobbesian Leviathan (state), instead of being a benefactor, internally colonised the people. A Durrani Pashtun himself, he was deeply suspicious of non-Pashtuns and is said to have squashed at least 40 rebellions during his reign. The British gave him weapons to create a buffer state between czarist Russia and British India. This struggle for influence over Central Asia came to be known as The Great Game.
In 1919, Amanullah Khan, the then sovereign, led Afghanistan’s independence from British influence. The Pashtuns were the largest ethnic group and had ruled for 300 years. A rough geo-spatial division of the ethnic groups which persists till date is as follows: there are the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur in the east bordering China, the Persian-speaking Tajiks bordering Iran in the west, the Mongol-descended Shia Hazaras in central Afghanistan around Bamiyan, the Uzbeks in the north and the Pashtuns in the south and south east around Kandahar.
In 1973, Mohammad Daud overthrew Zahir Shah, the king of 40 years and turned to Soviet Union for aid. Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and was to remain there for the next ten years. The US, in response, organised huge quantities of arms and military support for the Afghan resistance fighters called the ‘mujahideens’.
The Great Game was replayed, this time between the US and the Soviet Union, except that this Game turned much more dangerous this time round. The mujahideens were broadly divided along ethnic lines. Two of the prominent mujahideen leaders were the charismatic Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (vice-presidential candidate in the 2014 elections).
By the mid-1980s, 2.5 million civilians were dead or injured. There were 6 million refugees, of which 3 million were in Pakistan alone. It was in these squalid refugee camps that a generation of young Afghan men were indoctrinated in the strictest fundamentalism of the Deobandi school, a group which later came to be known as the Taliban. Also, since the orchards and water channels were cover for the mujahideen, the Soviets cut down trees and smashed irrigation systems.
When refugees returned in 1990 they grew opium instead, which became a major funding for Taliban and terrorist networks. During this time huge amounts were raised by the Arabs for the war; a significant contributor was a scion of a Saudi billionaire family – Osama bin Laden.
A Frankenstein rises
A security vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989 pulled the old, ethnic conflicts back to the fore and there was an assortment of violent ethnic warlords who created mini fiefdoms. The Taliban rose almost mystically from this anarchy under the leadership of the one-eyed cleric Mullah Omar, initially seen as a Robin Hood figure who saved civilians from the brutal ethnic warlords. However, by 1996 they had seized Kabul. This established one of the most violent regimes of the world with abominable human rights records and was universally shunned except for the diplomatic recognition from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan. Massoud, the strongest voice against the Taliban, was assassinated just two days before 9/11. The Arabs, including bin Laden, who had left after the Soviet troops, returned in 1995 to Afghanistan consolidating Al-Qaeda and finding a safe haven in the Taliban regime. After bin Laden’s attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 killing 224 people, the search for him became the driving force behind the US’s Afghan policy.
War on terror – an oxymoron
9/11 was a game changer. Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden. The US set off with a missionary fervour to dismantle Al-Qaeda and its protector, the Taliban, and launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the help of Northern Alliance (a group of non-Pashtuns fighting the Taliban led by Massoud) in October 2001. December 2001 marked the end of Taliban control over Afghanistan. In the same month, the Bonn Agreement created the Afghan Interim Authority. Hamid Karzai, a relatively unknown figure among the Afghans till then, was chosen as the president. This was the only period of relative peace in Afghanistan in the past 30 years.
Around the same time, UNSC authorised the international security assistance force (ISAF) to assist the Afghan interim authority maintain security in and around Kabul. It included soldiers from 46 countries, with US troops making up about half its force. In August 2003, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) assumed political command and coordination of ISAF.
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A sticky commitment?
The US had entered into a rather sticky commitment with Afghanistan. A decade after a very costly war, most Americans saw the US intervention as a failure. Amidst a wobbly economy and growing dissatisfaction at home, Obama in 2011 announced a gradual withdrawal of troops, to be completed by 2014. This has generated understandable concern in the international circuits, the situation being compared to the Soviet withdrawal where the resultant vacuum gave Taliban the opportunity to seize power.
Impatient for a quick settlement to the Afghanistan ‘problem’, Obama proposed to reach out to the ‘moderate’ Taliban. The peace process, however, broke down for a number of reasons, with Karzai being miffed that the Taliban opened an office in Qatar with its own flag portraying itself as a parallel government. As a result, Karzai refused to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA), which would allow 10,000-14,000 troops to stay behind.
Do hezar-o chardah
Do hezar-o chardah, Dari for 2014, has brought a disconcertingly familiar situation for the country. The year marks a very important political, economic and security transition for the country. After more than a decade of the Karzai government, on April 5 Afghanistan held its first elections without foreign support. The frontrunners, Abdullah Abdullah (former minister of foreign affairs under Karzai) and Ashraf Ghani (former finance minister), will face a run-off election on June 14. Both candidates have declared their acquiescence for signing the BSA. The security transition will depend on three main factors: whether US would keep special operation troops in the bases it has constructed after BSA, whether the Taliban regain territorial control (and the ethnic reactions to it and Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan).
2014 did not start off very well, with a Taliban attack on a luxury hotel killing nine civilians. March also saw an uptick in violence against civilians by the Taliban, with three suicide attacks in Kabul. Sahil, a 24-year-old Afghan student in India, says, “From childhood we have only seen guns and blood. We have never lived, only adjusted from one situation to the other. If the Taliban come to power, young people like us will be targeted.”
Quite clearly, the challenges facing Afghanistan today are grave. Its government is deeply corrupt and though some socio-economic indicators have improved, inequality has greatly increased. The situation will worsen if security forces leave.
It is important to remember, though, that the Afghanistan of today is fundamentally different from an invasion-ravaged Afghanistan in 1996. Less than two decades back the society was so afflicted with warlordism that it made the Taliban look like benevolent saviours. Warlordism of the kind Afghans are familiar with seems unlikely to return because warlords themselves have become power brokers in the democratic system. Additionally, the government-to-be is a legitimate one elected by the people, unlike in 1996.
Also, Afghanistan has taken some socio-economic strides in the past decade – 75,000 Afghans, including 35 percent women, are in university today, against 5,000 during the Taliban regime. In 2013, 80 Afghan youth came together to form an independent political movement cutting across ethnic lines, called Afghanistan 1400, referring to the year 2020-21, or 1400 in the Afghan calendar. This betrays a political will to take control, no matter how grim the situation. Despite the Taliban having declared their opposition to the elections, over 7 million people – or 60 percent of eligible voters, including 35 percent women – cast their vote. Contrary to expectations, the elections, for most part, went off peacefully. While Washington’s urgency in withdrawing from Afghanistan is understandable, a hurried deal with a ‘moderate’ Taliban is no better a face-saver than withdrawing abruptly. Afghanistan needs major security propping and plugging capability gaps in air support, logistics, intelligence and medical care, apart from security training. The least the Great Game players could do is not to precipitously curtail this support. According to most estimates, the US will contribute $4-6 billion annually to ANSF; a pittance if compared to the nearly $120 billion spent in 2011. The regional players, including India, cannot be a bystander especially in view of the major stakes involved.
On Afghanistan’s part, the new regime will give the best chance for the Taliban to gain a foothold if they continue with their deeply corrupt ways. Moreover, an effective leadership will have to contain influences of external actors much better. Afghan history is replete with the difficulties of reaching a peaceful solution in the wake of a military withdrawal but a contingency plan in case of failure of reconciliation efforts with the Taliban would be very much in place. Otherwise, it would be insane, as Einstein reminded us, to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.
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