Afghanistan — the irony of multiplicity -Express Tribune

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The year is 2018 and America and the NATO alliance reach the inevitable conclusion regarding the longest war in Afghanistan. That the approaches recommended by all and sundry, the PhDs in this or that discipline for stabilising failing nations had failed. That from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency to nation-building to turning Afghanistan into a modern state had failed and failed spectacularly; in a war, that was always ‘in search of a strategy’.

That the fourth President of the United States, pursuing the war in Afghanistan, Doanld Trump had finally realised the futility of military solution and wanted badly to leave the impoverished country that the US had bombed and ravaged with abandon. That an agreement with the Taliban, the nemesis, could provide them a face-saving exit.

So, the parleys under an erstwhile American Afghan, Zalmay Khalilzad, started in Doha to yield the 29th February 2020 agreement or ‘Doha Accord’. In return for the US withdrawal, the Taliban promised not to let Afghan soil be used against the US/its Western Allies again. There was agreement to start intra-Afghan dialogue leading to power-sharing among Afghans and potential ceasefire. The Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban were to free prisoners as confidence-building measures. The West was to lift sanctions against Taliban leadership. And led by the US, Western nations were to provide the needed assistance in building the post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

The deal started to unravel almost immediately due to intransigence of Ashraf Ghani government, misreading the reality of the US situation. He was until 14th August 2021 unsure that the US would actually leave and throw him under the proverbial Taliban truck. Hence, he dithered on releasing the Taliban prisoners as agreed. This single most impediment vitiated the environment for a peaceful transfer of authority in Kabul. When asked to resign in the greater Afghan interest, Ashraf Ghani refused…chest thumping the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), once again unable to read the reality of these hired guns. Then 15th August saw the inevitable happen — despite the expectations of a vast majority of the so-called Afghan analysts — Taliban took control of Kabul and most of Afghanistan. And President Ghani fled to the UAE with stolen dollars.

Leaders unable to read the situation correctly, and not having the benefit of good, competent and untainted aides, end up with ignonimity as their legacy. Had Ashraf Ghani agreed to step down, as demanded by the Taliban (now the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan/IEA), Afghan people, whose cause he claimed to champion, would have fared better. But then history would not have changed course, as it did.

Turning to the main actors, the US/NATO and the West in general. Again, inability to read the situation correctly led to the shameful saga at the Kabul airport with Afghans stampeding to leave their country. These included US/NATO’s local employees, aiders/abettors, collaborators who had thrown their lot with the West, gullible Afghans made to fear the IEA rule and opportunity seeking youngsters. All stormed the only functional airport to leave for greener pastures.

Here too, the IEA soldiers protected the US/NATO troops from attacks just like they did, when the foreign troops were converging from distant bases to Bagram to finally end the occupation of Afghanistan. Here too, protection of Western life remained the ‘only dominant’ consideration behind the withdrawal. IEA ensured safety of the withdrawing foreigners openly and discreetly.

Generals and statesmen harbour grudges especially when they cannot twist the opponent’s arm enough. One never expected the US Military, the CIA and the Pentagon to ‘gulp down’ defeat at the hands of the rag-tag Taliban, in what, ‘…was a defining war for the future of the Islamic world, and no matter what, we [the US] must [have] prevail[ed]…to quote from Khalilzad. Therefore, there is every effort to ‘imposing a failure on the IEA’.

Although millions of Afghans face starvation this winter, the champions of global conscience would not budge. They would not only go back on their commitments under the Accord, they would hold the over $9 billion of Afghan money kept in the US…in blatant violation of international law, morality and their own high-sounding ethical standards. The talk of paying part of this money in damages to the affected families of 9/11 is abhorrent. What if Afghans demand reparations for the occupation, for the bombing of marriage parties and funerals in the errant US/NATO air strikes?

Not only that, the powers that be would order other Western governments as well as IMF, WB and other donor agencies to hold back funding their existing programmes and additional aid. And all this under the flimsy veneer of inclusivity in the IEA and protection of minority/women rights…ill-defined by Afghan standards.

Meanwhile the very Afghans, they claim to protect continue to suffer. According to the UN World Food Programme estimates, more than half of the Afghan population — about 22.8 million people (including women and minorities in particular) — face acute food scarcity. And around 3.2 million children (both genders) under-five are threatened by acute malnutrition.

What is the end-state, sought in this economic and political coercion of the IEA? Impose a failure…to what end? Sow anarchy, bring back a failed order or direct rule from Washington? But then, hadn’t the level-heads in the Western World concluded that Taliban only could deliver where the Western might had consistently failed for over twenty years, carelessly spilling blood and wasting treasure? And what happens if the IEA fails? What would be next for Afghans including those in love with the Western ethos?

And the Islamic world, shamelessly hiding behind the smoke screen of non-recognition of the IEA, is watching the situation, going from bad to worse. The champions of Islamic solidarity should be campaigning right now for recognition of the IEA, using the platform of OIC; if they were too afraid to use their national platforms.

It is Pakistan alone, with some subdued support from regional countries, which stands with impoverished Afghans. Political disagreements aside, the Government of PM Imran Khan deserves full marks for executing a truncated version of the ‘Afghan Marshal Plan’ from Pakistan’s own limited resources.

Shame on the world conscience, shame on the champions of Islamic solidarity…but this too shall pass. Afghans baqi…kuhsar baqi.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2021.