Let Afghans Be Afghans
Seventeen years of foreign invasion with no return in Afghanistan. This means no peace all these years. Death and destruction amidst constant fear of horrible uncertainty have visited the Afghan people since the US-led invasion of that landlocked country in 2001, accusing its Taliban government of harbouring Al-Qaeda men. More than a score of mostly industrialised countries of the West exhibited their show of force and solidarity to topple the Taliban from the seat of power in Kabul and flush out most of Osama bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda troops.
Well, the presence of the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is now negligible and elsewhere, too, it has been marginalised by other armed groups like the Islamic State. Much is said about the horrendous “human costs” in Syria and Yemen, and rightly so. Comparisons are not always odious. Spare some thoughts to larger human costs for hellishly longer years in Afghanistan, where people have never had any relief since nearly four full decades.
No less a superpower than the United States finds itself involved in a losing battle in Afghanistan. When the foreign forces sent by more than two dozen countries invaded Afghanistan, the general impression among those with little or no knowledge of Afghan history was that the war would be brief and decisive. Seventeen years on, and normalcy is far from sight.
The ostensible reason for the invasion was that the Taliban regime did nothing to tame the Al-Qaeda forces operating from Afghan soil. The Taliban was hounded out of power even as the foreign troops were close to arriving at doors of Kabul; the Al-Qaeda remnants fled the territory long ago and Bin Laden himself was killed in a US raid at the dead of night in his place of hiding in Pakistan.
The US alone has spent more than a trillion dollars to bring order in the country, without the elusive success. During his presidential election campaign, Barack Obama had vowed to pull out US troops. Subsequently president for two terms, he did reduce the number of troops drastically but only to review the situation with additional forces and go-slow in the withdrawal schedule.
Come Donald Trump as the deity at the White House in January 2017, and the US policy saw a shift in emphasis. The new administration quickly prepared for sending additional 15,000 troops this year in that South Asian country where promises of peace have proved empty all along.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has not been effective, though he is liked by Washington because of his World Bank background. The strength of Afghan police and other security forces has nearly trebled in the past decade and a half, and yet two-thirds of the country’s territory is reported to be under the Taliban.
Trump insists that the Taliban will be tamed but such Trumpetage are most unlikely to translate into successful action. Much ado is made about the ex-warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s agreement in March for peace talks. Hekmatyar remains marginalised and paled into insignificance since several years. Whereas the Taliban has dominated the rebel scene, the Islamic State has also made its presence felt, with its 3,000 fighters operating mainly from east of Kabul.
A report published by the Institute for the Study of War in November concluded that Afghanistan is a “safe haven for terrorist plots against the US homeland”. This only underscored the gravity of the situation. Earlier this year, The New York Times lamented that the “Islamic State cells run in Kabul under noses of Afghan and US forces”. The daily newspaper described the “highly fortified Afghan capital as “one of the deadliest places in the country”.
The Kabul regime is a divided house constructed on the foundation of a compromise brokered by the US between reluctant parties that could not lower their prime sight on the seat of power. President Ghani and Government’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have an uneasy relationship. Not long ago, Abdullah publicly accused Ghani of centralising authority in contravention of the American-brokered arrangement that paved way for a unity government.
Such wrangling at the top of the leadership amidst increasing Taliban attacks in the capital lowers the morale and confidence of the government officials and security forces. On the other hand, the Taliban finances its insurgency with money from opium trade and traders. Corruption in Afghanistan being South Asia’s worst, there are many loopholes that enable the armed militants to wend their way penetrating deep into the national government’s security chain.
Kabul’s rulers have not been effective in toning up the administration and in bolstering the security forces with morale-boosting initiatives and confidence-building measures. For that matter, even the government runs on slush funds to manage its affairs. For more than a decade, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided a slush fund for Hamid Karzai who served as president for two terms. Each month, CIA officers used to drop off cash in suitcases.
Karzai and his aides used the slush fund to patronise or pay off warlords, parliamentarians and the so-called civil society leaders in the hope of their loyalty, if not active support. Such tactics only whetted the demands of the recipients whose commitment to staving off the fire and fury of the Taliban dissipated.
In Nepali, there is a saying: “He, who doesn’t know how to shit properly, must learn to clear it.” Now Washington wants a way out of the quagmire of its own making. The Taliban has so far rejected Kabul’s efforts at peace talks at Washington’s behest. One trillion dollars spent by the US having failed to end the armed stalemate, in the first signs of a declining superpower.
Afghanistan is described since ages as a “graveyard of empires”. It retains the reputation even after its 1919 independence from the British. Since 2002, US troops stationed in that country at one time stood at more than 100,000. By 2010, the US troops had spread to all the 24 provinces of the country. Some 8,400 American troops are now on active duty. But 40 per cent of the Afghan territory has always been under rebel control since 1979. Some 2,400 American troops have lost their lives as Afghan rebel targets. In fact, 1,100 lost by US allies that joined its forces.
A bleeding wound to American international prestige and a big drain on the resources of Kabul’s foreign supporters, Afghanistan has always been a least developed country in the post-World War II decades. The wars in the last four decades, accelerated by the 16 years of the intervention by the US, have been held before the Taliban like a red rag before a bull gone amok.
A survey undertaken by The Asia Foundation in 2016 found nearly two-thirds of Afghans assessing their country as moving in the wrong direction. However, Trump in August 2017 approved the deployment of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan as against his election pledge to rapidly end America’s longest war, which is described by the White House as having “looked different from behind the desk in the Oval Office”. Trump might live to regret the backtracking.