Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the world seems to have woken up to the virtues of inclusiveness. The Taliban must form a broad-based, inclusive government; how they treat women and minorities will determine whether the world should engage or cut them loose.
To be precise, these are certainly issues of concern, given the conduct of the Taliban in their last incarnation. No one wants a repeat of those years. But while there is reason to press the Taliban leadership to do better this time round, the refrain about inclusiveness, shorn of any context, appears to be more a cover-up by the US and its allies for a 20-year project gone horribly bad than any real concern for the people of Afghanistan. It also makes for bad policy.
In an interview to CBS News which was aired on August 1, 2010, then-US president, Barack Obama, had said, “Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is going to be a model Jeffersonian democracy. What we’re looking to do is [to not]…allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks on the US homeland with impunity. That can be accomplished.”
This was one of the rare honest moments. Obama’s vice president Joe Biden, now the president, was clear then — as now — that the US should focus on counterterrorism. He didn’t pretend then and, frankly, he hasn’t pretended now.
As for the people of Afghanistan, especially rural Afghanistan, there’s enough evidence of how the CIA and the US military operated against them. A recent Sky News documentary on the Bagram prisons gives the world a peek into a long and ugly episode of human degradation. Anand Gopal, an investigative reporter who saw the war from the Afghan side, has penned a report for the September issue of The New Yorker. Titled, The Other Afghan Women, the report details the violence experienced by the women in rural Afghanistan. Gopal also sat down with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, saying “The level of human loss was really extraordinary. I think we’ve grossly undercounted the number of civilians who died in this war.”
In August 2015, at the Venice Biennale, Mariam Ghani, an artist and the daughter of Ashraf Ghani, presented “Index of the Disappeared” with fellow artist Chitra Ganesh. The Index, a decade-long work, was a physical archive documenting post-9/11 detentions, deportations and renditions by the US. She spoke in detail about the work with Amy Goodman. It was ironic that at the time her father was presiding over a political dispensation in Afghanistan whose inclusiveness boasted former warlords, drug smugglers and other charlatans for whom the US invasion had brought a cash windfall.
The spectacular way in which that inclusive political set-up evaporated as the US withdrawal completed should give those still lamenting that ‘loss’ some food for thought.
But none of this should come as a surprise. Report after report over the years indicated what was happening. As early as 2003, a Human Rights Watch report, “‘Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us’: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan”, warned that “Afghan warlords and political strongmen supported by the United States and other nations are engendering a climate of fear in Afghanistan.” While a plethora of NGOs and other agencies were working in the urban centres of Afghanistan to foist ‘modernity’ on that country, the vast countryside and its population was left to the mercy of warlords and criminals operating with the US military and killing Afghans with nary a thought for the rights being talked about and promoted in Kabul.
This was the musty underbelly of the US war effort in Afghanistan. The rulers in Kabul knew about it but none was prepared to do anything. The cash was coming in and everyone smart enough was raking it in.
The US made a mistake at the outset of the Bonn process by excluding the Taliban leaders who were prepared to be part of the post-US invasion political set-up. This is what Lakhdar Brahimi called the ‘original sin’, even though he had gone along with the US script when the process was unfolding. Now the US is making another mistake by wanting the Taliban to be ‘inclusive’ without any reference to what that means on the ground.
The interim government has made clear that it does not want revenge; it wants capable Afghans to stay and work for Afghanistan
The economic situation of Afghanistan is dire, with the United Nations and other aid agencies sounding alarm bells. No real effort was made in the past 20 years to help Afghanistan develop its own sources of revenue. The local partners had no interest in building a sustainable economy because the US and international funding had developed and nourished a rentier approach. The Taliban did not create or bust that unsustainable bubble. But now that they are in the driver’s seat, they have to deal with the situation. The interim government has made clear that it does not want revenge; it wants capable Afghans to stay and work for Afghanistan; there will be no bar on education and employment for women within the parameters of shariah (the reference to shariah and how it is to be interpreted remains a sticking point for good reasons). Last Wednesday, the interim government announced relief supplies for Panjshir; the defence minister has already stated that former Afghan National Defence and Security Forces personnel will be inducted in the new national army. Police officers in Kabul have been recalled and many are performing their duties.
But most importantly, rural Afghanistan is peaceful. People, towns and hamlets are not being bombed; there are no night raids, no fear of being arrested and taken away to unknown prisoners. For those who saw and suffered the US counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan’s countryside, this basic respite — what we would take for granted and be bored with — is akin to being in Eden.
But let’s go back to the issue of inclusiveness and unpack it within the context of Afghanistan. Inclusiveness is not just about getting representation from the ethnic mix of the country, though that is a good starting point. It is also about including rural Afghanistan in any sociopolitical and economic gains. Both the Karzai and Ghani governments had representation of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, the three demographically bigger groups outside the Pashtun demographic. Within the power structures these groups were represented by the very warlords whose venality, greed and power struggles had plunged Afghanistan into the chaos of civil war and led to the rise of the Taliban. Nothing changed for rural Afghanistan after the US invasion.
Inclusiveness is not just about getting representation from the ethnic mix of the country, though that is a good starting point. It is also about including rural Afghanistan in any sociopolitical and economic gains
Most of those warlords and other beneficiaries of the US war have fled. Ata Noor and Dostum, along with many others, are in Uzbekistan. The Panjshir resistance, for all its “support” from Bernard-Henri Lévy and the Indian media, has fizzled out. Amrullah Saleh, the Twitter warrior, is ensconced in Tajikistan, as is Ahmad Masoud. Ismail Khan played out early in the contest. Ashraf Ghani and Hamdullah Mohib ran away as Kabul fell to the Taliban. We now know that he lost his nerve. In an interview to Financial Times, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, said Ghani’s escape from Afghanistan in mid-August ruined a last-minute deal with the Taliban; it created a power vacuum which forced the Taliban to enter the city as it became chaotic. This is in keeping with what Karzai and Dr Abdullah said in remarks to the media after the Taliban takeover.
Inclusiveness must, therefore, be seen (a) in terms of power-sharing with other ethnic groups; (b) a compact that includes rural Afghanistan into any gains and subsumes local economies into the national chain; (c) takes into account the social and cultural aspects of Afghan societies (the plural is important because there is no one Afghan society).
Seen from this perspective and leaving aside the rhetoric, there are two primary concerns of regional and extra-regional powers with reference to developments in Afghanistan: (a) the Afghan soil should not harbour transnational terrorist groups. This would assume effective state writ by whoever rules Afghanistan; (b) that country should have a viable economy and political stability to prevent refugee outflow.
To make that happen is where international responsibility lies. This is what Pakistan has been constantly and consistently pushing for, most recently at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s summit in Dushanbe. Afghanistan is in urgent need of money, food supplies and medicines. The US has frozen the country’s foreign exchange reserves; the IMF and World Bank have followed suit. That approach needs to change. Any attempt to use it as leverage to pressure the interim government will only increase hardship for the population without necessarily impacting Taliban behaviour.
The United Nations’ Afghanistan donor conference in Geneva last Monday was a sensible and empathetic move. The pledge of USD 1.6 billion is a good starting point, but not enough. The Taliban interim government has already expressed its gratitude and assured that the money will be used transparently to help the people. That creates space for the UN, and by extension the international community, to monitor the disbursement of these funds. That is precisely the space in which other demands can be situated in terms of what is contextually doable.
The world can either appreciate the situation or, spurred on by unworkable ideals, situate the appreciation.