In a sense, perhaps a very offbeat sense, watching from afar, the coming tragedy in Afghanistan unfolding in slow motion reminds me of watching Samuel Beckett’s celebrated and dense existentialist play, “Waiting for Godot.” I am not going to try to explain Beckett’s play; it is unexplainable—or rather I should say it has been explained in a number of ways, all of which sound reasonable to me. Readers who are curious will find it easily on the internet.
In the play, the two main characters are waiting for someone, or something, named Godot who/which they have never seen, nor are they sure of what Godot is. And, of course, Godot never shows up in the play. We’ll never know who or what he is (and I’m not sure Beckett ever knew).
Whereas we who watch the Afghanistan political and economic implosion in plain sight know exactly what we are waiting for—the promised ‘new-look’ Taliban, a relatively inclusive and modern government in Afghanistan. And if we are waiting with bated breath and cynical pessimism, the twenty-three or so million Afghans who are on the brink of full-fledged famine and who have already lost, it seems, the basic human rights they had under the previous regime, are certainly waiting with fear and mounting panic. So far, I fear, it hasn’t shown up, and the odds of it doing so seem to be declining every day
What else could they have taken from the panic and desperation of Afghans trying to flee the country when the Taliban took over again last year.
It has been six months now since the Taliban walked into Kabul and took over the country. They arrived with hints of a new Taliban, one that would govern much differently than their first try between 1996 and 2001, when their regressive world view in general and their extreme oppressive policies regarding women made them a very unpopular and a very repressive government, a pariah even among the states of South Asia. What else could they have thought on seeing the joy of most of the population at their defeat and retreat into Pakistan in 2001. What else could they have taken from the panic and desperation of Afghans trying to flee the country when they took over again last year. The scenes of those so desperate to depart that they tried to ride on the outside of planes taking off will remain with me forever.
In that chaotic and dangerous evacuation, about 120,000 Afghans (and foreigners) managed to escape. And they represent, for the most part, the cream of Afghan society, the technocrats who can keep the innards of a modern economy and society ticking. Many have evidently ended up in the United States, but smaller groups have ended up all over the world. Many did not leave, either because they could not find a way through the chaotic maze that was the Kabul airport and its environs, or they had hopes that the promised new-look Taliban would magically appear. That latter group in now engaged in public demonstrations demanding their rights, including to work, and suffering physical and psychological abuse from the Taliban toughs who pretend to be police.
And these demonstrators will only add to the huge number of Afghans who also desire to depart but could not, and now wait for a way out. There was a report a few days ago that Qatar Airways will soon resume flights of people approved to leave Afghanistan. But approved by whom? The Taliban? That would be a nice money-making pastime for Taliban emigration officials (if there are any) or other Taliban toughs. But the more important question is whether the Taliban must approve those wanting to emigrate. If so, wouldn’t they be likely not to want to let skilled people leave. Another human rights abuse problem the Taliban would have to deal with.
I am sure that the Biden Administration doesn’t want to hear this, given its wide range of international and domestic challenge but the US will need to stay very involved in Afghanistan and the region for some time to come.
And those that need to be approved by the US? The Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago that six months after the process began, only 160 Afghans out of 40,000 who applied have been approved. That’s not even one approval a day. They need 10 a day to get close to finishing the job in a year. The Journal also reported several weeks ago that around 60,000 Afghans are listed as eligible to apply because they worked for the US government. Moreover, the New York Times has reported that there has been an exodus of a large number of Afghans, perhaps over a million, through Iran in the last few months. Despite the outflow, however, a major part of the Afghan population is facing famine and an economic collapse of the country. This is really where the rubber meets the road in Afghanistan, and I can envision a terrible conclusion to the existentialist drama we are witnessing.
I believe that the American public, which never thought much about Afghanistan despite our 20-year war there, assumed the US dealings with Afghanistan would decline greatly. But there is still, obviously, a great deal to do. And most of that will be challenging—dealing with a government which has not carried out its promises on anti-terrorism policy, thus still threatens our security, as well as its implied promises on a broad swath of human rights issues which concern the US as well as the entire western world, and finally, whose actions, or lack thereof, threaten to impede the provision of humanitarian assistance to an immense starving population. I am sure that the Biden Administration doesn’t want to hear this, given its wide range of international and domestic challenges—Russia, the Pandemic, inflation, etc.—but we will need to stay very involved in Afghanistan and the region for some time to come.
There are two other thoughts that come to my mind. First, the Taliban by its deception, mendacity, and narrowmindedness, have basically returned to governing in the same way as in the 1990s—which was universally condemned (except by Saudi Arabia, China, and some others which abjure human rights any way, and, though I hate to write this, Pakistan for its own idiosyncratic geopolitical security reasons), and I doubt they would have any support in any country at present for their recalcitrance, let alone for their policies. As one think-tank put it, “the group’s exclusionary path has created widespread public and international opposition and has created an existential crisis of coexistence between the Taliban and non-Taliban Afghans.” This can only worsen with the onset of widespread famine. Should we not say that the Taliban are laying the foundation for civil war, one that would inevitably again cause division and political turmoil in a region in which they are already in excess. True, there is no opposition right now in Afghanistan. From my view of Afghan history, civil war would not need a fully armed and militarized opposition and could be set off very rapidly. Or if not this year, are the Taliban not sowing the seeds of civil war for a future between the minorities, the regional proxies, and Afghan who have become implacable enemies of the Taliban.
And Pakistan, of course, is really on the front lines of this crisis. If Pakistan didn’t create the Taliban, it was certainly present at the creation. Their technical help and advice may have been definitive with the Taliban’s early successes. I remember that I used to joke that the Taliban had extra-terrestrial help on the battlefield—that on the first day of the battle they would resemble an untrained rabble; on the second day it seemed that General Patton (or choose your own brilliant tactical general) had descended from wherever he was resting and was in tactical command of an effective fighting force.
I think Pakistan has for many years imagined that it had more influence with the Taliban than it did. I remember the look of instant knowledge on a friend’s face when the envoy he sent to try to persuade the Taliban not to blow up those famous Buddhist statues came back to report the Taliban had just, as they say, blown him off. Pakistan appears to have the lead here, and I read that one of its major goals is to hobble Pakistan’s insurgent enemy, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), so as to eliminate its attacks on the homeland. And, from what I read, it seems that Pakistan’s envoy to the Taliban is receiving the same treatment from the Taliban as before. Now I don’t know all the elements to judge this problem, but it seems logical that the tactics and the strategy should be re-examined. We are heading toward a very volatile scenario in which violence breaks out in Afghanistan, in which many of the countries involved will want to help the opposition, and a few may want to help the Taliban. But now, after the Taliban’s complete untrustworthiness has been so fully demonstrated, any government coming to their aid would spark a domestic reaction that would remove it from office.