(The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The opponents of the Kabul regime believe that the government has failed on almost all accounts. In this context, mention is often made to the growing tension between the two power pegs within the government, increased financial corruption of government functionaries, the declining control of provinces and their leaders, absence of national resolve to enforce the rule of law, reliance on listing local militia to enforce government law and the failure to deal with surging Taliban, etc. They try to project that the government has been busy merely reiterating stale, hackneyed, and already proven ineffective stratagem. While there is neither legal, nor religious restraint to implement good governance – at least in areas under government control – no effort on the part of ineffective Kabul politicians is in evidence for a national common vision.
A few of them realize that perhaps Afghans themselves could have handled the situation, were there no other countries and their strategic games including proxies. Apart from dealing with the bloody outcomes of 20 years of war-like situation and 15 years of active war fought by foreign powers, the government is fractured along ethnic fault lines and fully exhausted. In such a situation, any amount of financial and military support would be inadequate for the government to overcome its myriad challenges. At the same time, the government must realize that it has no option to fail in Afghanistan, which has re-emerged as the new theatre of the new great game, dominated both by economic and civilizational conflicts. This time, the world is marked by assertive multi-polar powers and their fast shifting positions on old and new issues of world order. The incursion of religious extremism coupled with terrorism make this mixture more lethal and deadly. As a result, Afghanistan has become an interesting place to test their geo-strategic games.
It does not matter whether big powers win or lose in Afghanistan. The war was lost in Vietnam but it was not the end of the world for the U.S. China lost its war in Vietnam but it survived enough to develop as a powerful country. The Soviet Union could not establish an Afghan government of its own accord and had to pull out. Its disintegration followed but it is coming back more assertive and surging. Instability in Afghanistan is a life and death issue for Afghans, a development and connectivity issue for its immediate neighbors and general threat to regional peace for powerful countries seeking influence in the region through proxies and investments.
Many opine that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of invaders”. They forget that inefficient Afghan rulers have not met a different fate. Now when the loyalties are diffused and muddled, the ruling elite cannot afford to promote local militia and ethnic based affinities. More than promoting state agenda for peace and state building, it will turn these into Frankensteins or warlords of tomorrow.The government must break the nexus between the domestic vested interests in continued instability including drug mafia, and foreign powers with their hidden agenda. The growing educated young population is also mindful of the fact that nobody can progress as long as warlords/parliamentarians/businessmen are controlling their government. They want a clean government and more accountability and transparency in disbursement of foreign money.
The most important pillar of the strategy is that the Kabul government must be relieved of its burden of controlling what it cannot and be stopped to play geo-strategic games at the cost of the state. The government must implement its plan of reforms and replace corrupt warlords with honest influential politicians. The other pillar is the skillful handling of Taliban. The surging Taliban are hankering for due power and share in wealth. They are distraught over the fact that Afghanistan has changed and would never again accept groups with similar ideologies likes theirs. So, naturally, they are concerned not to be seen blocking national reconciliation and development. However, they mistrust that they would get a fair deal as long as US and other foreign troops remain stationed in the country.
The government must realize that Taliban are not going anywhere and it will be hard to completely subdue them. It does not mean that Taliban can replace the Kabul government or they can recruit new soldiers from returning refugees and villages with ease. Indeed, Taliban offer nothing to Afghanistan other than the security and vengeance against criminal warlords and foreign powers, which corrupted the Afghan culture. Middle aged and older Afghans might be happy enough to accept them as their fate because they believe that democracy and western ideas of economy messed up their lives. ISIS may make inroads in Afghanistan after being driven out from Syria and Iraq. Russia, Iran and China find Taliban the best bet to keep them away from Afghanistan. Get rid of Taliban and something much worse may replace them is the prevailing fear in these countries. Taliban must be brought into the political system. They aren’t pan-Islamic jihadists like ISIS, and they simply cannot be defeated militarily
Other Afghans who need to be watched closely and possibly may lose out in the new Afghanistan are Kuchi nomads. They are the people that everyone mistrusts; an average Afghan dislikes their readiness to work for Taliban. As an ethnic group, Kuchis do not get education and find themselves adrift in a country that is daily becoming more of a place they cannot understand and find at odds with their cultural traits. Taliban use them because of their knowledge of off-the-beat areas, which can be used for shelter and hiding ammunition. Kuchi nomads unfortunately are caught in a place that holds no bright economic possibilities for them.Can one blame Kuchi nomads for safeguarding their culture and way of living?
In fact, if we take accounts of U.S. veterans and their opinion on Afghanistan, no one in Afghanistan thinks of themselves as “Afghan citizens”. The first and primary united of association or identification is the family, then tribe, then ethnic group, then language, then Islam and then finally residing within the borders of Afghanistan. Afghans will never unite. They will continue to be “piece-mealed” by bigger and stronger nations, never quite dominated by others, but never quite united as a nation either.
For Afghanistan to advance, it is essential that the government, as a priority, should crush warlords, corrupt political elites and drug dealers and, in a meaningful way, deliver to Afghan people tangible benefits of peace and security. Till it happens, there is no winner, all are losers as under no other condition peace is likely to return. It is pointless to estimate that by an act of balancing interests of states seeking political and economic influence in Afghanistan, the country can achieve acceptable measure of stability. Easier said than done, the Afghan government is pitted against all odds and hence has to show patience necessary for a long haul.