There is little time to exchange laundry lists of blames for the decades of mess in Afghanistan. It is again at an inflection point and if there is one thing that must top the ‘to-do’ list is ‘stop blaming, build Afghanistan.’ Period. However, this is easier said than done. History teaches an ironic lesson: nothing works in Afghanistan. Afghans must save themselves from themselves more than external players.
The end of the American occupation of Afghanistan can be termed a rout instead of a calculated withdrawal and the return of the Taliban can re-raise the specter of their crisis-ridden rule (1996-2001) preceding 9/11. Conversely, in this uncertain situation lies an opportunity that must be understood and encashed.
This essay establishes the futility of further pursuing the ongoing blame game, delineates the expectations from the new government, lists the challenges, and offers main thrust lines on how to build Afghanistan.
The blame game
The so-called winners, losers, and their allies are trading blame. The futility and dichotomy of the two blame are cited below.
First, the U.S. never invaded and occupied Afghanistan for nation-building. If this is true, those Afghans who still seek shelter and a future in the U.S. should know better who to trust.
On 16 August 2021, President Biden exclaimed, ‘nation-building was never a U.S. goal… we went to Afghanistan [to] get those who attacked us on September 11th and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.’
Rewind to 7 October 2001, former President Bush also said, ‘… [we went to Afghanistan] to disrupt [its] use as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime….’ However, there is a small wrinkle of inconsistency. In his memoir, Decision Points, Bush acknowledged that he changed his mind after 9/11 and set the compass for nation-building in Afghanistan!
Global Opinions: “This was a disaster that was produced by four administrations, two Republican (George W. Bush, Donald Trump) and two Democratic (Barack Obama, Joe Biden).” https://t.co/xl6EM5XC1C
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) August 16, 2021
In fact, nation-building was American declared public policy since April 2002. While speaking at Virginia Military Institute, Bush said, ‘… true peace will only be achieved… by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.’
Bush wrote in his memoir, ‘Afghanistan was the ultimate nation-building mission… and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better….’
Second, the rhetoric of saving Afghan women has been widely used to justify the occupation, and many feminists in Afghanistan have chosen its side. It has been termed as ‘a tragedy for feminism.’ That those who raise this issue should ‘buy [women] airplane tickets and give them refuge in Europe and North America.’ And those who speak in support of Afghan women must open their borders to all Afghans.
The point being, let’s not pre-judge the new government in Afghanistan. We will soon learn if they fulfill the pledge of giving representation to women and give them rights according to the edicts of Islam.
The above-quoted myth of nation-building and the genuine issue of women’s rights shows that there is little gain calling, ‘I told you so.’ Instead, energies should be diverted to carving a better future in Afghanistan for the collective good. Any state that still looks at Afghanistan from a win-lose or lose-lose paradigm shall do this at its own peril.
Great expectations from the current regime
Pashtuns – aka Taliban – are the majority in Afghanistan and they are back in the rule after a 20-year cycle. That is the reality, and we must deal with it pragmatically. Both they and the world have a chance to make history and build Afghanistan as a prosperous nation. No one can or will do it for them without grinding its own axe. Yes, its immediate neighbors and others can assist Afghanistan in their self-interest but a win-win arrangement suits all parties.
Unlike their last rule, the Pashtuns have the ears of China, Russia, Pakistan, and even Iran. These neighbors realize that a stable Afghanistan is in their self and collective regional interest. This is the first heartening news.
Inter alia, Afghans have generated three positive signals since 15 August 2021. These pledges raise hopes for building Afghanistan as a stable and prosperous state.
One, the formation of an upfront and inclusive Islamic government after consultation with the top leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. A representative government that includes women, non-Pashtuns, and non-Sunnis will lay a solid foundation for nation-building.
Two, Afghanistan will not allow its territory to be used against anybody, any country in the world. The U.S. and the rest of the world should take a sigh of relief – no possibility of another 9/11 from Afghan soil. Washington can declare victory rather than apologetically defending withdrawal after twenty years of occupation.
Three, Kabul will work on its natural resources to revitalize its economy, for reconstruction, and for its prosperity. This is a very big pie that is estimated to be worth trillions of U.S. dollars. The U.S. geological investigation holds that Afghanistan possesses intact mines and natural resources which are worth nearly US$ 3 trillion.
Understanding the challenges
There are three major concerns about the present political dispensation in Afghanistan. How present-day Taliban is different from its Version 1.0 of 1996? Will they allow Afghan soil to be used for terrorism? How do they affect the region? It is premature to forecast how these affairs will pan out. Much will depend on the following dynamics.
The U.S., India, and the West are worried about Afghanistan’s warming up to China, Russia, and Iran. The decline of the American, Indian and Western influence in Afghanistan is indigestible. The time will tell whether these extra-regional players will work for or against building Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the challenge of Afghanistan again becoming the playing field for a neo-Great Game, the fledgling economy is its Achilles Heel. An economic collapse cannot be ruled out. Less than 5 percent of the land can be farmed. If the new government lives up to its promise of not farming poppy, it will need the help of its neighbors in quickly developing an agro-based economy.
Climate change has also been hitting Afghanistan since the 1970s in the shape of drought, famine, etc. The effects of this change shall be compounded if Afghanistan does not build necessary socio-economic structures and systems.
Read more: Op-ed: Climate change cannot be denied
Furthermore, the rural population has moved to cities during the 20-year American occupation. Resultantly, these cities have swelled immensely during these two decades without offering proper facilities. No one contests the fact that American money had corrupted the last regime to its core.
Economic collapse shall hasten if China, Russia, and other neighbors do not assist. Interestingly, some countries such as India and like-minded Western actors are proposing sanctions to fail the present government. They may also encourage the absconded leadership of Afghanistan to regroup and start an insurgency.
Measures to re-build Afghanistan
Some immediate measures for the present regime in Afghanistan for mainstreaming the country will be: one, to work for the international recognition of the present government and facilitation of a smooth transition of power; two, the essential premise that the Taliban continue to deliver fair justice; three, to stop the change being simply Pashtun and include minorities and other ethnic groups in government e.g., Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks.
The fourth measure is to grow beyond its Sunni identity and build good relations with Iran to transcend the sectarian and political differences. The decision will be a game-changer for the entire Muslim world besides bringing stability and economic prosperity for land-locked Afghanistan and the region.
Fifthly, the present regime in Afghanistan needs to make a ‘clean break’ with any organization counted as a terrorist. It should also usher in a new era of trade-based connections with China, Russia, and Pakistan, in addition, to help in mining and utilizing natural and other resources to revitalize the economy and infrastructure.
Lastly, it should work to complement China’s Belt and Road Initiative for greater linkages and development. Considering the dividends that BRI has brought for member states, China must offer the China-Afghan Economic Corridor (CAEC) to Kabul.
Given the Afghan inclination for implementing a value system that works best for them, it becomes more essential that external players, such as the West, should not judge Afghanistan on their own democratic standards and values- as well as rules-based preferences.
Avoiding such a grave error shall ensure a greater good. Like the West, Afghans must enjoy the right to have their own values, rules, and regulations implemented in their homeland and the right to defend their way of life like any other civilization.
Atia Ali Kazmi is a Senior Research & Policy Analyst at NUST Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.