Deconstructing Obamachov's Afghanistan
The narrative of the War in Afghanistan has consistently carried a perception that NATO troops are up against an organised 'force' of insurgents motivated to reestablish the iron fist of the sharia law. Be it the global news media or statements from NATO and state officials, there is a pursuit to establish a clear line between the good guys and the bad. While it may give a sense of simplicity to the conflict, it is a poor representation of the state of affairs in Afghanistan. The 'good guys' are in structured units and clad in distinct uniforms while the 'bad guys' are nothing more than names, primarily the Taliban, the Haqqani 'network', and Al-Qaeda. No one truly knows who or what lies beyond these names. For example, has anyone really asked what the 'Haqqani network' actually entails. Is it a network of militant drug smugglers? Where does the network extend to? Who is their leader? Is he or she still alive?
The overuse of these terms has transformed the names into anti-NATO brands which may as well encompass all of the people of Afghanistan. NATO may know but what they don't communicate to citizens across the world is that they are not fighting 'mindless' armed insurgents. They are fighting something much more dangerous and tenacious - an idea. This idea led to the brutal failure of three expeditions of the British Empire to control Afghanistan. The same idea led to the downfall of the Soviet invasion of the 1980s and the death of thousands of Soviet soldiers. This idea is best worded by Sir John Lawrence, the Viceroy of India in 1867, "The Afghan will bear poverty; insecurity of life; but he will not tolerate foreign rule."
Afghanistan, to a great extent, has been isolated from the changes in the world. As its natives have consistently faced foreign invasions, a warrior mentality has been nurtured over generations, which has been super charged with pride or ghairat every time an invader has been defeated. In the middle of Central Asia's ethnic focal point and having been a timeless theatre of conflict, Afghanistan continues to be a land of warring ethnic tribes and warlords. They continue to hammer NATO forces in sporadic attacks and retreat through Afghanistan's porous borders when necessary. The conflict has killed thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers and has spilled over into other parts of the region, most evidently into Pakistan.
In October last year, I attended an anti-war protest at Trafalgar Square in London, marking 10 years of the Afghanistan conflict. The protesters demanded recall of UK's troops from the war zone. Over there, I met Majid Khan, a news producer at Khyber News, the only Pashto language news channel in Afghanistan who provided me with a unique insight into the war.
He said that Afghanistan's warrior mentality has made NATO's military engagement and the campaign 'for hearts and minds' a futile effort.
"Whenever coalition forces move into a Taliban-controlled area in Afghanistan, the militia sends them a letter giving them the options of either paying a Jaziya tax (a medieval tax levied on non-Muslims) or a fight to the death," he said.
According to him, the coalition military needs to retreat from Afghanistan because after 10 years of violence, neither the US nor the UK are in a position to broker peace treaties. Even Hamid Karzai, he added, has negligible political influence across the country. In his opinion, political power is truly held by the warlords of central and southern Afghanistan.
It makes sense. Karzai seems nothing more than a rubber stamp leader, showcased across the world for the convenience of the international community, namely the taxpayers behind NATO's war effort. How can one understand Karzai or even the Afghan Parliament of even having any significant hold in the country if the world seems consistently worried about the Taliban taking over after the NATO pullout?
Majid also argued that Afghanistan's neighbours should take the lead in dealing with the country post NATO.
"Iran, Russia, Pakistan and India are in the best position to deliver a political solution for the country by brokering negotiations between different factions not because it is the right thing to do but because it's in their more immediate interest to have stability in that country," he said.
The problem with that scenario is that Afghanistan's 'nuclear neighbours' are not unified in spirit regarding the future of the country. Any ambition India and Pakistan may have can descend into the breakdown of the somewhat warm relations both countries enjoy currently and even spark violent skirmishes as Afghanistan is still ripe for proxy-conflicts as it was decades ago.
Iran and Russia will have bigger ambitions in the country, namely securing energy supply routes from Central Asia to the Middle East and South Asia. But as both will pursue to expand their sphere of influence, they may lock horns as well through proxy warfare.
Even if in the highly unlikely situation the four neighbours agree to a common plan on Afghanistan, the Taliban will make a violent run at returning to power, while both the USA and China may play backstage chess by maintaining a covert presence to prevent any one player from influentially encroaching into the country.
Afghanistan's neighbours are intelligent enough to not to have a significant military presence on the ground. However, even without that, with shifting domestic loyalties and a subsequent international competition for influence, the nation can once again plunge into political upheaval and violence.
NATO's pullout was inevitable because of economics and politics. Hit by recession and political damage, its member governments cannot afford to pump billions into the country and suffer the reality of civilian and troop deaths almost everyday. For Barack Obama, after the Osama Bin Laden operation last year, the announcement of a definitive withdrawal is politically beneficial before the November presidential elections this year.
Yet, the withdrawal in 2014 will not be in victory, it will be out of compulsion. Nation building cannot be exported or imported but requires a common pursuit from a majority of citizens. Afghans have fought foreign invasions for so long that even the idea of a nation has not had a significant gestation period, if any at all. Democracy and liberty cannot be taken like a pill. It comes with the evolution of a society which, similar to the biological process, requires time. Ten years is too little for the momentum of such change to take hold in Afghanistan, considering its turbulent history and situation.
Hence, even though NATO's work in development, women's rights and education has been valuable, it is propped up on weak legs. The pullout will leave a weak security infrastructure and will spur a race for supremacy between domestic and regional elements. In that clash of interests, Afghanistan's progress can be undone.
More about Ayushman Jamwal
Ayushman Jamwal works on the foreign desk at CNN-IBN.
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