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March 8, 2016

Baptisms of fire


March 8, 2016

The war rages on in Afghanistan. At the end of last week, the daily Afghanistan Times reported the deaths of at least 14 Taliban rebels and their commander in Kunduz. Police officials claimed that the Afghan National Army’s operation was a success, with another 20 rebels wounded and Taliban forces fleeing to a neighbouring village.

Civilian voices have, however, rejected this portrayal of a clean and efficient military wrap up, citing civilian casualties and the ensuing evacuations to safer districts in the province. The paper also reported the country’s National Security Council’s decision to uproot and drive out the Taliban from the northern Baghlan province, which has long suffered from the Taliban insurgency and where the security situation has only worsened in the last few months.

On the nation’s independence day on February 15, which commemorates the anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghan soil (there is another one in August that marks the defeat of the British Empire, a chilling reminder that it is war alone that has defined human existence in Afghanistan), the unification government urged the rebels to give up arms and embrace the peace and reconciliation process.

This call was met with silence. A spate of conciliatory messages to the Taliban has been issued by foreign powers like Russia and China and the US. Talks had also been planned to be held in March in Pakistan between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. The rebels, though, have upped the ante by denying any knowledge of the talks, again punctuating their response with an ominous silence and no clear indication of how amenable they are to this diplomatic overture.

At the same time, the Taliban are ratcheting up the pressure on the Quadrilateral Coordination Group: an Indian consulate was attacked last week in Jalalabad, following the protracted attack on another Indian consulate in January in Mazar-e-Sharif. Not wanting to appear weak, the government in Kabul routinely packages its conciliatory gestures with curt statements warning the rebels of dire consequences should they refuse to give up arms.

And yet the unease is palpable, with word on the street that the rebels are gearing up for another fighting season and a final push to capture Kandahar and Kunduz. If they are successful, it will be as much a psychological victory as a strategic one; one that may sound the death knell for the current unification government, which even now, critics argue, is held together by ever weaker and fraying bonds. Adding to the chaos are reports that Isis is infiltrating in the east of Afghanistan – a scenario in which all stakeholders and neighbouring powers stand to lose. This threatens to submerge the entire region, not only Afghanistan, in the ongoing turbulence and conflict of the Middle East.

Roam the streets of Kabul and you will witness an epic tale of defiance and courage. The city offers a bizarre collage of ruin and revival: ramshackle roadside cafes – with rows of baked naan bread hanging on display outside their crumbling sooty facades on one end and smoke billowing from barbeque grills on the other – are juxtaposed with the art deco exteriors of modern shopping malls. Street outlets with attractive displays of western consumer goods and barricaded hotels and restaurants converge on side streets, leading into bazaars packed with roadside vendors hawking raisins, almonds, cashews, saffron and carpets.

As your senses absorb the dusty, desolate and barren environs in which the city’s life defiantly throbs and pulses – albeit under the surveillance of heavily armed soldiers and machine gun mounted four by fours – you may find yourself occasionally being held by the gaze of an old Afghan man or woman. Stare back into those oceans of turquoise sadness and you will be transfixed by an unmistakable steely twinkle of resilience in their weather beaten and wrinkled brows, which speaks of survival through unending baptisms of fire.

Three thousand and five hundred civilian deaths were reported in Kabul in 2015 alone, and countless more Afghans have paid with their lives over this last decade, to see peace and security return to their beleaguered land. A less hardy nation would have been vanquished by now, and for Afghanistan to have endured is not for want of trying by its manifold conquerors, who have conveniently regarded the country as a personal chessboard on which to wage their wars of global economic and political influence.

Spend a few days and nights in Kabul and an invisible tension in the atmosphere will envelop you. Perhaps it is the paranoia of a new visitor, fed by media hype and the spectacle of guns on the roads and Apache gunships on the horizon. But that paranoia fades and leaves in its wake something tangible: an impending sense of danger, a presentiment of a catastrophe about to unfold, which always thickens the air and imperceptibly, yet surely, slows the ticking of the clock.

If you end up in a traffic jam at one of the many intersections of the city without traffic lights, you will feel that tension mount to take a choke-hold on you. In those moments, from the nervous lurches and stopping of your car and the noticeable beads of sweat on your driver’s brow as he frantically manoeuvres to escape the gridlock, often from the wrong side, you will realise what that sense of foreboding is all about: after all, suicide bombers do not announce their arrival.

Afghanistan is poised at a precipice, across which lie the hopes and dreams of its weary and war ravaged populace that strives for a peaceful, just, progressive and secular polity – the legacy of the late Ahmed Shah Masoud. For the moment, however, it gazes into a yawning chasm of chaos, murder, loot and destruction – the promise of the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Taliban. For Pakistan, relations with its neighbour beyond the Durand line are ever complicated.

Publically, we are perceived there as the co-authors of the country’s destruction, the aiders and abettors of the Taliban, concerned only with schemes and machinations to establish a proxy government in Kabul. It will take much more than gestures of faux bonhomie and political posturing to do away with that perception. In the end, a truly Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process may only be one that entirely excludes Pakistan and its desire for strategic depth from the equation.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir