Sunday September 19, 2021

They met their Kabul: A comprehensive defeat

September 13, 2021

“War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means”. So correct was Clausewitz but he didn’t know that his famous dictum would find a casus belli for the policymakers to make military instrument a scapegoat. Same is happening in Afghanistan where focus of the world attention is on the humiliation faced by the strongest and most powerful military in the world. The situation in Afghanistan is being viewed from one eyed pirates’ perspective, only through the military cum security lens while the other damaged eye is covered.

The cost of war is calculated in terms of exorbitant amounts spent on military equipment, transportation, training, logistic built-up, sustenance and human casualties, both friend and foe. However, the other impaired eye that I referred to is the effects of violence and war on Afghan civil society. The proponents and stalwarts of the Civil Society Organizations are mum……pin drop silence as 20 years of their pseudo efforts are being contested by one simple question …. where is Afghan civil society? Millions of dollars were pumped in through mushroom growth of NGOs and CSOs over two decades where the world was given the impression that Afghans are standing up on their own feet to become a democracy.

Well, there are lessons for this covered eye also unless it so chooses to remain blind and covered. Afghan imbroglio not only has put to shame the most powerful military instrument but has also questioned the normative concept (mutilation) of civil society. This normative or western concept of civil society largely revolves around the NGOs and CSOs linked with democracy which to most in the global South is an unending Tom and Jerry show. One side hits and ruins the country while the other volunteers to re-build the society. In both cases, the winner is not the native population or the society. Soon the UN will be running to tackle a possible human disaster in Afghanistan. When Mongol’s lost to Afghans followed by the British and later the Soviets, it was truly a military defeat since only the military instrument was applied as part of direct strategy. This time under US coalition, the story unfortunately is different and more disturbing where all facets of human race failed.

Academics and social scientists over the ages have been engrossed to study the phenomenon as to how a group of like-minded people may affect the policymakers and the government for the “collective good of the people”. The idea of civil society without the recognition of the term “Civil Society” was first reflected upon by Ibn Khaldun, an Arab historiographer in 1377. He propounded on its dynamics as to how humankind while maintaining individuality, formally organize themselves into reasonably well functioning groups outside the ambit of the government and still strive for the common good of the people. For Ibn Khaldun, “Umran” the civility of society is measured though the lens of its ability to unite. His study on this aspect of sociology was not recognized till the early 19th century.

Civil society is an overarching term covering a gamut of disciplines like writers, artists, academicians, journalist/ media in all its form, lawyers, activists, literature, discussion and debate forums etc. However, it was in late 60’s that the normative concept of civil society emerged out of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “civil society” with a much narrower and restricted scope limited to NGOs/ CSOs and linked with democracy. This modern concept of civil society emerged as part of the liberal progressive movement in the West that challenged the hard power of the state. In Afghanistan, the term “civil society” was introduced in 2001 when public opinion was considered necessary for the Bonn Peace Process. The international actors hurriedly organized conferences to include the local populace and youth not realizing the fact that the Soviet invasion and the civil war had destroyed the civil society in Afghanistan.

Though present-day Afghanistan emerged as a country after the culmination of the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war in August 1919 where the British, laid the foundation of an autocratic centralized state ruled by an unpopular faction with an unsuitable model of government that resulted in inter communal wars and tensions. Forty years of war in Afghanistan since 1979 has led the social scientists to believe that the use of ethnic and sub-ethnic commonality to rally military and political support has created more ethnic cleavages in the Afghan society. For a common man in Afghanistan, ethnicity has never been an issue though has been used and abused for resistance quite often. It was the Soviet invasion and later the civil war that tarnished the societal structure of the Afghan’s and created schisms on ethnic and religious lines. The US repeated the blunder of a flawed political engineering repeating the cycle of factional violence.

Through media wars and perception management the world was made to believe that whenever Afghanistan or Afghans are referred, the picture of a poverty-stricken person in tattered fabrics come to mind roaming in a waste land of primordial era with no road network or any communication infrastructure. As far as building the Afghan civil society is concerned, two important questions must be tackled. 1) Was there any civil society in Afghanistan? 2) Can civil society ever flourish under guns? Since 2001, the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts In Afghanistan were undertaken with military instrument in the lead role. Unfortunately, the militaries all over the world have different approach towards tackling humanitarian issues i.e., the security-oriented approach as against the human centric outlook. The western concept of civil society was imposed on the Afghan’s which further compounded the complexities in a society that was primitive/ orthodox in outlook and sees westernization with skepticism. As a result, the house of cards built and propagated over 20 years with millions of dollars in the name of re-building the Afghan civil society and empowering the common people also fell within days.

As against the western belief, Afghans have a rich culture and had an effective and vibrant civil society that has been devastated under 40 years of war. Their concept of civil society was not confined to the narrow normative definition of civil society regulated by funding through NGOs/ CSOs and was never linked to democracy. The expression of their version of civil society is embedded in their daily chores and lived experiences in longing for stability, fairness, and inclusive approach. The Afghan’s refer to the pre-1979 era as “golden period” of peace and progress where central state authority respected local customs and acted as a mediator among various factions. Rich cultural heritage and various languages was considered progress and inclusive approach was rightly taken as a pride for tolerance. This does not mean that society was a utopian society, violence erupted when central government imposed western style solutions especially without consent. Many scholars believe that Afghanistan enjoyed a greater stability even better than most of the European countries before 1979.

Their concept of working for “common good” for the people is entrenched in their Qwam (group or tribe) which is stronger in the rural and mountainous regions outside the reach of the central government and weak in the urban centers. Apart from Qwam, each village was headed by a senior called Malik who acted as a bridge between the villagers and the local government to serve the interest of his people. Civil society is one of the victims of war and tyrant rule, Afghanistan is no different where each time with the onset of a major crisis, Afghan intelligentsia was either killed or fled the country creating a vacuum. During 40 years of war the educated people including the religious/ tribal leaders, artists, writers, poets, scholars and others seen as adversaries were killed systematically by the communists, the jihadists and the Taliban alike.

Afghan’s love music, poetry and literature, thanks to globalization and the cyber space, the Afghans are aware and alive to the geo-strategic and geo-political changes across the globe. They are keen observers of events shaping the world and it will be a fallacy to consider them naïve and uneducated as when it comes to power dynamics of realpolitik, geopolitik or kapitalpolitik they know the rules of the game and are the masters of these traits that the world has witnessed yet again. The advocates of western liberal democratic system need to understand that the normative concept of civil society has by and large been refuted and rejected by the global South where globalization is often confused with westernization. Local problems need local solutions.

Solutions with modern technological prowess may be indicated and offered only to be adopted suiting the local culture and environment with no compulsions or strings attached. Any outside solutions that are pushed down the throat would be temporary, meeting the same fate as has been witnessed recently in Afghanistan (they met their Kabul). Civil society in Afghanistan that has been devastated by 40 years of bloody wars cannot evolve overnight, the phenomenon is not a TV channel that is flicked from one channel to another with clicks on the remote control. Societies evolve with the passage of time, when activists, writers, scholars, philosophers, and thinkers remain in the country and contribute towards the intellectual maturity of the society, the “common good”.

Afghanistan will take a considerable time to reconstruct its civil society. With the scars of subjugation, deprivation, and most of all the turn coat attitude of the West, the future shape and form of this civil society is hard to predict. Seriousness on the part of champions of peace paradigm would be judged by their resolve to unlearn and revisit the basic mosaic of their concept of civil society for a country like Afghanistan where instead of dictating them what to do with strings attached, they should now be asking them in all sincerity “How can we Help”. Education embedded with critical thinking tools at a mass level is the first and foremost requirement which should be encouraged while taking the government and the local community onboard. The scarlet thread is to increase their stakes by making them stakeholders so that the Afghan’s themselves protect their interests instead of an outside force.