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Saturday October 23, 2021

Afghanistan: the skewed debate

September 23, 2021

Weeks after the Taliban took over Afghanistan and formed an interim government, the global conversation on Afghanistan continues to focus on those aspects of the debate that the countries find relevant to their narrow interests.

For much of the Western world and the US, the principal actors at whose doors the responsibility of the present conditions the Afghans find themselves in can be laid are principally worried about the possibility of the war-torn country becoming a hub of terrorism, yet again.

In case any such scenario shapes up, their claims of having degraded the terrorist threat will be put to a rigorous test on the touchstone of credibility for their domestic audiences. It could also provide a new lease of life to the military-industrial complex to lobby for overseas military engagement in the name of fighting terrorism.

For China and Russia, it is the presence of terrorist outfits such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) respectively that can use the persistent chaos in Afghanistan to pose a renewed threat to these countries. They are also worried about the likely export of fundamentalist ideology that can add fuel to the fire and complicate the already volatile situation in their restive regions.

For China, the challenge of stabilising Afghanistan becomes even more daunting because it sees a stable and peaceful Afghanistan as a necessary conduit to extend its connectivity and development projects to the Central Asian Republics.

For Iran and India, the ascendancy of the Taliban as undisputed rulers of Afghanistan means a marked reduction in their influence. Although Tehran has engaged with the Taliban and even hosted its own version of an intra-Afghan dialogue, it will not look favourably at the political wilderness that its erstwhile allies in the Northern Alliance have been subjected to in the prevailing scheme of things.

Despite having improved its relations with the Taliban at a tactical level, Tehran will still remain suspicious of the strategic ambitions of the Taliban-led Afghanistan partly due to its deep ideological differences with the group.

The potential of realpolitik to shape pragmatic behaviours may be constrained by opposing worldviews rooted in fundamental principles, values, and beliefs that are the basis of institutional and state architecture.

For New Delhi, the rise of the Taliban presents a nightmarish scenario – one which the strategic and political pundits led by NSA Ajit Doval could not conjure up as the worst-case option. Clearly, the Indian strategic community finds itself in a catch-22 situation, trying to survive the shock unleashed by the historic collapse of the Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government.

The Post-9/11 Afghanistan, with the US-backed government in the saddle, incentivised the American and Indian collaboration. India saw this period as a mega opportunity to use the Western discourse on terrorism to delegitimise the indigenous Kashmir freedom struggle by describing it as externally sponsored.

New Delhi also invested heavily in Afghanistan in terms of development projects and by providing training and education opportunities to the Afghan army, government personnel and students, over the years. It also expanded its intelligence and operational footprint in the areas adjoining Pakistan.

The objective of this two-pronged strategy was to outwit Pakistan by: keeping it embroiled in the domestic TTP-led terrorism challenge, which was further aggravated by heightened insurgency in Balochistan; and putting Pakistan on the defensive in terms of its ability to articulate its concerns, challenges, and discourse at global forums.

This clever strategy aided by Indian friends in Kabul and elsewhere tried to undermine Pakistan’s credibility as a responsible state and sought to isolate Islamabad globally. Indian decision-makers showed a lack of capacity for imaginative thinking when they became heavily reliant on the Karzai- and Ghani-led governments, little knowing that Afghanistan is known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ as much as the graveyard of wild ambitions and strategically grandiose plans.

The Modi government sees the post-August 15 ‘Afghan debacle’ clearly in terms of the massive loss of investment and the emergence of potential risks that the rise of the Taliban poses. For India, the changed political reality of Afghanistan represents a strategic win for Pakistan, a prospect that is giving Indian leaders sleepless nights.

As the Afghans face an uncertain future, the potency of the bleak humanitarian situation was underlined by Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, during his three-day visit to the country. At the conclusion of his visit, he said, “The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains desperate…and if public services and the economic collapse, we will see even greater suffering, instability, and displacement both within and outside the country.”

Amidst this unfolding human tragedy in Afghanistan, one country that has reminded the world of its duty to the Afghan people and highlighted the need for a collective global action to avert the humanitarian tragedy is Pakistan.

Islamabad has not just been consistent in its message about the dangers ahead but also led relief efforts by being one of the first five countries to send food and medical supplies to the war-torn country. Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has been grounded in deep concern for the Afghan people for whom every political change has brought a new set of challenges and turmoil, pushing them downward on the human development index.

What is significant is a sense of boldness and clarity informing the Pakistani policy. With every foreign dignitary visiting Islamabad these days, the talk is candid and straightforward, shorn of the usual diplomatic cliches. The benefits accruing from a timely global engagement with Afghanistan are presented along with the likely consequences of the failure to act.

Pakistan believes that saving Afghanistan from exploding through assistance and aid will increase the international community’s leverage critical to nudging the ruling Taliban to come good on their commitments. It will also reduce the possibility of Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces becoming a new breeding ground for terrorism.

The world’s response to the looming tragedy of epic proportions in Afghanistan is one billion dollars pledged at the UN-hosted donors’ conference in Geneva, last week. The funding will be used for the maintenance of medical and civic services such as water and sanitation and help build education institutions for children.

While UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres may have expressed his satisfaction of the funding ‘expectations’ at the meeting, the crisis that the Afghans face is much bigger and more comprehensive than imagined.

Not to downplay the UN secretary general’s initiative, the fact is that the world has clearly failed the people of Afghanistan. Their welfare means little in the narrow strategic calculus through which Afghanistan has been defined and engaged with by the world.

It is an utter shame that the US that spent over $2 trillion with roughly $300 million per day during the past 20 years of its occupation did not feel any qualms about committing only $64 million for what US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, described as “…stepping up humanitarian action in Afghanistan so we can save the lives of Afghans in need.”

The manner in which the world has treated Afghanistan over the last four decades is a tragedy, but the bigger tragedy is how the Afghans have been dehumanised.

The history of Afghanistan has yet to be written from a humanistic angle, and whenever it does, it will expose the hypocrisy – nay the crimes – of world superpowers and be a permanent indictment of our civilisation as well as our notions of democracy and scientific advancement.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222