Tuesday January 18, 2022

Chasing shadows

December 17, 2021

“Just as there are two sides to every story, there are two sides to every person. One that we reveal to the world and another we keep hidden inside.” – Emily Thorne

There are all kinds of doomsday scenarios being enacted for how things are going to work out in Afghanistan, none of which makes for pleasant reading. But there may actually be nothing pleasant left after the country was so mercilessly ravaged in the name of democracy, human rights, civil liberties and chasing ghostly shadows.

The US has lost a war in Afghanistan. The over two-decade venture has turned out to be a disaster. They tried to impose a system that was alien to the Afghan psyche. It remained a sign of embellishment in uptown Kabul and some other cities, but no manifestation was visible in the vast swathes of rural Afghanistan. This is not the first time it has happened. History is replete with other similar instances when the US wreaked indescribable destruction, yet victory evaded them.

Now, vengeance is being sought from the people of Afghanistan. They are being subjected to deprivation and starvation. They are being stricken with health crises. As recently reported by ‘The Telegraph’, in an open letter sent by several agencies still working in the country, they have contended that “sanctions would kill more Afghans than the war has”.

What belongs to the Afghan people is being withheld from them. In a series of interviews by the same paper, people shared the belief that “poverty was here before. The government (installed by the US) stole all the money and now the (same) foreigners have frozen the funds”. The report cites the UK and several European countries unsuccessfully urging a “more pragmatic approach” to deal with the Taliban. They have expressed the fear that “isolating the country’s new rulers would lead to more extremism, a humanitarian collapse and an exodus of refugees”.

One has to measure the veracity of these projections by the objectives of the operation that was launched in Afghanistan back in 2001 and how it was conducted over more than 20 years. A lot of it is already listed in the Afghanistan Papers titled ‘At war with the truth’. Washington Post secured access to these papers after a legal battle stretching over three years. This not-so-secret history of the war has since been compiled into book form by Craig Whitlock.

Some of the sub-titles used would take the reader through a kaleidoscope of dungeons which the Afghanistan operation plunged the country into: “A muddled mission”, “Afghanistan becomes an afterthought”, “Playing both sides”, “Lies and spin”, “An incoherent strategy”, “A dark pit of endless money”, “Consumed by corruption”, “At war with the truth”, “The enemy within” and “The grand illusion”. The Afghanistan Papers are worth a read to decipher the truth from the lies and to gauge the enormity of the challenge that stares the world in the context of rebuilding the country.

Having come this far by wading through a river of suffering and dehumanisation, the task of working by some shred of rationale in a country devastated by over four decades of perpetual war looks extraordinarily daunting. This is not a time to seek revenge. It is a time to show empathy and work for people’s deliverance from the clutches of hunger and sickness. It is time to help mothers so that they are not forced into selling their children. It is time to lift the inhuman sanctions so that economic activity could return to bring some level of normalcy. It is time to release Afghanistan’s assets to be used for bringing relief to the impoverished people. Taliban or no Taliban, it is now time to let Afghanistan and its people breathe.

In a welcome move, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) donors have decided to transfer $280 million to Unicef and the World Food Programme (WFP) as a first step to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. Unicef will receive $100 million to provide essential health services and $180 million will go to the WFP to scale up food security and nutrition operations in the country. It is expected that further funds will be released in the future to support the Afghan people.

The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) gathering in Islamabad on December 19 is also poised to look into ways and mechanisms to provide relief to the Afghan people. Unlike the ARTF funding, which will be disbursed through the operational NGOs, it is expected that the relief provisioned in the OIC moot will be routed through the Afghan government. It is also expected that a Taliban delegation will be invited to be present during the OIC deliberations.

At a different level, there is virtual unanimity among the regional countries to work for peace by getting the Afghanistan government on board. The region has been subjected to perpetual destabilisation which has been at a huge cost to the welfare of the ordinary people. It is time to undo that and inject some sanity into policies concerning Afghanistan. There comes a time when lumps of hubris accumulated through years of disdainful indulgences have to be consigned to a side and a pragmatic course formalised that would work for the betterment of the people who have been the worst affected by a prolonged war stretching to over forty years. It is time for peace to return so that work for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the ravaged country can begin.

The question of formal recognition to the Taliban government may not be on the cards at the forthcoming OIC moot. It may not even be discussed. But, in the current context, it is a key issue which needs to be debated. It has been over four months since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan – a control which, by all accounts, appears to have been accepted within the country. If the people of Afghanistan have to be provided relief, the government cannot be kept out of the chain. It is a vital link.

The world, most notably Afghanistan’s neighbours and the regional countries, need to interact with the new government on matters of mutual importance and relevance. A de facto recognition may already have been granted to the new regime, but it may be time to seriously ponder about turning the status to de jure. Persuasion always works better through engagement rather than by dealing from afar, thus leaving spaces of alienation separating the constituent parties.

Provision of relief cannot be muddled with seeking revenge. It is time to stop chasing ghostly shadows and commence the journey for securing peace in earnest.

The writer is the special assistant to the PM on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute. He tweets @RaoofHasan