The world has been stretched apart from times we can take it back to. The best part is that, just as often as it has been rent asunder, it has knit itself together again. On the positive side, this may spell the continuity of life, but it also reflects its fickleness and its propensity to walk into blind alleys which are engulfed in darkness.
It appears that time has been at a standstill in Afghanistan for the last forty years. Every day, it has been consumed in the flames of war and indescribable destruction heaping upon it with ceaseless monotony. Men and women, old and young, sick and impaired — just about everyone has been a victim of fratricide, reducing Afghanistan to a shadow of a country. From the Soviet invasion to the Jihad, from the Taliban to the American assault and back to the Taliban, it has been an endless cycle of violence leaving behind deep gashes which may take decades to heal.
It is the indestructibility of the human spirit which, even in the worst of times, refuses to break down. It is thus no wonder that, from deep beneath the debris of destruction, calls for peace are echoing forth. It is time to head them and help them come true. Afghanistan needs peace. The world needs it, too. The challenge is to gather these voices for peace to initiate a collective endeavour for the dream to come true.
During their second tenure as rulers of Afghanistan, Taliban have promised much change. They have announced general amnesty for all including their worst adversaries, some of whom they are also trying to induct as members of the new government. They have promised to respect human rights and rights of women to study and work. They want to put together a government that would be inclusive with representation from all stakeholders and ethnic groups of the country. These are all feel-good promises. It will require courage and persistence to put it all together and then make it work, driven by the spirit to serve.
No matter how one looks at it, the challenge is mammoth. The last forty odd years may have impacted the fabric of the Afghan society. The daylight assault by the US and its NATO allies, which turned into an endless war, was aimed at destroying the Afghan spirit. They may not have succeeded in doing that, but they have caused immense damage to the national fabric which may take years to heal again. Alongside other challenges, bringing the society together is the principal one that the new Afghan government will be faced with.
During the tenure of the assault lasting two decades, the Western coalition comprising the US and its NATO allies, did just about everything to change the face of the Afghan society. They tried to bury it under the unwieldy weight the Western ‘democracy’ which, with time, was reduced to becoming a laughing stock as each so-called election proved to be a bigger hoax than the previous one. Instead of electing a winner to lead Afghanistan to salvation, every election produced unmanageable controversies forcing the US to act as the intermediary and reconcile the opponents to work together in a loosely-knit compromise. This was anything but democracy. This charade lasted a good part of twenty years producing mavericks like Karzai and Ghani to lead the charge of a country that needed genuine leadership to tackle its numerous challenges. Instead, their incorrigible tantrums and their immersion in piles of corruption proved to be the recipes for cultivating a spate of additional problems for Afghanistan. This was aptly illustrated in the end. When the country needed its leaders to stay back to defend it, President Ghani and his cronies preferred to run away with stacks of dollars in duffle bags. The others did the same in quick succession till there was no one left to stop the Taliban from taking over the country, which they duly did.
Is Afghanistan transiting from a so-called ‘democracy’ to an emirate? May be yes, but may be not! However, what is important is not the system that is tailored to rule Afghanistan. The challenge is to rule it well so that it is able to extricate itself from the cycle of destruction which it has been entangled in for a good part of the last two decades. This destruction had many hideous faces which is borne out in the SIGAR report made public by The Washington Post after a three-year legal battle: incessant lying that things were working out in Afghanistan when they were not, endemic corruption across the entire governance spectrum, an acutely incompetent, ill-trained and ill-disciplined army lacking in motivation in whom billions were invested from the US taxpayers’ money, non-delivery on promises made with the people, recruiting druggies and Taliban sympathisers in the police, ghost soldiers whose salaries were pocketed by the leaders, and so much else which reflected deep sickness having penetrated all echelons of the government. There was no hope in hell that things would work out. It is only that the end came rather late as, otherwise, Afghanistan could have been saved from a lot of agony that it suffered through the long years of occupation.
Having failed themselves in reshaping Afghanistan, the powers of occupation are now trying to subvert the possibility of relief for the suffering Afghan people. This is being pursued under many guises: human rights, rights of women, democracy, and so much else. The fact is that all this has been tried over twenty years, but to what avail? Was Afghanistan able to show even a modicum of progress when it comes to elimination of poverty, empowerment at the grassroots level, introducing economic opportunities for the people, health care, education facilities, and other essentials which are integral to a respectable life? In fact, the disenchantment with the incumbent elite kept increasing through all these years of busted promises when the riches were being stacked in personal coffers belonging to the ruling elite. This was the net result of the ‘democracy’ that was thrust upon the people of Afghanistan. No wonder when the time came for them to rise against the Taliban, there were no one around to do that. Instead, the Taliban were welcomed across the vast swathes of the land that they marched through on their way to take hold of Kabul.
That is not all. The previous occupation forces are now stopping the flow of funds to the new incumbents which are needed to run the affairs of the state. They are making the availability of these funds conditional on meeting a number of benchmarks which have been tried to no avail in the last twenty years. The US, European Union and the international donor organisations have joined hands in slapping this ban on the Taliban government to first comply with minimal requirements to prove their ‘eligibility’ to receive the funds which, incidentally, belong to the state of Afghanistan and which it is their right to claim as and when they would feel the need for the same. This denial of funds is an overt attempt to sabotage the prospect of the Taliban working for deliverance of the people from the clutches of poverty and deprivation. The very same countries which should be in the forefront of extending help and support for the success of the initiative have become the principal hurdles in blocking any progress on this front. This is a gross travesty of the humanitarian principles on the one hand and the integral concept of justice on the other. What belongs to Afghanistan should be theirs to take at their discretion. No external power should impede the way. If they do, they would assume the status of aggressors as the countries of the West would be in the given instance if they continue blocking the release of funds to Afghanistan.
On the face of it, it is a different Taliban that we have seen so far. They are promising reform. They are promising human rights and rights for women. They are proclaiming no vengeance. They stand for inclusivity promising a multi-stakeholder government. They have unleashed no vengeful steps on their adversaries. Instead, they are calling upon them to join the cause of collective effort. But, there are lingering doubts about the genuineness of these proclamations. There are those who advise caution lest the gory scenes of their previous rule come back to haunt us. Apparently, that is not likely to happen, but the real challenge in the coming days for the Taliban will be to walk the talk by actually practicing what they are preaching. If they come good on that bar, they shall win legitimacy to rule.
Afghanistan is at the crossroads between the lure of ‘democracy’ and the challenge of delivery. It has worn the ‘democracy’ apparel for a good part of the last twenty years with no relief. It is the challenge of delivery which should take precedence in the bucket list of the Taliban. In the words of Britain’s chief of defence staff Nick Carter, being the ‘country boys’, the Taliban live by the traditional tribal way of life and code of conduct known as the “Pashtunwali.” The Taliban know Afghanistan well as also the needs of its people which they have sworn to fulfilling. Carter went on to plead that “we have to be patient. We have to hold our nerve and give them the space to form their government and we have to give them the space to show their credentials. It may be that this Taliban is a different Taliban than the one that people remember from the 1990s.”
If this Taliban prove to be radically different in orientation than the Taliban of the 1990s, as they are repeatedly professing to be, it would be a great development for Afghanistan, its neighbours and the whole region. Under those circumstances, peace in Afghanistan and around may, after all, become an attainable dream.