The United States is ready to leave Afghanistan despite the latest gambit by President Trump to call off peace negotiations with the Taliban. The US intervention in the country in 2001 has turned into a trillion-dollar disaster. It was ostensibly intended to punish the Taliban for sheltering Al-Qaeda before 9/11 and to prevent the use of Afghanistan as a terror base. But between troop surges and peace talks, it has lacked clearly defined aims and objectives. As a result, it has morphed into a botched nation-building project in the hands of clueless politicians and military bureaucrats in Washington. And yet another testament to American overreach and folly.
For some time now, the most persistent and magnificent American delusion is a wish to develop modern, liberal, and democratic states. Preferably in its image, even if conditions do not suit. Call it naiveté or arrogance, but many Americans have told me that if this worked in Germany and Japan after WW II, it would work anywhere. Well, it did not work in Vietnam or Iraq, and it certainly will not work in Afghanistan. Afghans, in particular, have a long record of violently resisting foreign impositions. Besides, ethnic, tribal, and religious divides are significant obstacles to building a national identity.
Irrational statements, though, will not help the US to extricate itself from the hopeless Afghan quagmire. To prove this point, Trump said that he could win the war in Afghanistan “in a week” presumably by dropping enormous bombs in an all-out assault, but would not because “I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.”Perhaps Trump, prone to making outrageous statements, did not realize that his statement implied wiping out about 30% of the country’s population.
Possibly the worse solution to the Afghan problem is more violence by the parties involved. The oft-repeated phrase about Afghanistan that everyone has blood on their hands isn’t far from reality. I should add that this adage applies to power brokers whose mischief and corruption have made the lives of ordinary Afghans miserable.
Bloodletting has blighted Afghanistan throughout its tortured history. Most rulers killed, maimed, or tortured opponents on the way to power and to force elusive modernity. The people, tied by tradition and religion, had to deal with harsh punishments, executions, and ethnic deportations. As the journalist, Maureen Dowd aptly put it: “Afghanistan is more than the ‘graveyard of empires.’ It’s the mother of vicious circles.”
The last king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who took the throne after witnessing the assassination of his father, ruled for about 40 years until 1973. Zahir Shah was probably the most benign ruler in Afghanistan’s bloody history, mostly because he favored the status quo. I visited Afghanistan during this period for the first and only time. I was struck by the sharp contrast between the modern and secular lifestyle in Kabul compared to the traditional and conservative lives of Afghans in the countryside.
Afghanistan has paid a heavy price too for its strategic location. In the last three centuries, Afghans have had to endure conflicts to do with British-Russian ambitions, the Soviet-American Cold War rivalry, and now the Pakistan and India enmity. If the regional powers, including Iran, can resist the wish to use Afghanistan for fanciful games, they can help to maintain a modicum of stability in the war-torn country, which will keep terrorism in check.
There is no guarantee that the vicious cycle of violence won’t continue after the expected US withdrawal. But America cannot afford to serve as the referee between untrustworthy parties forever. Like it or not, the obscurantist Taliban, corrupt and self-serving politicians, and brutal warlords are integral parts of the Afghan society. The country also suffers from gender discrimination, disregard for education, and religious extremism, which will take generations to change. More so, for a democratic system and a modern nation-state to develop seems a distant dream.
Many Afghans rightly dread a return to harsh Taliban rule despite the many shortcomings of the Kabul government. Women’s rights, freedom of expression, education, and democratic values have made some progress in some urban centers. But a broader range of interests such as women, local and provincial leaders, and political parties have to play a role in the political process to keep the disruptive power brokers at bay. Keeping up a fragile equilibrium between warring factions and an intra-Afghan dialogue fostered by the international community is the only path to peace in Afghanistan.