What path lies ahead for Afghanistan?
From 1979 onwards, since the Soviet Army moved into Afghanistan to support Babrak Karmal and the communist regime, the country has been embroiled in one conflict after another. Recently, on February 20, 2020, the US government and the Taliban signed a peace treaty to enable US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan after almost two decades. The title of the draft treaty is rather amusing, "Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America". In accordance with this agreement, all US troops will be withdrawn by May 1, 2021. The Biden Administration is still in two minds about whether to fulfil its obligation or bend to the wishes of the Ghani government and stay in Afghanistan and flex its military power to keep the resurgent Talibans in check.
I have mixed feelings about Afghanistan. I am anxiously looking forward to the day when American troops, who went there in 2001 almost as an invading force, will vacate the military bases and leave the country. After a long 19 years, more than USD 2 trillion spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, mostly Afghans, the proud nation of Afghanistan can finally embark on a journey to find its own destiny in the 21st century. However, the path ahead may not be as clear and unhindered as one would hope. There are rumours that Biden will not stick to the commitment made with the Taliban.
I grew up with stories of Afghanistan—a magical land—and the inhabitants of this land, where mythical characters such as Shabnam and Abdur Rahman, and of course Baccha-e-Saqao, were immortalised by the writer Syed Mujtaba Ali. In his book, Deshe Bideshe, Mujtaba Ali delves into the heart of this nation which he became familiar with during his stay in Afghanistan during 1927-29. In Deshe Bideshe, Mujtaba Ali describes the first few days of his life in Kabul after travelling from Sylhet in 1927. "I rented a house in the village of Khwajamollah, about two and a half miles away from Kabul. I acquired a servant too, along with the house. Principal Girard introduced us formally, 'His name is Abdur Rahman. He will do all your bidding—from polishing your shoes to killing your enemies." We can learn so much about the lion-hearted and independent-minded Afghan soul from our literature. And these include the likes of Tagore's "Kabuliwala" to Nazes Afroz's "In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan" (a translation of Deshe Bideshe).
Mujtaba Ali left Afghanistan in 1929 after the country descended into chaos following the insurrection led by the conservative elements and Kabul was sacked by Baccha-e-Saqao, a bandit. In almost a remake of this historic scenario, the Northern Alliance overtook the capital aided by the US government and its NATO allies in 2001. Unfortunately, the proud nation of Afghanistan suffered and paid a hefty price for this tug of war between powerful nations and their surrogates.
The USA, my adopted homeland, invaded Afghanistan, and turned it upside down. Let the truth be told though: the turmoil in Afghanistan began even before 1979. The US intervention began in 1979 after the Soviet invasion and was supported by Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia, among other countries. It built up the mujahideen forces which fought the Soviets in the 1980s. It then looked the other way as the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s and provided a safe haven for various Islamist forces. After the 9/11 attacks, the USA unleashed its military and financial powers on Afghanistan. Unfortunately, more than 801,000 people have died as a direct result of the fighting. Of those, 335,000 have been civilians. Another 21 million people have been displaced due to violence, according to a report from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University. One of the casualties was my friend and mentor, Dr Waseem Alimuzzaman, who was killed in an attack on a restaurant in the Serena Hotel in Kabul, on March 20, 2014.
I first met Waseem Alimuzzaman when he was in Boston working towards his doctorate at Harvard. He was a civil servant and had joined the Civil Service of Pakistan in 1970. After he got his Ph.D., Waseem bhai served with the UNFPA and other organisations in the USA and Asia. He was killed while he was visiting Kabul on an official mission.
Coming back to the US-Taliban accord, the treaty document outlines the terms of a ceasefire and its enforcement, calls for the protection of the rights of women, children and minorities and envisions a truth and reconciliation commission aimed at healing 42 years of conflict. These days, assassinations and bombings have driven most of the foreigners away. As American and NATO troops started to leave a few years ago, the few western visitors mostly stay in the fortress-like enclaves and hotels. The streets are quiet. "Twenty years into the American-led war, Kabul feels again like the capital of a poor and troubled country," wrote Dexter Filkin in a piece called the "Last Exit from Afghanistan" in the New Yorker magazine on March 8, 2021. This is so sad, given the fact that billions of dollars were poured into Afghan development over the last 20 years. The reasons for the financial losses include Taliban attacks, corruption, and "throwing money at the problem without considering the implications," an analyst said.
Now Afghanistan is on the brink of a precipice. "Afghanistan is bordering on a failed state status and is sure to enter the category immediately after the withdrawal of the foreign forces absent a better political arrangement," said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser. James Cunningham, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan disagrees: "Afghanistan is not a failed state. Its people are resilient and proud and desirous of protecting what they have achieved."
The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Talibans are now engaged in peace talks in Qatar. According to US officials, the most favourable outcome of the talks is a ceasefire and an agreement to form a transitional government, with power shared between the Taliban and the existing Afghan government. The transitional government would write a new constitution and lay the groundwork for nationwide elections.
In the long run, one can only hope that the Afghans will reach a steady state equilibrium where there is not only peace but where they are able to foster a society that is tolerant of different cultures and ethnicities, and the country does not sink again into the darkness, ignorance, and savagery that we have seen in the past.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and has been working in higher education and information technology for 35 years in the USA and Bangladesh. He is also Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.