Current Afghan Ground Realities

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Rustam Shah Mohmand[1]


(More than half-a-decade after the ouster of the Taliban regime, peace has been as elusive as ever in Afghanistan. Each day brings its own sordid tale of death and destruction. The process of institutional collapse is continuing. The melt-down can be arrested, if coalition forces are replaced by troops from neutral OIC countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Talks should be initiated with those resisting the government to work out a broad-based power sharing mechanism that reflects the ethnic composition of the country. The alternative is the continuation of the turmoil. Editior)

In 2001, overwhelming force was used to dislodge the regime in Afghanistan.  The validation of this invasion was based on wholly erroneous assumptions.  The Taliban regime was being punished for providing sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his coterie of Al Qaeda militants.  The Americans had earlier asked Taliban officials to hand over Osama and his close associates to face trial for their alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

The 19 individuals that were involved in the 9/11 attacks were dead; therefore, no one could give a first hand account of who was behind these atrocities.  Still, within a day of the 9/11 attacks the perpetrators were identified as Osama Bin Laden and his associates. Even if it is presumed that Osama was behind the attacks, the Taliban connection cannot be established.

There is no evidence that the Taliban leadership was taken into confidence while conceiving the plot.  Osama knew that the Taliban movement lacked a disciplined hierarchy and intelligence professionals who could be taken into confidence.  With undercover operatives of Western intelligence agencies planted in the Taliban outfit, it would not be possible to share such a secret with Taliban leaders without the possibility of a leak.  Political analysts of the Afghan scene, therefore, unanimously hold the view that at no time of the planning and preparation of the attacks were the Taliban leaders consulted or informed.  That being the case, it is not logical or rational to accuse the Taliban of either colluding with or providing sanctuary to potential terrorists.

It may be argued that Osama was involved in the pre-9/11 attacks on the American Embassy in Nairobi.  Even then, the fact of the matter is, Osama was not invited to Afghanistan by the Taliban.  Osama arrived in Afghanistan in 1996 and settled in Jalalabad which, along with Kabul, was at that time under the control of Professor Rabbani.  When the Taliban took control of both Kabul and Jalalabad they allowed Osama to remain in Afghanistan and imposed strict restrictions on his movement and activity. American intelligence agencies were supposed to have knowledge of the following facts:

a)      Osama did not enter Afghanistan as a guest of the Taliban.  At that time the country was under Professor Rabbani’s rule.

b)      Taliban reluctantly allowed him to remain in the country after restricting his movements and activities.

c)      The Taliban leadership was not even remotely aware of Osama having any involvement in organizing the 11 September attacks.

The main objectives for the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States-led coalition can, therefore, be summarized as the following:

a)      To dismantle an Islamic government and, in the process, give a strong signal to Islamist movements in Central Asia and other Islamic countries.

b)      To force a change of policy in Pakistan.

c)      To establish a strong foothold in central Asia in order to have access to its energy resources; should the Middle Eastern reserves fall into hostile hands.

d)     To deploy its forces close to the Iranian border, thereby encircling the country and intimidating the regime to abandon any hostile ambitions and its search for nuclear weapons.

The objectives mentioned above have been achieved.  Short term gains have compromised long term objectives.  The two main losses being:

a)      American emphasis and support for pluralism, democracy and human rights has been exposed.

b)      The US has aroused anger and hatred amongst the 1.20 billion Muslims around the globe.

The degree of force used to subdue a helpless group of religious leaders is mind boggling.  27,000 sorties were flown from Pakistan and central Asia to destroy a government and its rudimentary infrastructure.  There are few instances in history where such wholesale destruction of people and property has been caused to achieve a limited objective. The death of hundreds of prisoners in containers, while they were being transported from Kundus and Mazar-e-Sharif in the winter of 2001-2002, will be remembered as an ominous and black chapter in the history of modern warfare. These prisoners had surrendered on the solemn pledge that they would be provided unhindered access to Pakistan. Across the country, there are innumerable human rights abuses and violations by the coalition forces; narration of these would need volumes.

A high profile military adventure was undertaken to assist Afghanistan in reconstruction and establishing a democracy.  After more than 5 years of occupation and an investment of US $14 billion we can glance over the achievements.

The country has returned to a “democratic rule.” There is an elected president and an elected parliament. Provincial councils have also been elected and are in place. Most of the milestones set forth in the Bonn Agreement of 2001 have been achieved.

New grid stations have been built; some roads have been reconstructed; these include the Qandahar-Kabul road and the Torkham-Jalalabad road. The Salang Tunnel has been repaired and improved. Work on many other roads, including Qandahar-Spin Boldak, is in progress. Many new schools have been commissioned; old ones repaired. Hospitals have been revamped and equipped. Some major work has been undertaken in irrigation, power, education and communication. Hundreds of professionals in various sectors, have been trained abroad on scholarships for higher specialized education.

A new Afghan army has been created. It is well trained and equipped. A new police force has also been established. The private armies of the warlords have been disbanded and, in most cases, their heavy weapons recovered under a well conceived programme.

Another important achievement is the introduction of a new currency which has attained a fair amount of stability over the past four years.

There is, however, a downside to this seemingly bright picture. By far the biggest failure of the new dispensation is that it has not been able to help produce institutions and systems which make governance possible. In the absence of institutions, there is no transparency and consequently there is unabated graft which has sapped the vitality of government departments. Despite huge infusions of funds the condition of the masses remains pathetic. Only 6 percent of the population have access to power; 12 percent to clean water; 13 percent to basic sanitation. More than 20 percent children die before age 5 due to malnutrition. Tuberculosis is widely prevalent. Hospitals do not have the required trained staff and, in most cases, equipment. Patients from Qundus are transported to Peshawar for dialysis. The quality of education has remained dismally poor, both at the primary and higher levels. Progress in de-mining has not reached the level required to induce the repatriation of refugees, many of whom are still in Pakistan.

Desertions from the army and police are a common phenomenon. Maladministration is the rule rather than exception in the provinces. Many warlords with criminal records are in parliament. As a result of manipulated elections, the parliament does not, in real terms, symbolize the resurgence of the will of the people. Many candidates that were opposed to the presence of the coalition forces were not “cleared” for contesting. It is not surprising, therefore, that no demand is emanating from the parliament for deciding on the duration of the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

There is a raging insurgency which has spread to western Afghanistan. Vast swathes of territory are either partially or totally in the hands of ‘Taliban.’ On an average about 50 people die everyday. Indiscriminate bombing, artillery and rocket attacks on an innocent population take a heavy toll. Usually the casualties are not accurately reported and information is suppressed as far as the coalition forces are concerned.

The struggle against coalition forces is not restricted to the Taliban. Many other factions are supporting the Taliban in their resistance. The population seems to have been antagonized by repeated acts of wanton aggression, unprovoked bombings, unwarranted house searches and, most of all, humiliation of prisoners in custody. Stories of physical and moral abuses of prisoners abound.

In this climate of bad governance, corruption and brutalities, opium cultivation has crossed all limits. Despite heavy investment, education, training, workshops, loans and other incentives, the production levels of opium have increased from 90 tons in 2001 to 6,000 MT.

This speaks volumes of the near anarchy scenario rampant in parts of Afghanistan. For security reasons, UN agencies and NGO’s have left many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. This has resulted in a situation where work opportunities are almost non-existent and government institutions like schools and clinics are totally dysfunctional, thus compounding the misery of the people.

A system that does not reflect the aspirations of the people can not deliver. It will be seen from the foregoing analysis that the Afghanistan experiment has failed. Observers agree that, were the coalition forces to withdraw today, the present regime would find it difficult to survive beyond six months. The continuance of the regime is, therefore, predicated upon the presence of the coalition forces. This exposes the hollowness of the democratic credentials of the present dispensation. It must, therefore, be recognized that a stable, democratic Afghanistan would be possible only when coalition forces have been withdrawn and institution building has begun. For that to happen, and in order to create a conducive environment for participatory democracy, the presence of some neutral forces such as the OIC would be essential. Countries that can contribute are Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt and Bangladesh.

A new Afghan construct has to be worked out. All those on the sidelines of the present administration or those people opposed to it, have to be involved in an attempt to find a new framework for Afghan polity and reconstruction.  A general amnesty has been announced, but those who have committed crimes against humanity or have plundered national resources have to be held accountable. A new parliament, comprising of genuinely elected members, would not be constrained in any way in writing a new constitution. Upon the assumption of office of the newly elected government, the forces of Islamic countries would be asked to withdraw in a phased manner, thereby allowing orderly transition.

There should be no apprehensions if, through free and fair elections supervised by OIC and UN, any particular group was to gain ascendancy. Firstly, it is inconceivable that the ‘Taliban’ would gain overwhelming majority in such a parliament. Secondly, if the ‘Taliban’ were to gain control of the parliament through the electoral process, they would adopt a considerably different agenda. Thirdly, they would not be isolated but part of the mainstream international community. Fourthly, they would have to learn to coexist with other political forces in order to further stabilize the country. Fifthly, the populace at large would expect the new rulers to begin the arduous task of nation building rather than pursuing  purely ideological objectives.

The West, therefore, should not resist the emergence of such a democratically elected government which might adhere to an Islamic form of governance without entertaining any militant ambitions beyond its own borders. The fears that in the event of the withdrawal of OIC forces, a militant group may try to sabotage the new arrangement and begin to impose its own ideology or programme on the population are not well founded. Once a new system, based on the free will of the people, has taken hold it will be next to impossible for any group, howsoever powerful, to subvert it. Such an attempt would be met by a swift and strong public reaction.

How things shape up in the future should be left to the Afghans to settle. The international community, having ushered the country into a genuine democracy, should not be concerned about writing the charter for the country for the next 20 years or beyond. That would amount to pre-empting the people of the country to determine their own destiny.

Afghanistan is at the crossroads of history. It has to be seen in the context of central Asia, Iran and South Asia. Continued destabilization will have profound implications for the whole region.

The West must understand that it can do business with a free, independent Afghanistan, even if it is ruled by a regime which is committed to introducing Islamic laws, as long as it does not pose any threat to its neighbours. Such an Islamic government, in the context of Afghanistan, would not be concerned with exporting militant ideology beyond its borders.

One of the most unfortunate legacies of 9/11 is that the world, overwhelmed by the shock and enormity of the catastrophic events of September 2001, has completely misunderstood the ‘Taliban’ phenomenon, their rule, objectives and policies. Before 9/11 the Americans were making several overtures to engage the ‘Taliban’. President Clinton’s energy secretary, Bill.Richardson, travelled to Kabul for talks with the Taliban leadership. The late Mullah Rabbani is said to have informed Richardson that the Taliban government was ready to establish several colleges and universities, exclusively for women, should funding be available.

UNOCOL was approaching the Taliban and seeking their help for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline project.  Zalmay Khalilzad, who was later to become the US ambassador to Kabul, and Hamid Karzai were both hired by the company. Turkmenistan was ready to establish full diplomatic relations with the regime in Afghanistan.

A Taliban march into the Panjsher valley was anticipated. Indeed, Ahmed Shah Masood had sent the Taliban prisoners in his control to Iran.  Fearing an imminent Taliban occupation of Panjsher and Takhar, he had moved his headquarters to Kuliyab in Tajikistan.

Had the Taliban taken control of the whole country, fighting would have ended, prompting many countries to establish diplomatic relations with the government in Kabul. No country in the region was under any threat from the Taliban government. But 9/11, the subsequent destruction of the Taliban movement and the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, all in the name of war on terror, fundamentally changed the perceptions of the people about ‘Taliban’ and their policies. A relentless media campaign portrayed these people, who had brought peace to Afghanistan, disbanded private armies, disarmed the population and eliminated poppy cultivation, as villains who were opposed to everything that is just, sane and rational.

The world appears to have lost sight of the proper perspective on Afghanistan. There is need for a fresh appraisal and an authentic, dispassionate evaluation of the situation. The implementation of the current policy of using military means and force to hunt down the Taliban has resulted in the killing of innocent civilians, searching houses, disgracing Afghans in their villages and in prison cells and denying them the benefits of development. This only further fuels the insurgency, hatred and acrimony and has driven people to despondency.

It amounts to destroying the moral fabric of a civil society and its self respect. Mullah Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Islamabad, was captured. Provisions of the Geneva Conventions notwithstanding, he was stripped naked, beaten and first sent to Kabul and later to Guantanamo Bay (the graveyard of human values, decency and justice). After four years of torture, humiliation and abuse, he was found “not guilty” and released. The incident sums up the western approach to the country and its people.  Based on faulty and uncorroborated evidence, a whole nation is being punished. This has generated hostility towards the West among ordinary Afghans.

The old maxim: ‘the only lesson that mankind has learnt from history is that it has learnt no lesson’ holds true in this situation. Afghanistan cries out for justice, however, does anyone listen? Would anyone in the West pay heed to the few voices of dissent that have risen or will these be silenced by the ongoing violence?

To avoid being overtaken by events, there is need for a fundamental change in outlook among the stakeholders. The momentum of violence has to be broken. For this to happen the dynamics have to be understood. Afghanistan, facing anarchy, needs to be rescued. The wishes of the marginalized, persecuted representatives and the populace at large have to be accessed. Military means, as an instrument of policy has to be abandoned. Coalition forces have to leave; OIC troops being the alternative. That is an indispensable factor in ending the insurgency. A new political dispensation, rooted in ground realities and reflecting the aspirations of the people, has to be worked out. Islamic resurgence, whether in Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the world, does not pose any threat to the western way of life. Having understood this principle, the West and Islam could proceed to co-exist and contribute, as partners, to more pressing issues pertaining to humanity, democracy, human rights, hunger, illiteracy, disease, environmental degradation, menace of drugs, dismantling of barriers, free trade zones and religious tolerance. Furthermore, unresolved issues such as the Palestine question, the Kashmir dispute and the violence in Chechnya have to be addressed. These have caused resentment and desperation in the Middle East and the Islamic world.

Parliament is the most fundamental of all democratic institutions. Since election plans were carefully orchestrated to create a pliant parliament, the efficiency of the institution has been compromised. All opposed to the presence of occupation forces were not cleared to contest. All pro-Taliban and anti-US candidates were thus left out. On the other hand, people who had committed crimes against humanity were allowed to contest and “win.” Commanders whose hands are stained with blood are sitting in the lower house. Those who committed atrocities on helpless civilians during the pro-communist regimes of the past have been rewarded in contemporary Afghanistan for no better reason than their opposition to the Taliban.  Commanders who were a party to the killing of innocent prisoners in the infamous Qilla-e-Jhangi Prison, (near Mazaar-e-Shareef) are part of the government and parliament. Those who collaborated with the coalition forces in carrying out large scale killings of civilians in the first few weeks of the occupation are occupying positions of prominence.
The sordid saga of brutality that was witnessed from 1992 to 1996 is perhaps the darkest chapter in the country’s tragic history. The “dance of death” video seen in many households across Afghanistan showed victims being slaughtered. Acid was poured on   skeletons and those on the verge of death. The bodies would, under the effect of powerful acid, begin to swing as they were hung from roofs. Innocent victims were put in containers and the structures were burnt. Men and women were stripped naked and nails were driven into their heads! Their appeals to be shot dead were ridiculed!
Kidnappings, murders, loot and plunder were widespread. There were fiefdoms throughout the country. No one’s honour or property was safe.

The perpetrators of these horrible crimes needed to be held accountable for their actions. But it appears that their hour of reckoning will never come.
These influential “leaders” of the country and society have been forgiven their crimes against humanity because they supported the invasion by coalition forces. In a bizarre and cruel twist of rationale, those who supported the foreign intervention became ‘liberators’ and custodians of people’s rights. In Afghanistan’s history, characterised by an unending stream of plots, conspiracies, external invasions and bloody struggle for power, a new dynamic has been injected. There was only one yardstick for a person’s credentials and his suitability for claiming a position of responsibility in the new dispensation, established and sustained by the occupation forces. All sins and crimes would be written off if the person assisted the coalition forces in their effort to discredit and destroy the Taliban.
Being anti-Taliban became a supreme virtue which would entitle a commander or a leader to unlimited favours.

Some Afghan leaders of repute became willing accomplices in this new ‘great game.’ For such a policy assured not only a status and position in the new arrangement but also would exonerate them of any previous involvement in crimes and offences.

There was an ethnic factor also which can not be overlooked. The Taliban were predominantly Pashtoon, however, other ethnic groups e.g., Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and even some Hazaras had some representation in the Taliban hierarchy.
But, by and large, the Taliban were regarded as a Pashtoon phenomenon. Before the Taliban could win the hearts and minds of the non-Pashtoon ethnic groups by their policies of even-handed justice, enforcing the writ of the government, ensuring peace, protecting the rights of the people and disarming the warlords, they were ousted.
The non-Pashtoons factions saw, in the occupation of the country in 2001, an opportunity to reassert themselves and help the coalition forces write a new charter which would ensure a more than proportionate representation to them in the cabinet and parliament. It was not surprising therefore to see maps, reports and statements appearing in the press showing a completely distorted demographic picture. For instance, some reports, claiming authenticity (and being accepted as such), showed that the population comprised of only 39 percent Pashtoons and 30-35 percent Tajiks. An attempt was made to institutionalise an unjust system with a view to penalising the Pashtoons who were the vanguard of the ‘Taliban’ movement. In order to perpetuate this new configuration, two new provinces were carved out in order to placate specific ethinic groups inhabiting these areas.

At the micro-level also a systemic campaign has been launched to reduce Pashtoon representation in the government whereby some districts have been treated like provinces as far as their quota of ministers, governors, deputy ministers, ambassadors, senior police officers and command positions in the new army is concerned.
The frustration thus caused has engendered acrimony bordering on hostility.
Another factor that contributed to the sense of despondency prevailing amongst the bulk of the population is the inability of the government to check corruption, in the public services. It has now become endemic.

The revamping of the judicial system has not resulted in any substantial improvement in the type of justice that is being delivered. Courts are flooded with petitions seeking restoration of properties (lands, houses, shops) which were occupied by unlawful occupants during the long years of migration of the rightful owners. Adjudication of these cases has taken very long and in most cases the original owners have not been compensated .for the properties wrongfully taken away from them.

The government relied heavily on Afghans who had taken up residences abroad during the Jihad.  They were given lucrative positions such as that of ministers, deputy ministers, advisors etc., in the government, as incentive for them to repatriate. Unfortunately, most of them had no link with the masses. They were also sadly out of touch with the ground realities in a vastly transformed Afghan civil society. Consequently, they were not able to establish any meaningful rapport with the people they were supposed to represent and serve. This proved extremely costly as far as the image of the government was concerned.

There was great euphoria, particularly amongst the non-Pashtoon ethnic groups, regarding the vibrancy and strength of the new economy which would be fuelled by the infusion of massive funding. They expected the creation of new jobs, a stable power supply, commissioning of irrigation and drinking water schemes, improvement in health care, better opportunities for quality education and, most importantly, a robust de-mining programme. These expectations, sadly, were not fulfilled. Instead the government remained focussed on other, seemingly redundant and irrelevant objectives. There was a tremendous emphasis on form, ignoring substance. On an average a minister, and the head of government, would spend 15 days in a month touring abroad. This practice has continued to this day. These tours were mostly ceremonial undertaken at considerable cost to the exchequer and drew severe criticism. This also showed the government’s lack of commitment to genuinely reconstruct and rehabilitate the country and its systems which had been so badly damaged.

But the real chasm between the government and the ethnic Pakhtoons surfaced when the authorities were not able to prevent the indiscriminate use of force by the coalition forces against innocent civilians. The slightest suspicion would result in raids and indiscriminate bombing of villages resulting in large scale casualties. On many occasions, it would later transpire that the action was undertaken on false and unsubstantiated reports. Such brutal use of force and the inevitable collateral damage has alienated the population.
The alleged interference of the neighbouring countries in Afghanistan has always been over emphasised. It is one of those historic fallacies that has been repeated ad nauseam and has acquired the status of an established and undeniable truth. The reality is   different.

Pakistan became an important factor in Afghanistan’s politics since 1978-79 when refugees began to arrive and the Soviet Union militarily intervened to prevent  the collapse of the pro-communist government. It was met with swift and resounding resistance.

At that time, Pakistan was under a military regime which was suffering from a crisis of credibility. It saw an opportunity and seized it with determination. Indeed there were few other options before the government. The influx of refugees was relentless and there was no way the tide could be turned.
Thus began a long association in an enduring and bloody struggle for regaining Afghan sovereignty.

Having hosted 3.5 million Afghan refugees on its soil for many years, having sheltered the Afghan mujahideen and their leadership, having trained and armed mujahideen gorillas, it was not to be unexpected that Pakistan would not have influence in Afghanistan. This, however, had its negative effects. At any given point in time one or more of the ‘mujahideen’ outfits would blame Pakistan or its agencies for favouring either one or the other group. Seeds of distrust were sown during those tumultuous and turbulent times. These have not faded away. It was not realised that an involvement as deep and forceful as Pakistan’s with the ‘jehad’ effort and the subsequent government formation process, would inevitably place it in an awkward situation vis-a-vis some groups or leaders. That was the unintended consequence of a robust and deep engagement with the mujahideen.

It must however be admitted that fundamental errors of judgement were made in handling the entire situation. There was a heavy focus on supporting individuals and sometimes groups. Further downstream, the functionaries of the government, being driven by their own lopsided concept of ‘Jehad,’ meted out different treatment, both in terms of political and material support, to different groups and leaders thus further accentuating the already widening gulf between the parties and the government of Pakistan.

At no point, however, was there any deliberate policy at the highest level in Islamabad to sponsor one group or denigrate another. It must be stressed that there was no policy, ever, to put up a ‘puppet’ government in Afghanistan – an accusation repeatedly voiced by many observers and virtually all Afghans. This has been Pakistan’s tragedy.

The current Afghan turmoil is a manifestation of the struggle amongst several   contending interest groups and ideologies. There are those who wish the coalition forces to stay and, taking advantage of that protective umbrella, advance their political and economic agenda. There is also an influential group of traders and technocrats who simply want to make the best of a situation in which the flow of money is substantial and checks on the utilization of the funds virtually non-existent.
There are the remnants of the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami who claim to be waging a struggle to ‘liberate’ Afghanistan. Although the latter are short of resources, they will remain a major force so long as they have a substantial level of support amongst the population.

The objective of the coalition forces and the Afghan government would be to reduce and ultimately deny this “local” support. If they succeed, a vital breakthrough in defeating the resistance would be achieved. This can be achieved by a socio-economic uplift of the community, greater interaction with the population, provision of incentives to a war-weary and exhausted resistance and promoting inter-tribal harmony.

The complex dynamics of the Afghan tribal society has been both an advantage and a setback to the government and the occupation forces as far as isolating the forces of resistance is concerned. The government can, by winning over a few chieftains, hope to have  a whole tribe backing it; on the other hand, the use of threats and coercive persuasion could assure the resistance the support of powerful individuals who would help sway the whole tribe in favour of the opposition movement.

How this game of force, money, intimidation, ideology and intrigue plays out on the Afghan political landscape remains to be seen. Its outcome will influence, if not shape, the course this war-weary country will take. in the coming years.

Other than accelerating the pace of rehabilitation and reconstruction, two profound shifts in policy would need to be made for the sake of long term stability.
First, the present coalition forces should be replaced by those of Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Second, talks should be initiated with those resisting the government to examine the possibility of power sharing in any future dispensation.

If this plan of action is rejected, inevitably conclusions will be drawn with regard to long term US designs in the area. One inference would be that the US wants to assign the same status and role to the present day Afghanistan as that of Iran under the Shah. What happened to the Shah’s Iran and American interests is well known. Would history repeat itself yet again?

[1] The author is a former Ambassador to Afghanistan.