How the West bungled in Afghanistan

The composition of the caretaker Taliban government, which has no representation of either Shia Hazaras or women, has come in for much international criticism. While the Taliban is far from faultless, it is the West that has contributed in a major way towards the current mess in Afghanistan.

Published : Sep 23, 2021 06:00 IST

Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund,  Afghanistan’s new Prime Minister, and his team with the delegation from Qatar led by Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani (in white mask), in Kabul on September 12.

Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, Afghanistan’s new Prime Minister, and his team with the delegation from Qatar led by Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani (in white mask), in Kabul on September 12.

The negotiations for forming an“in clusive government” between the Taliban on the one hand, and former President Hamid Karzai and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah on the other, have not borne fruit despite the intercession of the Pakistani Ambassador in Kabul. The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed reached Kabul on September 4 to mediate on government formation. After a few postponements, the Taliban announced a “caretaker” government on September 7. The adjective “caretaker” is perhaps meant to indicate the possibility of expansion of the cabinet to make it inclusive.

Well-wishers of Afghanistan are disappointed as they were hoping to see an inclusive government that would attend to the worsening humanitarian crisis in the country which is lamentably dependent on foreign aid. According to the United Nations, 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s budget is funded by foreign donors. Afghanistan badly needs a government that respects the repeatedly expressed concerns of the international community about women’s rights and other matters.

Imitating Iran

Heading the government is Mullah Haibatullah Akhuzada. He is the Commander of the Faithful, a title that the King of Morocco also holds. By appointing a priestly authority as the supreme leader, Afghanistan, or rather the Taliban, has taken a leaf out of the books of neighbouring Iran, which, post the 1979 Revolution, adopted a Constitution that gives absolute power to a spiritual guide under whose direction the elected government has to function. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989), who led the Revolution that brought down the United States-backed Shah, was never hesitant to use his powers. The same can be said of his successor Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei. In Iran it is the Guardian Council under the control of the Ayatollah which vets the presidential candidates as well as the candidates to Parliament. In short, the Ayatollah can disqualify any candidate.

Also read: An imperial disaster in Afghanistan

We do not know when, or even if, Afghanistan will have an election. Perhaps the Iranian precedent might not be applied in matters to do with elections. Obviously, Afghanistan’s imitating Iran is a sad reminder of the folly of President George Bush’s grandiose and naïve plans to transplant Jeffersonian democracy to a country after “sending the Marines” there to bring down a regime that defied an unnecessary and unwise ultimatum.

Composition of caretaker government

The composition of the caretaker government has come in for much criticism, most of it valid. It is deplorable that there is no representation in the cabinet of either Shia Hazaras or women. The explanation given for the exclusion of women—that their duty is primarily to give birth—is absurd and shows that despite the intercourse with the international community in Doha and elsewhere, the Taliban leadership is determined to uphold wrong and outdated values. The Taliban’s argument that women were excluded from the public sphere at the time of the Prophet is historically flawed as it is well-known that his wife Kadijah was the head of a business enterprise.

However, we need to explode a popular myth cultivated by the West and the apologists for the 2001 invasion. It has often been implied that it was the Americans who first introduced women’s rights to Afghanistan in 2001. This is historically untrue. The 1964 Constitution gave equal rights to women and much progress was made in the direction of empowerment of women, especially under the Communist regime that took over power in 1978. The women of Afghanistan would have continued in the right direction if the then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had not intervened in 1979.

Also read: Afghanistan's chequered history

The appointment of Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund as Prime Minister seems to be a compromise. Earlier, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who headed the Doha office that conducted the February 29 agreement with the Trump administration which paved the way for the Taliban’s rise to power, was seen as the frontrunner. He made statements favouring women’s rights and working together with the West. It appears the hardliner Haqqani network strongly objected to such statements, and worked against Baradar’s nomination as Prime Minister.

We may guess that internal differences within the Taliban and the failed talks with Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah might be the reasons for the repeated postponements of the announcement on the formation of government as well as for its non-inclusive nature.

The media and political pundits have pointed out that some of the ministers are on the U.N. sanctions list or on the list of terrorists maintained by the U.S. Many commentators expressed surprise at the appointment of such persons. Their surprise is rather surprising as throughout history, those termed “terrorists” by the incumbent regime have taken over political power after, and in some cases, even without, a revolution.

Terrorists as peacemakers

Let us take the case of Israel. On July 22, 1946, the King David Hotel (which housed the British administration) in Jerusalem was bombed by terrorists, killing 99 people. The provocation for the attack carried out by Irgun, which fits the definition of a terrorist entity as understood these days, was that the British troops had confiscated large quantities of documents on June 29, 1946, implicating another terrorist organisation, Haganah.

The main leader for the attack on the hotel was Menachem Begin, who went on to become Prime Minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983. In 2006, a conference organised in Israel to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1946 act of terrorism was attended by Benjamin Netanyahu and former members of Irgun. The British Ambassador in Tel Aviv protested and asked the Mayor of Jerusalem why an act of terror was being commemorated.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (1983-84 and 1986-92) was part of a similar organisation called Lehi. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1974-77 and 1992-95) was part of Haganah. He signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat in 1995 and was assassinated shortly thereafter for that reason. This shows that an individual who was a terrorist can turn peacemaker once in office, only to be killed in cold blood by a terrorist.

Obviously, the Taliban cannot be faulted for forming a cabinet that includes persons identified as terrorists by Washington. It is rather naive to have expected the Taliban to exclude those branded as terrorists by the U.S. It is for the U.S. and the U.N. to delete those names from their lists. The U.S. might not delete the names, although it is obliged to do so under the 2020 agreement with the Taliban. The U.N. Security Council has little choice but to delete the names unless it wants to paint itself into a corner.

It is worth recalling in this context that in 1996, the U.N. committed the mistake of letting the fallen Rabbani government represent Afghanistan at the world body until 2000 by procedural manipulation. Is it possible that if the U.N. Credentials Committee, led by the U.S. and others, had acted right by recognising the ground realities, then perhaps Afghanistan may not have given Osama bin Laden asylum in 1996? To take the logic further, if the Taliban government had represented Afghanistan, it could have been asked to reconsider the decision to give refuge to Osama bin Laden.

What should the international community do?

The U.N. Security Council is at the apex of the international community. The Permanent Five are divided. China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, are prepared to work with the Taliban government. The U.S., the United Kingdom and France seem to have reservations for the time being at least.

Let us ask the question, seldom being asked: What is the right policy? What are the pros and cons?

If the U.S., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continue with their policy of financially strangulating Afghanistan, what will happen? There can be two consequences. One, thousands of Afghans will die. Two, China, Russia, Pakistan and Qatar will step in with more funds. The hardliners among the Taliban will be fortified and they might tighten the Sharia, abridge freedoms, and become even more obscurantist.

History teaches us that any regime facing external threat tends to abridge the freedoms of its citizens. For example, during the French Revolution, invasion by Austria and Prussia was said to be one of the reasons for the Reign of Terror.

Also read: Afghanistan pushed into further chaos

In this context, it is pertinent to ask why the Bamiyan Buddha statues were destroyed in March 2001. In a phone interview he gave in April 2004, Mullah Omar the founder of the Taliban explained it thus:

“I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings—the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha’s destruction.”

The above quotation is not meant to justify the destruction, but to draw attention to the dangers of isolating Afghanistan just because the West has reservations against the Taliban.

Recognising the Taliban government

It is a cardinal principle of diplomacy to engage with those who are in power. Instead of making public statements condemning the suppression of women’s rights, the Taliban should be told to their face that they have to respect women’s rights if they want respect from the international community.

There is a lot of talk, a good deal of it rather loose, of “recognition” of the Taliban government. There is no uniform diplomatic practice about recognising a government. Take the practice of Switzerland. It recognises states and not governments. In short, if there is a new government that exercises authority within its territory, Switzerland deals with that government. This is a sensible approach.

India, too, has been following this approach, by and large. It did not deal with the first Taliban government. We should bear in mind that India had assisted militarily the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban in the 1990s.

The government of India has raised the question, “sources” tell us, as to whether and when it might recognise the Taliban government. India has chosen to align itself with the West on this matter.

We all know the adverse consequences of the U.S’ decision not to recognise the People’s Republic of China proclaimed by Mao Zedong in October 1949, and how President Richard Nixon had to go to Beijing and pay homage to Mao in 1972. India under Jawaharlal Nehru had taken the lead in urging the U.S. to recognise the ground realities.

I was Counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Tehran when the Shah fled and Khomeini took over power in 1979. There was an intense but unnecessary discussion among colleagues in the Embassy about India’s “recognising” the new regime, and how to go about it. I took the view that it would be foolish for India to announce any recognition and that India should send an appropriate message of greetings to the Ayatollah and deal with the government. My view prevailed.

Dealing with a government does not amount to formal recognition. In international law, there is an eminent school of thought that argues that it is states, and not governments, that are recognised.

Is wishful thinking shaping policy?

Two days after the Taliban took over the capital Kabul on August 15, a rebellion started in Panjshir valley. The Taliban sent in forces and the fighting went on.

Considering the fact that the Taliban forces were able to surround the rebels and that the rebels had no way of getting arms and material from outside the country, it was reasonable to conclude that the rebellion was going to be put down after a while.

However, on September 5, the Hindustan Times carried a report saying that U.S. Army General Mark Milley had told the Fox News that there would be a “broad civil war” in Afghanistan. The television channels, too, quoted General Milley. The next day the rebel leader called for talks.

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is grave and the international community has a responsibility to act promptly.

It is important to clear up a wrong impression, being spread by the media and some “sources” attributed to the government of India, that the humanitarian crisis arose after the Taliban took over and because the Taliban took over. Such an argument would be a pathetic example of post hoc ergo propter hoc , not unfamiliar to lawyers and logicians.

Humanitarian crisis

The Taliban took over on August 15. On July 13, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned of an “imminent humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan”. The crisis got aggravated as the West encouraged, even exhorted, the more educated Afghans to flee the country. Further, $10 billion of Afghanistan’s money lying in the U.S. and other banks was frozen. Afghanistan’s entire budget amounts to only $20 billion. The Central Bank in Afghanistan ran short of money and the banking system collapsed, with people having to wait for too long to withdraw money from ATMs.

The short point is that while the Taliban is far from faultless, it is the West that has contributed in a major way towards the current mess.

Also read: A war that never ends

The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should be commended for convening a ministerial-level conference in Geneva on September 13 seeking funds for Afghanistan in order to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there. It was a success as against a target of $ 606 billion, the total pledge was $1.1 billion. The U.N. has not yet published a list of donations. Germany pledged $590 million, the largest sum. We should commend Germany for its generosity even as we recognise that the ruling party there is deeply worried about a large influx of refugees into Germany, and a good part of the money is to prevent such an influx. In the recent past, such a large influx from Syria and elsewhere through Turkey caused the Far Right to gain electorally in a significant way. The U.S. gave $64 million, Denmark $38 million, and Norway $11.5 million.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke eloquently about India’s concern for the suffering of the Afghans, but refrained from announcing any aid. India sought a guaranty that the aid should reach the intended even after the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths had clarified that the U.N. was confident that the needy would get aid. He had gone to Kabul earlier for talks with the Taliban.

Some of us had hoped that India would take the lead and host a conference before the U.N. It seems that New Delhi is still “waiting and watching” while other powers such as China, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, and Russia have been, to an extent, shaping the events.

India’s approach reminds one of the third-century Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus who argued that contemplation was superior to action.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is Distinguished Fellow at Symbiosis. His book The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t is forthcoming.

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