By Laksiri Fernando –
US decision or Jo Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan was correct in terms of ‘original sin’ and the socio-political, and cultural contradictions, created during the ‘colonial occupation’ since 2001. However the way they are withdrawing creates the impression that the US and other Western allies are in a terrible mess.
Without much common sense, the American and allied troops were withdrawn before their civilian supporters or citizens were evacuated. Academics and students were among them. That is why we still have a chaotic situation at the Kabul airport. 20 odd people are already killed. At least some of them fell from the first aircraft leaving. The scene was very much similar to Saigon, 46 years ago.
Jo Biden blamed the Afghan forces that they recruited, trained and armed during the last 20 years. ‘What can we do if they cannot fight Taliban?’ was his explanation for the apparent betrayal. In that case why the hell the US went to Afghanistan and virtually occupied this other people’s country? Biden did not blame the fleeing President Ashraf Ghani who fled the country before anyone else.
Hypocrisy of US Policies
So many ambiguities and contradictions are exposed in respect of US foreign policies as a result of the present crisis. Biden claimed, like other previous President’s, that US foreign policies are guided by international human rights. In the same speech he said that there is noting more to gain by US being in Afghanistan. His reasoning was that the US invaded Afghanistan because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and to punish Osama bin Laden as a way of meting out justice to the American victims and people.
Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in 2011. Then why didn’t the Americans leave Afghanistan immediately after that? Ten more years have gone since then. Bin Laden was not killed in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. Even if the US wanted to eliminate not only Bin Laden but also al-Qaeda which might make sense, why did they want to occupy the whole of Afghanistan?
There is no question that not only the US, but also the Western countries in general, have some form of interest in promoting human rights and democracy in their foreign policies. But their self-interests are the cornerstone, and these interests as well as their human rights policies are overwhelmingly marked still by a form of colonial mentality. This has been what is in crisis from Saigon to Kabul.
Some people believe the US intervention in Afghanistan started in 2001. That is not the case. It goes back to the beginning of the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the US wanted to keep Afghanistan as a client state. During the period of Daoud Khan (1953-1978), Afghanistan zig zagged between the two super powers. The opportunity was taken up by the Communists and created a revolution in 1978. Afghanistan was named a People’s Democratic Republic. That was when the US started directly funding and arming Mujahedeen movements of various types through Pakistan. Then the Soviet Union intervened and first invaded the country.
Understandably, any type of socialism was anathema to the US. It was not on the basis of human rights but on economic or profit reasons. It is not true that only the US backed regime after 2001 created circumstances for women’s right to education and work. Those were introduced between 1978 and 1990. The communist regime also was repressive and the ordinary or rural people disliked some of the policies on religious grounds. That was the basis for people-based Mujahedeen movements. There is evidence that the US, perhaps unintentionally, promoted some Arab Mujahedeen groups to involve in the Afghan civil war. Some origins of Al Qaeda goes back to these efforts, if not Taliban.
I had to visit the UNHCR office in Peshawar in 1989 as a World University Service (WUS) representative. WUS Pakistan was assisting refugees independently and apolitically. The visit involved visiting refugee camps in Azakhel and more towards Pakistan-Afghan border. There was no possibility of crossing the border or visiting Jalalabad (Afghanistan) given the heavy fighting.
The wounded who were treated at Medicine San Frontier makeshift hospitals were disheartening to look at. In many makeshift camps, young boys carried heavy arms perhaps guarding their mothers and sisters. These were supposed to be the future Taliban. I was not allowed to take many pictures except some male refugees and fighters (picture 1) and the Basic Health Unit at Azakhel Camp (picture 2) from a side. The streets in Peshawar at that time were largely deserted due to the war (picture 3). My trip to the border areas from Peshawar was challenging, drinking Coca Cola with salt for dehydration (picture 4) and lower Hindukush mountains in the background.
My visit from Geneva was after the Geneva Accords (1988) between Afghanistan and Pakistan guaranteed by the US and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union withdrew and the US promised not to support any faction, true or not. The civil war continued and ended up as a Taliban government – Islamic Emirate (1997) with many other insurgency (terrorist) groups still operating in the country. The new Emirates was recognized only by few countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE. And it fell quite quickly in 2001 when the US invaded.
This bit of history shows how the US, the Soviet Union now gone, was involved in the Afghan debacle from the beginning, and the consequences would be extremely difficult to eliminate in the foreseeable future.
What is Created?
The speed of the collapse of the US backed Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani shows the futility of what the US and some other Western governments were doing in Afghanistan during the last twenty years in the name of ‘democratic nation building.’
Democracy or human rights could be ensured primarily through internal forces and changes. These cannot be achieved through occupation or colonialism. External examples or diplomatic influences can be useful, if implemented in a friendly manner and not in an arrogant way. Even at present, the way many Western countries reacted to the first press conference of the Talban was dismissive and arrogant.
It may be true that what they said about the rights of women, female children, the press, and amnesty to those who supported the last government cannot be fully trusted. All might depend on the circumstances. However, those should be welcomed instead of condemning outright for the sake of promoting them in a positive direction. Qualifications must have been warranted, instead of sarcasm or condemnation.
What was created by the Western occupiers in Afghanistan appears to be shallow. It is true that some of the middle class sections in urban Kabul and the suburbs embraced Western values, democracy and human rights That is good. But the great majority of the rural and remote communities were left out. They may have different values or oblivious to democracy or human rights. Education ought to take precedence over propaganda.
What the occupation largely created were refugees. At present the population in Afghanistan is estimated to be around 40 million. According to the UNHRC, around six million Afghans are living in Iran and Pakistan as refugees. Some of them are reported to be coming back now with some national hope. UNHCR estimated Afghan refugees in other, mainly Western countries, to be nearly three million. They would not come back. Who is unwilling to live in a developed country instead of a poor and a conflict ridden country? The present exodus at the Kabul airport might include not only those who worked for the occupied government but also who aspire to live in a Western country. Large disparities in living conditions between rich and poor countries are main the reasons.
It would be an extremely difficult task for any future government in Afghanistan to run the economy, day to day administration, while rectifying confusions and conflicts created by the occupiers as well as the Afghans themselves over the last 50 years. Infrastructure development might be a top priority. One hope might be China who would offer to build destroyed or absent infrastructure in the country. There are of course skyscrapers and KFCs built in Kabul. But those are not for the poor or the ordinary.
There can be international forces intervening. China might not be in a position to sort them out. China anyway cannot be a panacea. It has still not much leverage in the UN system or in the international community. Therefore going by the colonial mentality of most of the Western countries, not to speak of the US, there can be future challenges including invasions and intrusions. There may be a need to look for friends in the West as well. This is what Vietnam did after Saigon.
Of course there would be major internal challenges as well. Apart from Taliban, there have been half a dozen of other armed groups in Afghanistan. Many have now been integrated to Taliban, but not all. There can be challenges from the ISIS or the remaining Al Qaeda. Will Afghanistan again would become a safe haven for international terrorism is also a question? Even about Taliban itself, we really don’t know much. Therefore, we really have to keep our fingers crossed but not be completely pessimistic, negative or arrogant like the Western pundits.
There is an apparent difference in Taliban between, for example, 2001 and 2021, that may bring some hope for the progressive world. The lessons from Saigon to Kabul are very clear. Diplomacy without interference might be the best for the world in promoting democracy and human rights.