US Hegemony, Its Lingering Pakistan/ Afghanistan Embarrassment and now a Taliban Government
It was the early 80s. I still vividly remember as a child, standing on the side of the iconic Mall road in Murree (a mountain resort town situated about 30kms northeast of Islamabad in Punjab, Pakistan, and also home to a number of missionary boarding schools) with compatriots from my school and others, waving little Pakistani and American flags as President Zia ul Haq accompanied by the then US Vice President, George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) drove by in their endless cavalcade of black luxury sedans. For us it was a joyous day out of the regular rigour of boarding school life; for Pakistan it was the beginning of the end of its Rising Star status in the region.
Pakistan, so geostrategically well situated to catalyse the downfall of the Soviet empire- the one thorn in the side of the Americans and the only obstacle to an all out USA dominated planet- was requested to become Ally Numero Uno. And we complied in the then considered most shrewd and cunning manner – through religiously radicalising, arming and mobilising an entire nation in a war that was to turn in on itself for decades after the USSR fell. By God, did we comply! And for very little in return. A statesman at the helm of affairs at the time (or even a half-way successful businessman like Donald Trump armed as he is with his career collage of bankruptcies), rather than a religiously devout military man like Zia Ul Haq, would have at least got us better trade deals to help shore up the economy once the dust of battle settled. But these are wishful conjectures…and the rest as they say, is history.
Soviet Russia sputtered and fell and the USA couldn’t get out of the region fast enough, leaving two countries with populations in the area of 130 million (circa 1992) to clean up the mess. But radical religion has a way of festering, sometimes out of sight, and emerging multiplied, more virulent, more destructive and deadlier than before. And that has been the dubious Vestige of Alliance bestowed on the two countries, the “rewards” of which we are continuing to grimly reap. Kabul, once considered the Paris of the East, is now a wraith of its former self, and the country has been declared a failed state. Pakistan itself has been teetering on the edge of the abyss of Pariah States. It’s people have undergone decades of global dismissal at best and damnation at worst. Despite being the fifth most populous country in the world and a nuclear power, it has fallen behind all its compatriots on almost every index of progress, prosperity and nationhood. The war on terror in fact, has purportedly cost the Pakistani economy a total of almost USD 130 billion since 2001.
And now in a not entirely shocking but surprising turn of events, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. I’m not even sure anymore as to how appropriate the term “fallen” is in this case. After all, for 40 years, the country was propped up by mostly US military might and the puppet government that it supported. The powers that be, were quite completely ignorant of the real dynamics of the region: the centuries old tribalism, the multicultural factionalism. They were attempting to colour Afghanistan with the same brush that they have done in almost all of their other failed military endeavours of the 20th and 21st centuries. They were trying to homogenise the country; bring it to heel via a myopic vision that they thought was applicable to all the tribes, all the different kinds of people that made up the rich social and cultural fabric of Afghanistan. They failed, utterly and completely.
The below are a few key reasons for this most recent watershed moment in the country:
⁃ The average Afghan, (mean age: 20 years) having lived in a state of mostly active war, has developed an innate distrust of its sham government and its “enablers” (the West). They see the country as having been taken over, “invaded” by the US; and that has never been a sustainable state of affairs for the proud, sovereign Afghan people. And so, after 40 years of occupation, many in the beleaguered country preferred to opt for the dystopic, ultra orthodox approach of the Taliban since it also brought with it freedom from the invading forces. There was thus, a perfect storm created at the centre of which was the formidable desire for self determination.
⁃ The last 20 years have purportedly seen billions of dollars siphoned towards the Afghan cause. But when you have a country with no economy to speak of, no development and no nation building, the aid tends to find its way into the local pockets of the crooked and the powerful. And so it has been with Afghanistan with very little of the aid finding its way to the communities at large. Investing in building trade and industry would have been the optimal way to make real, effective inroads into the lives of the people. But that requires sitting down with the people, understanding them and working with them at grass root levels. That was never the agenda of the US. They wanted things done their way backed by the full force of their military might. Which brings me to the third point.
⁃ The average Afghan also saw that there was massive corruption in the government, among the very people who were supposed to lead them out of their war-driven poverty. Over the past 40 years, a complete and utter trust deficit had grown between the people and their “infidel-supported” puppet government – there was no fifth, sixth or twentieth chance left to give to their leaders; no opportunities for do-overs by their government. And so, the exit of the allied troops also served as the inflection point for their exploitative, demoralised leadership to be overturned. That the Taliban were doing the overturning was inconsequential. At the end of the day, they in all their perverse, radical glory, were still their fellow citizens, their brothers in arms.
And so it was, that on a balmy August day in 2021, Afghanistan was once again a free country. Bizarre as it sounds given who freed the proud Afghan people, that for them, is the inalienable truth.
The million dollar question now is how the brand new Afghan sovereignty will be managed by the Taliban leadership. It is important to note that they as a faction, are also older, wiser and more cognisant of global norms, ethics and diplomacy. They are aware also that they are no longer a rag tag militia group hiding in caves and living on the edge with no clear and sustainable vision or mission. They have been catapulted against all odds (or indeed because of them!) into the role of the leaders of their homeland. They know they’ve outgrown the plundering, riotous band of robbers and murderers that they were. They know they now have the formidable task of the leadership and governance of almost 40 million people. The Taliban are aware that almost overnight they have morphed into statesmen.
The million dollar question beckons again: how are the Taliban going to go about being national leaders who will also be welcome on International platforms? A state that other countries will engage with on trade, diplomacy, military/defense, intelligence and foreign aid? They know they cannot exist as a dystopian island unto themselves; even if they have the inclination, they don’t have the means.
The early glimmerings in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover indicate that it can go either way: their spokesperson is articulate and willing to share their points of view and to be questioned by mainstream international media. So far, the sound bites have been almost liberal by historical Taliban standards.
While I, as a woman, would not want to be a citizen of the newly independent state, I would still pause before summarily dismissing the new regime. We are living in strange times where no nation can lay claim anymore to being more righteous than the rest and presume to lead the natives out of their ignorance (everyone now has public skeletons in their History closets). These are also times where global ethics and policies are constantly being reshaped by the voices of the people of the world as they look for the truth; as they learn to separate the chaff from the grain on the information super highway.
While everything right now points to the country being pulled back into the dark ages, while our knee jerks are all about reclaiming the land back from the Taliban, we need to pause. We need to wait and watch. Like I said, we are living in strange times and while we continue to champion human rights, to raise our voices for the basic freedoms of every citizen everywhere, we still need to be aware that the one size of the western democratic ideal doesn’t fit all.
Closer to home, countries like Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran have a direct stake in this new equation since any militant activity will tend to spillover into these countries either in the form of terrorism or refugees or both as has been the unfortunate case in Pakistan. Now is the critical juncture where all the allies (and the adversaries!) in the region need to come together to make this transition in the Afghan government as seamless as possible, while also ensuring that the small steps made towards modernization and individual emancipation in the country over the last few years, are not completely decimated by the new orthodox Islamist regime.