There have been dire predictions about prospects for Afghanistan after the bulk of NATO forces withdraw from the battle-scarred country in 2014. A panel of experts took part in a discussion in London on July 10, organized by the Commonwealth Journalists Association, to share their views on what lay ahead for Afghanistan.
BBC correspondent, Humphrey Hawksley, chairing the discussion, began by presenting a potted history of Afghanistan beginning with the two British Afghan wars of the 19th century, the years of relative stability under King Zahir Shah, followed by the Soviet invasion, the installation of President Najibullah, his subsequent overthrow and murder, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and the establishment of the government led by Hamid Karzai.
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Tobias Ellwood, British Member of Parliament, who helped formulate the Conservative party’s policy on Afghanistan, said many mistakes could have been avoided if successive western governments had consulted history books and understood the culture of the place. “One important lesson was the need to win hearts and minds, it is not just about defeating the enemy,” he said.
Mr. Ellwood said in any conflict there were three strands which required attention: establishing security, following up with reconstruction and development aid, and ensuring good governance. He said governance was critical, it was important to create firewalls to prevent corruption. He said that under the current system in Afghanistan, the power of the President is supreme; he gets to appoint every person in a position of influence, even head teachers – and unchallenged power could be open to abuse. Mr. Ellwood highlighted the need to create a structure with accountability, saying, “There is a real possibility of peace, but we do need to see an end to corruption and set up good governance.”
Another speaker, General Khodaidad, was Minister of State Security under the first Mujaheddin government and later Minister of Counter Narcotics in the Karzai government. He agreed with Tobias Ellwood that foreign forces should respect the traditions and customs of the people of Afghanistan. He said this was the biggest mistake made by the west during the eleven years since the Taliban were ousted.
“You have to know how to behave with local people, how to talk to them. If you deal well with them, they will deal well with you.” He said what happened after 2014 would depend on how western troops conducted their withdrawal and whether there was a transparent election to keep Afghanistan strong. “How will we hand over to [the] next President of Afghanistan? How can we keep the nation safe?” he said.
General Khodaidad said that in order to have a unified nation, you require a strong army. He said that in Afghanistan, the army was divided into several groups, with warlords enlisting their own men; the leadership was politicized. As a military man, General Khodaidad was particularly unhappy about the caliber of the Afghan troops and their lack of resources. He said the army is made up mainly of poorly-trained infantry soldiers. It does not have adequate artillery, fighter planes, transport aircraft, or army personnel carriers. He did not mince his words – when NATO withdraws, he predicted, several areas of Afghanistan would fall under the control of the Taliban. General Khodaidad said the priority was to fight corruption within the army.
Incorrect western assumptions
Lucy Morgan Edwards, author of “The Afghan Solution: The Inside Story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and How Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan,” worked on UN community development projects as a Program Officer in Kandahar during the Taliban regime and then as a journalist, election monitor, and political advisor to the EUSR (European Union Special Representative), dealing with security sector reform, civil-military relations, and narcotics. She said that the western strategy today was essentially unchanged from the one adopted in 2001, i.e., one focused on kinetics (such as “Capture and Kill”) rather than winning the battle of “perception.” It also failed to take into account what ordinary Afghans desired – she was speaking about Afghan civil society, the ulema and genuine tribal leaders, as opposed to the strongmen with whom the west engaged after 9/11.
Lucy Morgan Edwards said the west’s narrow vision was based on incorrect “assumptions” that western politicians were too ill-informed to challenge – e.g., the idea of a western military presence as a pre-requisite for security, development, and governance. She argued that the reality was the inverse and that the west needed to work with existing (and often more legitimate) informal local governance systems. This had been the basis of the plan put together with tribal leaders, defecting senior Taliban, and the ex-King (in the two years before 9/11) by famed Pashtun Commander Abdul Haq. The west needed to stop assessing the situation purely through a military lens and looking for short term “realpolitique” quick fixes if it was to understand the true situation.
According to Ms. Morgan Edwards, the co-option of strongmen “mid-wifed” by the west into the initial military strategy and onwards into the state-building process (compounded at Bonn in November 2001 and at the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002) had led to the present crisis of impunity and undermined the legitimacy of the present government. She said the “Capture and Kill” strategy was counter-productive to a political settlement yet was now a central plank of the current and post 2014 strategy, despite the fact we are being ‘”sold” a narrative of “exit” from Afghanistan. This was in line with the objective of western politicians, which was to get the war off the front pages of the newspapers.
The next speaker was Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai, Chairman of United Afghan Tribes. He also serves as a Tribal Chief of seven tribes in the Southeast of Afghanistan and is involved in humanitarian and aid projects. In 2011, Chief Zazai provided at least 10,000 jobs for his people in Paktia Province alone by implementing US Aid projects in his stronghold. These included building retaining walls, bridges, schools, clinics, and roads. In addition, he provided short-term employment opportunities for thousands of poor and unemployed people in the most remote parts of the country. He has also formed a Reconciliation Jirga to reach out to those local Taliban in the area who are not supporting Al Qaida to try to convince them to surrender and lay down their arms. This background placed Chief Zazai in a strong position to give an assessment from the ground.
Chief Zazai is convinced that the grain of the traditional Afghan Tribal structure can be integrated into western-style democratic structures and institutions in order to form a transparent and more effective form of government for Afghanistan, which will work for the greater interest of the Afghan people. At the CJA meeting, Chief Zazai said the west had replaced evil with evil in Aghanistan. He said many people serving in the Karzai’s regime were responsible for the killing of thousands of innocent people during the civil war between 1992 and 1995. Referring to Karzai, he added: “In 2004, we had the wrong man in the right place. Hamid Karzai was the weakest man, normally a weak man in Afghanistan is usually seen as the weakest of all. Yet the entire nation voted for Karzai in the 2004 election. But sadly, the minute he came to power, he started to compromise with the warlords.” Chief Zazai also regretted that there was no clear strategy or any proper economic reform package from the international community and as a result, he believes, the “terrorists” took advantage of this. He added, “Even the government under the late Dr.Najibullah was working efficiently, however, this present system is worse than it was under his rule.”
A western journalist has described Afghans as “people sitting on a pile of gold and begging for a loaf of bread.” Chief Zazai said the international community had even failed to revive these minerals worth trillions of dollars, which he said would help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. He said: “The present GDP is made up of aid money, of which 80 percent goes back to the west in the form of consultancy fees, and the rest is sadly shared amongst those sitting in high positions in the Karzai regime. Unfortunately, nothing is left for the people of Afghanistan.”
Chief Zazai said that Afghanistan was desperate for development for economic prosperity, peace, and harmony. The people of Afghanistan, he said, had been humiliated for the last eleven years by the “gangsters” in power and the indiscriminate bombings of NATO and US forces, which usually resulted in the loss of many innocent lives. “When Alexander the Great came to Bactria, he faced a furious resistance. His mother advised him to marry from the region, so he married “Rokhsana,” the daughter of a powerful tribal chief. This is how he then went on to conquer India, but this option today is certainly not available for Mr. Obama or Mr. Cameron. Even the Communists tried to dismantle the tribal system, but they failed, because this system has served the people of Afghanistan for more than 3,000 years. Therefore, since this ancient system could not be replaced overnight with Communism, then how can it be replaced with western democracy?
The British also invaded Afghanistan but even they could not occupy Afghanistan because of the Afghan resistance against the British Empire. Besides the many logical or illogical reasons that one can think of, the main reason as to why the Brits would want to invade Afghanistan, as far as we can see, is that they want to replace our ancient culture with British etiquettes – “they simply wanted to teach us Afghans how to eat with forks and knives.”
Chief Zazai said, “The outside world has to learn to respect the people of Afghanistan and their ancient culture. Everything in our country was painted with so-called ‘democracy,’ and look what we ended up with – the gangsters and the mafia bosses ruling us.”
Tired of war
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, took a strategic view and spoke about the likely regional impact once NATO/ISAF forces withdrew from Afghanistan. He dismissed the fears of some observers that this would result in a proxy war between Pakistan and India in Afghanistan. He said there were several reasons to believe that this would not happen. Foremost was a change in the postures of India and Pakistan, which have both taken steps to improve relations and are seeking to enhance trade links. Pakistani columnist, Irfan Husain, did not totally share this optimistic view. He said he believed that the Pakistani military still did not trust India and suggested that India could counter this by implementing confidence-building measures along their shared border.
In summing up, General Khodaidad, repeated that the people of Afghanistan, including the Taliban, were tired of fighting. “After war you have to bring changes – war never ends in the region.” Both the Afghan speakers agreed that the failure to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan was largely due to an absence of understanding of the people and culture of Afghanistan. Chief Zazai said that in order for Afghanistan to prosper, a proper government should be in place. He said there were large numbers of highly-qualified Afghans who had returned to the country offering their services but their experience was not recognized by the ruling clique, simply because what he called “these illiterate gangsters” did not wish to see highly-qualified Afghans returning to their homeland who might eventually replace them. So men with almost no qualifications were made Marshalls and Generals. At the same time, he said, the Afghan Taliban saw no need for reconciliation since the deadline for the withdrawal of western forces had already been announced.
Chief Zazai said the Taliban were clever and were preparing for 2014 and would take control if a new strong government was not in place in Kabul. Both Afghan speakers said they feared that the 16 billion dollars pledged by western donors in Tokyo at their meeting in July, would end up in the pockets of the ruling elite and not reach the majority of the people trapped in a cycle of poverty. The loud and clear message that came out of the CJA discussion on Afghanistan was that the people of this proud nation should be left to decide their own future. The country has natural resources but needs the expertise and technical help to enjoy the benefits.