It has been twenty years since Afghanistan was attacked by the US and its allied forces to eliminate the Taliban. An estimated 170,000 people died – including 2,460 US service members, 4,000 US contractors, 66,000 Afghan National Army personnel, 1,150 allied service members, 47,000 civilians, 51,000 Taliban fighters, 444 aid workers and 70 journalists.
With these deaths and with the US spending a staggering $2 trillion from taxpayers’ money as cost of war and the displacement of millions of people forced to take refuge in other countries and still living there under squalid conditions, we stand where we had started from: an Afghanistan ruled by the very same Taliban who were in charge back in 2001. There could be no bigger lesson in history regarding the futility of war than this. The eternal question that keeps cropping up is whether we will ever learn from it?
Kabul was ringing with the sound of celebratory gunshots as the last plane took off carrying the US soldiers and other staff marking the completion of the evacuation process after the Taliban walked into the capital in a lightning advance across vast swathes of the country with district after district surrendering without a fight. As cars honked on the streets of the city marking the end of foreign presence, no one could be spotted mourning the departure of those who had occupied Afghanistan for almost two decades.
There are no words which would encapsulate the infliction of suffering that these figures represent. The gravest part is the death wreaked upon the innocent men, women and children, the sick and the enfeebled, those who had nothing to do with the war and bystanders who just happened to be living in the country during the time of the conflict – they were condemned to be the collateral damage that the devastation brought in its wake.
This is not an attempt to mitigate the tragedy of the heinous terrorist attacks back in 2001. It is only that the subsequent actions unleashed destruction which was disproportionate with either the need for doing so, or the magnitude of the original crime, or the forever duration of its perpetration. An attempt was made to virtually destroy a whole country and vitiate everything it has been a proud custodian of – its values, culture, traditions, and very way of living. In the end, it was the ‘graveyard of empires’ that lived up to its legendary billing: there was no escape for the attackers but to board the planes on their hurried way back to where they came from. The very manner of their retreat tells their story.
Much will be written, and much criticism heaped upon the entire sequence of the war. Personal experiences will come into play as will some pre-orchestrated narratives to advance the cause of one side or the other. None of these will do justice to the havoc that the war heaped upon an entire population which had nothing to do with the tragic happenings of 9/11. If the principal objective was to hunt down Osama bin Laden, there were other intelligence-based operations that could have been employed to trace him rather than shower daisy cutters and deadly drone strikes upon an entire nation. The atrocities were fathomless.
The Taliban have inherited a multi-faceted challenge as a consequence of the ignominious retreat of the US and the allied forces: how do they take the country forward? A number of statements have come from their top leadership broadly outlining the contours of the path that they intend to adopt encompassing the formation of an inclusive government and guaranteeing basic human rights including rights for women to study and work. These are all sweet-sounding vibes, but it is their implementation which is likely to be a huge challenge for them.
Although most of the adversary camps have agreed to join in, reports have filtered in that they are all demanding their pound of flesh in return for according ‘legitimacy’ to a Taliban government. This is not an unexpected development. Obviously, for an inclusive government to be agreed upon, all major stakeholders will need to be accommodated, but this cannot be at the cost of the Taliban handing over the authority to those they have vanquished in a war lasting two decades. It would require wisdom and sagacity to agree on a working mechanism that would be acceptable to both sides.
Once this bridge has been crossed, the Taliban government would be confronted with the biggest challenge of all: their economic survival. This is where the rest of the world comes in. This should be led by the regional countries which have a direct stake in peace in their neighbourhood. It will happen if the Taliban government has the economic sustainability to move on with delivering to the impoverished and suffering people of a war-battered country. Unfortunately, the Western attitude so far has been extremely negative. Blocking the much-needed flow of funds to the Afghan government and making it conditional on their ‘conformance’ will instil negativity into a burgeoning relationship. A preferable way would be to cultivate engagement, work with the Taliban government and encourage them to follow the path they have already outlined. A confrontational approach at the beginning of this new phase can cast a detrimental effect on the nature of relationships they will build in the future.
The role of Afghanistan’s neighbours will be even more critical at this stage. Afghanistan needs economic and political support, and this responsibility will principally fall upon the shoulders of countries which share a border and those which inhabit the larger region. They will have to work with the Taliban to take them along the chartered path for laying the foundations of an inclusive, peaceful, stable and economically viable Afghanistan. There are no options for either of the parties involved except close and meaningful engagement. Under the scanner of the Western powers, forever doubting the credentials of the Taliban, forever belittling their potential, and forever attempting to heap scorn upon them, this could turn into a vicious war of attrition which, by no stretch of imagination, will pave the way to a collective future.
Notwithstanding what they do or don’t, the Taliban government is a reality that has to be lived with. The best approach would be to give them space so that they are able to come good on the benchmarks they have spelled out for a new and inclusive Afghanistan. The Afghans need it, the neighbours need it, and the world needs it. We can’t afford to limp back again to where we started from twenty years ago.
The writer is the special assistant to the PM on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute.