Notes from Afghanistan

Published Nov 25, 2012 12:10am

IT took a while to register. Something was missing.

Sitting cross-legged on rug-covered floors, sprawled on elaborately upholstered sofas, walking through bazaars, being driven around in the ubiquitous SUVs that are the elites’ preferred mode of travel, talking to Afghans about Afghanistan, about the insurgency, about the future — and yet it never came up.

The Haqqani network.

Nobody mentioned it. Not in Jalalabad. Not in Kabul. Not in the several provinces the road to Mazar-i-Sharif winds through.

It was like the Haqqanis didn’t matter.

They do of course. In Khost — and Paktika and Paktia too — the Haqqanis matter.

But HQN, the Americans’ shorthand for the Haqqani network, is the group that has bedevilled ties between Pakistan and the US.

It is the group that has come to symbolise the difference between the illusion of victory and the ignominy of defeat for the Americans and the strategic stubbornness of the Pakistan Army.

Surely, it had to figure somewhere in the Afghans’ assessment of their country’s future.

Part of the problem is semantics. Afghans don’t automatically differentiate between the sub-groups and franchises of the Taliban. There is just ‘the Taliban’.

But it’s also that the Haqqanis aren’t seen by Afghans as central to the post-2014 puzzle.

They are, and will remain, a piece of the jigsaw, but just a piece. Khost isn’t to Afghanistan what Kabul, or Kandahar, is.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But it did.

Such is the power of narratives that states build up around conflicts and that are perpetuated, wittingly and unwittingly, until everyone forgets the multiple assumptions those narratives are built on.

Wandering around Afghanistan’s north, by road, without a security escort, during the day and in the pitch dark of night, is an exercise in myth busting.

Peer at Afghanistan from outside and you’re likely to think the whole place is just waiting for the government to collapse, civil war to erupt and the Taliban to once again be the last men standing.

That whole business of time and watches and Taliban tenacity outliving Western, and Afghans’, commitment to fashioning some kind of stability.

Yes, the Taliban and the insurgency are real. As is the corruption and malfeasance and utter decrepitude of the government. As are ethnic tensions.

And the West’s commitment and interest will gradually disappear, definitely not in 2014 but who knows, maybe five or 10 years down the road.

But Afghans aren’t obsessing over the Taliban insurgency and what Mullah Omar may or may not do.

Part of the reason is that the Taliban aren’t the cross-ethnic coalition of Mujahideen against the Soviets.

Yes, the Taliban are incredibly strong in the south and active in the east, north and even the west.

But Pakhtuns are roughly 40 per cent of the population — the high-end estimate of some Pakhtun chauvinists is 60 per cent, but more pragmatic Pakhtuns acknowledge the lower figure may be closer to reality. How many active Taliban are there? Twenty thousand, thirty or maybe forty? Add in the sympathisers and facilitators and enablers and you’re still at just a slice of the overall Pakhtun population.

The Taliban violence will never be quelled militarily. Which is why reconciliation is such a big deal.

But Afghans are more focused on something else: the elections in 2014.

Elections, more than quelling the insurgency, are seen as key to holding together the Afghan project. That, and the conviction the West won’t repeat the mistake of 1989, turning out the lights and never looking back until Osama turned up.

Both are big assumptions.

But they also suggest that only a sustained series of catastrophic misjudgements and miscalculations by the Afghans and the West will automatically lead to the unravelling that the outside world so fears.

Karzai, a Karzai puppet or someone else as president would have to turn on its head the system of the last decade. To trigger collapse, Kabul would have to resist centrifugal forces — allowing power to flow towards the provinces — and try and replace them with centripetal forces — aggregating more power in the centre, against the grain of Afghan history.

To trigger collapse, Kabul, and the West that backs it, would have to cut the purse strings altogether that have kept the regional powerbrokers sated.

To trigger collapse, the core of the Afghan forces, that today pack quite a punch and are constantly getting battlefield experience, would have to disintegrate.

Why any one of that will automatically occur in a couple of years’ time Afghans aren’t sure.

Collapse is possible, but Afghans don’t see it as imminently likely.

The bigger fear is that Afghanistan will grind to a stalemate again, that the rapid gains of the last decade will slow down again.

In the north at least, Afghanistan today has a better mobile phone network and better city roads than most of Pakistan. Starting from zero means the modest gains in health, education and wealth are felt more profoundly.

The gains are still uneven of course. Kabul doesn’t yet have a sewerage system, which is why queues of heavy vehicles line the capital’s streets at night to drain the septic tanks of foreign missions. Locals, presumably, aren’t so lucky when it comes to hygiene.

But there’s still a big difference between collapse and less rapid, or little, progress in a place like Afghanistan.

Return to Pakistan and the questions grow even bigger.

If Afghanistan has moved on in the last decade, significantly or even just a little bit, why is our army still clinging to a version of the past?

Do the generals here even know that Afghanistan may have moved on or are they just stubborn and unwilling to accept they were wrong?

And therein may lie Afghanistan’s future tragedy: the failure of outside powers, particularly Pakistan’s, to recognise Afghanistan may have changed in the last decade, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept that the past doesn’t necessarily have to repeat itself.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

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Comments (16) (Closed)


Junaid Hashmat
Nov 25, 2012 11:37am
Out of frying pan into the fire. Russians, Pakistani and now American puppets.
Guest63
Nov 25, 2012 10:15am
With reference to COAS Gen Kiyani's last outburst on the Country's situation and a candid admission that mistakes have been made by all institutions ! I think if he does another such sermon and openly admit that the top brass's assumptions and presumptions for the decades about the Strategic Depth Scenario towards Afghanistan , Was a failure and this is out of the equation now , Many Many Problems the nation is facing would be helped out to solution . Does COAS has that courage or does the top brass has that courage ( its on record stated by the COAS that the head speaks out of collective wisdom and thinking ) , Only time has to tell us .
karman
Nov 25, 2012 02:15pm
very correct...i have moved across kabul , n Afghans have understood the game...they want properity , education for themselves . Somehow they are attracted towards a lot to India...which is odd condidering that they are distant from India geographically ...
Dr Khan
Nov 25, 2012 03:42pm
why do we interfere in our neighbor internal matters? why don,t we let afghans to decide who should rule them? Who the hell are we to decide taliban are good for Afghanistan? We want democracy, free media, modern education etc. for ourselves but when it comes to Afghanistan we take a U-turn and support taliban. If you dig a well for others there is always chances you will fall in it. And we already have fallen in that well. For god sake leave afghan solve their problems by themselves.
Abdullah
Nov 25, 2012 08:44am
Thank you Cyril for the frank assessment. I wish the Pakistani foreign policy gurus, in Afghanistan's case the military establishment, smell the coffee and get a grasp of reality. Manana, Khosh bashi !
BlackJack2
Nov 25, 2012 09:05am
This article is a Pakistani's wish come true, loll Pashtuns on both sides of the border are waking up. KP and Balochs come to Afghanistan to work and speak freely their mother tongue, Pashto. I'll tell you one thing, Taliban aren't coming to power, international community won't stand it neither would Pashtuns (waken ones on both sides). We(Pashtuns or Afghans) need to put ourselves and land together.
Mustafa Razavi
Nov 26, 2012 03:59am
Keep repeating that mantra but do catch the last C-130 out of Bagram concentration camp or you would join Najibullah.
Mustafa Razavi
Nov 25, 2012 07:18am
The West is in denial. Another grave has been added to the graveyard of empires that is Afghanistan.
Jaihoon
Nov 25, 2012 05:14am
Pakistani generals are engaged in wishful thinking, chasing chimera, that spells disaster for the future of their country. Afghanistan has profoundly changed and Afghans will never allowed Pakistan's stooges to rule Afghanistan once again with their medieval world views.
Enlightened
Nov 25, 2012 05:32pm
Afghan Taliban has survived the onslaught of the Western forces for more than a decade not only through its resilience but also of support from Pakistan. The author's apprehensions regarding history repeating itself is quite true and Pakistan might feel the heat if the future Taliban regime in Afghanistan refuses to tow its line and try to enforce its religious agenda through their brothers across the border resulting in more blood-shed across the country. However, it is unlikely that the military top brass would now change its decades old strategy now since it would lead to confrontation with both Talibans which it wants to avoid at any cost but this may have catastrophic effects for the future.
BRR
Nov 25, 2012 05:27am
It is the Kabuliwala story all over again, this time the Pak army failing to see that times have changed, and the child they had seen long ago has grown up, albeit without their consent, and will no longer be easy to manipulate.
Khan Marwat
Nov 25, 2012 05:41am
Its alway nice to read you. The worse situation picture is always portrayed by the media where ten of thousands human live and at least more social then the urban utopians.
JB
Nov 27, 2012 09:25pm
Amen Brother! PASHTUNS UNITED! May we InshAllah be one again!
Abdullah
Nov 26, 2012 03:12pm
I wouldn't wish it on any one Razavi saheb, keep sending the poor men's children to war like Sufi Mohammad while you enjoy your latte with your beautiful English but ugly words.
Aj
Nov 25, 2012 07:00pm
same was the situation till 2001. but nobody bothered to have a look. everyone out of us trusted what western media told us, that TALIBANS are savage ppl. Now look what we have done
asjad
Nov 25, 2012 11:11am
The rise of Taliban is inevitable given the strength and resilience they enjoy. Indifference of the West or USA makes no difference. The wise thing being pursued in Afghanistan now is an inclusive approach towards Taliban since the exclusive and repulsive strategy has failed. Talibans must be subsumed into the power-sharing structure side by side with other political parties. Every society has a concoction of right and left extremes but both compete and cooperate to represent each segment of the society. Left can never survive eliminating the right completely and the vice-verse. Future of Afghanistan is bright but in a cocktail of several power houses.