History does NOT repeat itself. If ever it looks like it’s stuck in a rut and moving in circles, do take a closer look. Each circle may be wider than the previous one or it might have tilted along a different axis. The trajectory of events in Afghanistan cannot defy this basic rule of history.
The Taliban rose to power in mid-1990s and were ousted when the US and its allies launched military operations in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, starting what is termed as 'War on Terror'. The Taliban, however, have managed to loom large as a specter for the past 12 years and now threaten to make a comeback or so some want us to believe. Will they be able to do that? I think not. Here are my five reasons why:
1: There is no anarchy in Afghanistan now
When the Taliban rose to power in the mid-1990s, Afghanistan was in utter chaos. The decade-long crippling war was succeeded by internecine fights among the greedy, ruthless and brutal mujahedeen warlords – it seemed endless. The country had lost even a semblance of a state, rule of law had completely departed and social order rested on simple tribal ‘principles’ like might is right. The weakest and the poorest suffered the most.
The Taliban were seen as a glimmer of hope, a saner force in that rubble of a country, ravaged by savage warriors. Their ranks mostly comprised of teachers and students of madrassahs. They were revered as ‘the selfless seekers of divine knowledge’. The Taliban capitalised on this deep local tradition to become a political force. As they demonstrated their willingness and ability to restore order and peace, people flocked around them in droves. When they advanced from Kandahar on their campaign to defeat warlords and mujahedeen, provinces fell like nine pins. To ‘conquer’ a province, it would take them just as long as it did to drive a four-wheeler from its one corner to the other; and that too mostly without firing a single shot. People greeted them as saviors.
The Afghanistan of 2013 is neither as chaotic nor as desperate. It has a working constitutional government and has held two major elections. It has a regular army, government ministries and public offices. It has companies, businesses and shopping malls. The government is weak, the elections have been controversial, the officials are corrupt and the businesses evade taxes – there is no doubt about all this. But rest assured, this is still not 1995. Afghanistan is not a devastated and abandoned territory that it was when the Taliban had triumphed.
There definitely are shortcomings but there is no gap anymore that the Taliban could fill. In fact, if the Taliban have to find a place, they will have to reshape themselves to fit the available spaces. In other words, the problems to which the Taliban were a solution, have altered drastically and since they have been out of power and, I would say out of touch with the changing ground realities as well, they have retained their old shape, add to this their characteristic of inflexibility and they become unfit to any available space in Afghanistan’s present socio-political discourse.
The situation bears resemblance with the mythological group of people who go into deep sleep at an isolated location. When they wake up after years and come out of their cave, they find a surprisingly different world around them. The Taliban shall be ready for surprises and their abettors for rude shocks.
2: The world is not going to abandon Afghanistan
Soviet troops completed withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989. They left behind the government of President Najibullah that most pundits had predicted would fall in weeks, if not days. It stayed on though and in fact successfully defended itself against the mujahedeen onslaught, the most notable event being the battle of Jalalabad. The Najibullah government survived on the continued support of Soviet Union which offered it both the military supplies and the money.
In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down and the grand socialist state, the super power, the Soviet Union disintegrated in December 1991. Russia, the successor of the Soviets in Moscow, continued to support Kabul for some time but then had to stop even the fuel supply. Najibullah’s government collapsed in April 1992.
By that time, the US had already abandoned its active campaign in the region and got busy celebrating the Soviets’ fall. Unbelievable events were happening at a pace that no one had ever predicted. The world’s focus moved to the former Soviet states, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the other erstwhile socialist states. Afghanistan became a small fry with negligible value in the new global politics.
The poor country thus ended up being used by the world powers to upstage the last round of the Cold War. They pumped in billions of dollars in the institutions that only specialised in killing people and in justifying their acts on one pretext or the other. And then, they all left; abandoning the country, leaving its poor masses at the mercy of those outfits and institutions. The Mujahedeen and then the Taliban operated in this black hole of world attention.
The realities of 2013 are, however, completely different. Each and every power on earth now has a stake in Afghanistan. The world repents abandoning the country in the 1990s. Terrorism has shifted security paradigms and redefined response strategies across the globe. The world wants a stable Afghanistan and is willing to make efforts for that.
The US drawdown from Afghanistan is neither a retreat nor a pull out. The US does not want to abandon Afghanistan as this will risk making it a breeding ground and a sanctuary for terrorists again. It is supported in this cause by a number of other important powers, including our ‘all weather friend’, China. If Afghanistan drifts back into anarchy, it will have consequences for China and Central Asian states and through them for Russia. All of these countries have Muslim populations and a number of active militant separatist outfits. Anarchy in Afghanistan will provide them a fillip and that’s exactly what they dread.
So whether the boots remain on ground or not, the foreign footprint on Afghani soil will remain large.
3. Peace in Afghanistan makes business sense as well
Afghanistan’s new found importance in global politics is not solely owed to its nuisance value. Peace in Afghanistan has economic dividends, not only for Afghans but for everyone in the region, China, India, Pakistan, Central Asia, all included. This is a new post-Cold War development. One of the selfish reasons behind why the world abandoned Afghanistan in 1990s was also that it had no economic worth.
New estimates now put Afghanistan’s mineral wealth at $100 billion. The country is fencing a side of Central Asian states that are rich in oil and gas and eager to let these flow out as early as possible. All of these pipelines have to pass through Afghanistan, and many through Afghanistan and Pakistan.
China is desperate for Afghanistan’s mineral resources. It is investing $3.5 billion in the Mes Aynak copper field, south of Kabul. The project had started in 2008 and it is likely to go into production in the coming months as the biggest ever foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history. China is also investing in exploring gas and oil in the Amu River Basin area.
The country, however, strictly follows the policy of non-interference in matters of other countries and restricts itself to the terms of business deals. But China does not afford to look the other way if the Taliban stage a comeback. It understands that it will complicate work environment besides strengthening the separatist movement of ethnic Uighurs in its Xinjiang province.
The Chinese contract might be dwarfed by the one that will be signed by a consortium of Indian public and private companies next year. The consortium has won the bid to develop the Hajigak iron ore mines in the Bamyan province for more than $10 billion. India is believed to have given Afghanistan $2 billion in aid over the past decade. The two countries had signed a India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement in October 2011 under which India provides limited level training support and light military equipment to the Afghan forces.
Afghanistan’s hidden wealth is high in demand in the fast growing economies of both, India and China. They actually cannot afford to leave these untapped and this is going to play out as a new determinant in Afghan politics.
4: Now, the Taliban stand for all things wrong
The Taliban stood for all that the Afghans were desperate for in mid-1990s. They were strict governors and accessible to all. They were committed to high morals and refused to discriminate on the basis of status. They were hyper active and super efficient.
But what do they symbolise today?
It is no secret that they are now better known as Pakistan’s proxies, if not puppets, by all and sundry. Their leadership is believed to be ‘hiding’ in Pakistan for the last 12 years. They cannot survive and operate without the active support of Pakistan. Forget the US or other countries, how will these basic facts go with the common Afghans? Won’t they consider the Taliban as agents of another country? Pakistan’s overt support for the Taliban is more likely to play against them in Afghanistan’s local context.
The Taliban did restore order and put in place an efficient administration. But they messed up with the country’s economy and played havoc with its social fabric. Their obsession with expelling women from the public life, gender segregation in all spheres and punishing crimes in the most horrible of ways became their claim to fame. The world remembers their stubbornness, exemplified by their decision to blow up the Buddha statues of Bamyan. They treated non-Muslims and Muslim sects that they considered heretic dreadfully.
The Taliban were completely inflexible in their policies and never gave any consideration to the consequences of their decisions be those economic, social or political. Their mindless self-righteousness and pervasive willingness to shed blood could only be matched by some medieval kings.
Afghanistan suffered hugely during their reign. No Afghan who has witnessed that period is likely to wish them back. Most in fact dread their return and are likely to resist them tooth and nail.
In today’s Afghanistan, areas under the influence of the Taliban have a complete overlap with those that are rich in poppy cultivation. The country has a monopoly in the global opium market as its share in supply of this raw material for heroin is over 90 per cent. Half of this comes from the province of Helmand alone, the bastion of Taliban power. They not only abet and protect poppy cultivation in their area; they, in fact promote it by providing farmers with inputs and guarantees of purchasing their produce. The association between the Taliban and the drug mafia is so close that it is difficult to assess who is supporting whom. They both have a stake in keeping the area lawless.
The Taliban today, carry heavy historical baggage. They are remembered as tyrants. They are no political sovereigns and are active partners of drug lords. Does this all add up to make them a popular force in Afghanistan in 2014?
5. The Taliban’s main ally does not have a free hand now
The Taliban were recognised as the official government of Afghanistan by only three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan was their biggest direct supporter.
The Taliban provided Pakistan the rare relief from its perceived fear of being surrounded by an enemy from both of its long borders, the eastern and the western. It is called the strategic depth syndrome. Something Pakistan suffers from since its birth. It finds its exposure to India, the length of its eastern border, disproportionately larger than its geographic depth.
Pakistan has been locating its strategic installations, like its nuclear plants, at points that are at equal distance from its eastern and western edges. The other measure it considers important is to have a friendly government in Afghanistan so that it could focus exclusively on the eastern side without fearing a stab in the back or bearing the strain of defending both of its long borders.
But to its utter dismay, the governments in Kabul have almost always been friendlier to India. All of its presidents during the Soviet occupation, and before that, had close ties with India. The last of them, President Najibullah, when ousted by the mujahedeen in 1992 took refuge in a UN office compound. He remained holed up there for years trying to negotiate a safe passage to India.
Even from within the warring Afghan factions, most of the non-Pashtuns allied closely with Delhi. The mujahedeen though jockeyed for Pakistan, proved to be futile when it came to delivering a government in Kabul. The Taliban showed promise of a stable and pro-Pakistan government in Kabul and thus became the darlings of Pakistan’s security strategists. Their dream of achieving strategic depth on the western border came true.
Afghanistan was practically left for Pakistan to handle in 1990s. Everyone else had more important and urgent matter to attend to. Pakistan had the moral courage to engage in the battle of Jalalabad. It felt obliged to round up Afghan mujahedeen and fly them to Saudi Arabia to make them sign a pact. It had the guts to let its madrassah graduates, the Taliban, become a militant force in Afghanistan.
But Pakistan does not have that latitude in 2013. In fact, the opposite is true as each and every of its move is closely watched and contested by a number of stakeholders. So strategic day-dreaming aside, Afghanistan offers a free ride to none now.