AFGHANS love their country like no other and call it ‘Graan’ (the most precious) Afghanistan. Today it is going through a dire existential period, perhaps its last. It is estimated that, since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, over 111,000 Afghans (including civilians, soldiers and militants) have been killed, and about 30,000 civilians wounded so far; the price paid in the hope to bag the biggest trophy. If it keeps its boundaries intact, then the sacrifices may not have been entirely in vain.
In this final round, great dangers are lurking for the unity of the country. As we know, linguistically and culturally, Afghanistan is not one nation. War, despite its horrors, is sometimes referred to as ‘creative destruction’. The First Afghan War did much to define the modern boundaries of the Afghan state. But if war can be creative in one instance, it can be destructive in another. The First World War completely destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and gave birth to several states based on nationalism. The Second World War reduced Great Britain to a small island — notwithstanding having won the war — paving the way for the liberation of many colonies. Boundaries have been appearing and disappearing, but ethnicities are more or less occupying the same spaces.
Victory in this longest war for the Afghan Taliban is not yet assured. The confusion over the withdrawal of American forces is worst confounded by the paralysis in decision-making in the US government. In a move bordering on insanity, President Trump tweeted away the agreement reached in Doha last September on a very flimsy pretext. Now, faced with possible impeachment, he is in search of some action to lift the gloom in his camp. He has activated his team to restart the Doha process. Though he had promised the American people he would bring their troops home, particularly from Afghanistan and the Middle East, this campaign pledge has been largely unmet. Troop deployment has only increased since he took over as president, with about 200,000 American forces currently overseas.
President Trump’s diplomatic move to restart the negotiations stands starkly in contrast with what the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark Milley told ABC News in a recent interview, who said that that the clear objective set by the US for Afghanistan had not been achieved. American forces would stay for many more years in Afghanistan, till it is no longer deemed a threat to the US mainland. Did he mean the total defeat of the Taliban? Is that a realistic objective after 19 years of conflict and an ascendant Taliban?
The Afghans are in desperate need of lasting peace.
It is possible that the US president may, in characteristic fashion, withdraw a major portion of his forces via tweet, leaving Afghans vs Afghans. That will be a pyrrhic victory for the Taliban. Pakistan’s efforts are directed towards facilitating the US withdrawal in order to elicit a few cheers from it. It is a myopic policy. Pakistan should work for comprehensive peace in that country. Pakistan has been playing above its weight in its neighbourhood, and has lent its shoulders to others to fire their guns from. It has chosen sides in the conflict under a policy driven by fear of encirclement. As a result, it is disliked by many (not all) Afghans. Accept this fact.
If the Taliban continue to pursue their objective through military conquests, it will be by wading through a sea of blood. One part of Afghanistan has tightly embraced the zeitgeist or spirit of the times. The other is pursuing a caliphate. This is a powerful mix for a supernova taking shape across our western border. It holds many dangers for Pakistan. Seismic shocks travel through borders; when a star collapses, it gives rise to the formation of others.
It is thus important for Pakistan in particular and other neighbours such as China, Russia and Iran to work for comprehensive peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban need to heed the words of the Greek poet Hesiod: “observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor”.
The Afghans need a break. They have been through so many tragedies and horrors of war. I recount one if the mystery of dreams is believed in. Jets bombed Zarmina’s house in Nawa Kaley in Logar province. The corpses could not be distinguished from one another. They were all buried together, near where they died. Zarmina kept appearing in the dreams of her half brother, asking him to make her whole. Bewildered, he searched every nook and cranny of her house, until he found, in the smallest pocket of his waistcoat, the tip of a woman’s finger still etched in henna. He had left it there in the confusion of the funeral. He wrapped it in a clean cloth, and buried it where the others were — after which, Zarmina’s soul rested in peace.
The writer is a former civil servant and former minister.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2019