Lost opportunity

Published August 27, 2021
The writer is a lawyer who lives in London.
The writer is a lawyer who lives in London.

WHO would have thought that 2021 would be a near replay of 1989? That the Americans, like the Soviets, would be running out of Afghanistan with “their tail between their legs” as Robin Wright put it in a recent New Yorker piece, and the Afghan Taliban would once again be patrolling the streets of Kabul? Who would have thought that after 20 years in Afghanistan, images of Afghans falling off planes, desperate to escape Taliban rule, would be met with the UK Chief of Defence Staff Gen Sir Nick Carter advocating for the Taliban, claiming they are “country boys who live by a code of honour … and that they have changed”?

Hard questions must be asked of Western powers for their misadventure and the expensive 20-year Afghan project. Why would the Taliban change when they have been handed a victory and are being credited for militarily defeating not one but two superpowers?

Hard questions must also be asked of the Ashraf Ghani government and Afghan National Army, which fell like a house of cards, exposing manifestly the limitations of imported democracy. Still, it must be acknowledged that in the 20 years that the US propped up a dubious regime and terrorised and killed sections of the Afghan civilian population, it also helped educate many Afghans, particularly women, and helped open up opportunities in fields like journalism, unthinkable under a Taliban regime. Decidedly, the Americans were an occupying force, unconcerned with the fate of the Afghans in the long run, but while they occupied, they felt some moral obligation to nation-build.

Unfortunately, this is more than can be said of the Taliban rule of the 1990s. Afghans, particularly women, remember that to be the darkest period of their history. Their indigenous roots notwithstanding, the Taliban destroyed far more than they built. In a fair election, they are likely to secure even less votes than the corrupt regime that the Western powers supported. Their forte is their battle hardiness. Their rule has always relied on fear as a fundamental tool. They believe in suppression, not inclusion.

Why would we want for our neighbours what we can’t tolerate at home?

Outside of Afghanistan, nobody knows this better than the Pakistanis. Memories are short. But it was less than a decade and a half ago that Pakistan began reeling from the attacks of the Pakistani Taliban. Our bazaars, shrines, schools, sports events, civilians and military personnel had all come under attack. Hundreds of girls’ schools were blown up in Swat alone.

Then, in 2007, our army went into Swat, to clear the area of the terrorists. The decision to take the terrorists on came much later than it should have. Much damage had been done but finally action was taken. Local people suffered displacement but recognised the need for military action. When the Taliban removed the Pakistani flag and replaced it with their own, a red line had certainly been crossed and the state had to react.

Why then would Pakistanis celebrate when the Taliban fold the Afghan national flag and replace it with their own? Why would we want for our neighbours what we cannot tolerate at home? It is one thing to smirk at the humiliating manner in which the US has been ousted from the region but to celebrate a Taliban victory next door is akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Not to mention it lends credence to the oft-repeated claim that Pakistan played both sides — supporting Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan while taking action against the TTP’s brutality in Pakistan. Is the difference between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ simply their area of operation?

Some compatriots I have argued with on the Taliban question tell me they just don’t care what happens in Afghanistan and feel safe because we have fenced the border. Let me remind them that illegal immigration from Mexico to the US didn’t stop because Donald Trump decided to fence the border. When tribes straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border wouldn’t it be far better security to collectively stand against the ideology that is bent upon taking us back to the Stone Age and discriminating against women, who constitute half the population, and without whose active participation there can be no progress?

Far from celebrating, I can only lament a lost opportunity. What if Pakistan had used the American presence in the region to its benefit as South Korea did? South Korea made enormous progress economically, democratically and militarily by aligning itself with the US. In 1961, South Korea’s per capita national income was 91st in the world, but today its nominal GDP stands at ninth in the world. It has gone from being an aid beneficiary to an aid donor.

Instead of being confused about whose war we were fighting, Pakistan could have achieved international recognition and better relations with all our neighbours. Now, we face off an emboldened Taliban, the IMF and the FATF alone.

The writer is a lawyer who lives in London.

Twitter: @ayeshaijazkhan

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2021

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