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Notes from Afghanistan

November 25, 2012


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.

Twitter: @cyalm