In Afghanistan, all is not lost

The situation in Afghanistan is haunting. But, past suffering does not need to reoccur. We need to agree on some clear humanitarian priorities to minimize insecurity, chaos and displacement.

Photo: outlookafghanistan
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Nothing surprises about Afghanistan until it does. The speedy fall of the country to the Taliban caught even seasoned observers by surprise, although perhaps it should not have. The accounts of the aftermath of Taliban takeover by media commentators are surprising too: what is achieved with panic-inducing inflammatory language? If we wish to engage with Afghanistan’s new government, which for the sake of Afghans we must, let us focus on readying for talks.

Looking back, we can’t be sure about what was avoidable and what was inevitable. But is now the time to discuss what we could have and should not have done? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and analyses are abundant, such as the final report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. When would have been a good time to begin to rebalance the international assistance portfolio to de-emphasize security, devolve authority, and embed development in Afghan-owned delivery structures at the local level? When did countering terror for the US become fixing failed states for the rest of the world? Perhaps we should use these analytical insights to focus on what type of engagement with the Taliban is necessary to preserve the gains of two decades.

Yes, the Ghani-led government has collapsed—but is all really lost? For one, this is not the Afghanistan of the 1990s. Afghan society has changed, especially in the cities, where the populations have mushroomed and mixed. The fact that some peaceful protests happened on Afghanistan’s Independence Day is evidence of this change. Afghanistan is one of the youngest countries in the region, with a good third under the age of 25, the median age is about 18 years.

The Taliban are also not the same monolithic force of the 1990s, which operated in pockets and enclaves of the southern half of Afghanistan. While the leadership has substantive links back to Mullah Omar’s conception of an Islamic Emirate, many fighters are too young to remember and have arrived in Kabul from disparate, rural locations.

Like much of Generation Y, they come equipped with smartphones, take selfies, and readily pose for photos in relatively sophisticated urban settings across the country.

It is too early to tell how changes within the Taliban will translate into their governance behavior. Reporting from the ground is already conflicting. Stating that in general they have not been bothered, observers on the ground note that it’s a “[M]ixed picture … in Kabul. On one hand, we visited a Shia ceremony in Murad Khani where men and women praised Taliban efforts to secure their area. On the other, met protesters who’d been dispersed with live fire after trying to raise the Afghan flag on Wazir Akbar Khan hill.”

From their messaging thus far, it appears that the Taliban leadership acknowledge that fighting battles in limited theaters is quite different from administering government across a vast, heterogeneous physical and social landscape. They seem to convey acceptance of the importance of addressing critical areas of public need while maintaining fraternal links to the neighborhood and international community.

It appears, however, that few want to give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt, fearing—reasonably so—a return to the past. But how does name-calling and amplifying the negative help the situation?

Perhaps it is worthwhile to pause and look at the positive and take it as a foundation for future engagement. For example, it is surely good that bloodshed has thus far been minimal and that Taliban forces appear to be exercising much more restraint than in the past; that they have asked ministers and government bureaucrats to continue working (such as in health care and electricity); and that local elders are once more recognized and prominently involved in matters of public concern.

Let the Afghans navigate their own path of accommodation and peaceful coexistence. And let us attend to and accompany them.

There is a great deal of fearful uncertainty about the future for women, minorities, journalists, and youth. Although the Taliban have broadly outlined their intentions, the details are lacking. While they have clearly stated that democracy is alien to Afghan society and therefore undesirable, Taliban spokesperson Muhammad Naim also announced that they are now starting with their own “state-building” effort, aiming at a more “open, inclusive Islamic government” and less isolationist policies than before.

What will this look like?

Many have said that the Taliban cannot be trusted. But are there other options short of going back to sending in foreign troops or declaring Afghanistan a pariah state to isolate the Taliban? Or should we try to give the Taliban and other local political leaders the benefit of the doubt while they negotiate a future government, assuring them of support if their actions match their rhetoric? How different would this really be than engagement in other countries where religion is politics, corruption is rife, and the rights of women and minorities do not matter? There surely are lessons that we can draw on if we choose the path of engagement.

Let’s not add up the cost and turn our backs on Afghanistan, just because our arrogance has caused indignity, grief, and humiliation. The situation in Afghanistan is haunting. But, past suffering does not need to reoccur. We need to agree on some clear humanitarian priorities to minimize insecurity, chaos, and displacement so that no more generations of Afghans are lost. We must also bear physical witness to any reneging on agreements by the Taliban.  To do so, the international community must retain presence in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is the latest, most tragic, illustration of how grossly ill-suited our approach and method to transitions out of conflict remain, with costly consequences for those on the ground. Our appraisal of disrupted contexts across the world is deeply faulty as is our ability to help change the circumstances of those contexts.

Instead of fomenting resistance through discredited warlords and politicians based on flawed assessments of the unfolding context, the realistic option is patient engagement with the Taliban for the sake of peace, stability and order. Let the Afghans navigate their own path of accommodation and peaceful coexistence. And let us attend to and accompany them.

George Varughese, senior strategic advisor at Niti Foundation, is a public policy scholar-practitioner who lived in Afghanistan during 2004-2009. Susanne Schmeidl is a critical peace and refugee scholar-practitioner who started researching Afghanistan in the 1990s, first visiting in 2000.

(The article was first published on the website of University of New South Wales, Sydney.)