Unpalatable problems, bitter solutions
The ink was barely dry on February’s conditional US troop withdrawal agreement from Afghanistan before deal-breaking challenges emerged. The immediate one was on the Taliban’s prisoner exchange with the Afghan government which had not even been party to America’s negotiations. From there came Taliban attacks against Afghan forces and US retaliatory airstrikes – not a good start.
The larger issues revolve around lack of trust, cultural propensity for violence and the power vacuum left by the US which had been leading the intervention since 2001.
There is no apparent resolution to any of this. Afghanistan risks following the path of many Western-brokered deals forged not through necessities on the ground but because of political imperatives in far-away capitals. Few have unfolded smoothly, and in weak and corrupt societies, the default result is too often even more ethnic and religious divisions.
One of the many warning flags for Afghanistan came in March with an attack on the Sikh community. Gunmen killed more than 25 worshippers, including women and children, at a temple in the heart of Kabul. Islamic State claimed responsibility. Other reports said it was the work of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network. For the blood-drenched victims such details are irrelevant. Gunmen are gunmen and the government had failed, yet again, to protect its citizens. In the past quarter century or so, since the Taliban has held sway, Afghanistan’s Sikh community has diminished from more than half a million to less than a thousand, with similar numbers for Hindus. Under Taliban rule before 2001, Sikhs and Hindus were required to wear yellow armbands which declared them as non-Muslim.
Afghanistan’s current trajectory is seemingly unavoidable, yet familiar and unpalatable, particularly as so much money and brain power has been trying to get it right for so long,
For lessons about why and how violence erupts in countries with ethnic divisions and fragile central government, we only need to reach back to the period of decolonisation after the Second World War. In the 1940s alone, there was Hindu-Muslim conflict in India’s partition; Jewish-Arab conflict in Israel’s creation; Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka’s independence and so on. Even after decades, none of these three specific examples is resolved. Numerous deals failed to end the Vietnam war. With North Vietnamese victory, the ethnic Chinese population found itself persecuted and expelled. The 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed Sunni-Shia bloodshed that is still ongoing. The eventual drawdown of US troops there opened a way for Islamic State to take Mosul and threaten Baghdad.
Yes, the problems in Afghanistan are different and unique. They are also universal.
Equally unpalatable have been the solutions, if that is the right word. Saddam Hussein kept an unsavoury peace by stifling the Shia and crushing the Marsh Arabs. Cambodia and Rwanda, two countries that have suffered genocide, are both ruled by dictatorial strongmen skilled at using a heavy hand. Through similar means, Vladimir Putin brought peace to Chechnya. After its brief experiment with democracy, Egypt arrested its elected leader and fell back into military rule.
Afghanistan is a fragmented country with global and regional powers circling around the current vacuum.
Pivotal is neighbouring Pakistan with its long-established links to the Taliban, many of whose leaders operate from the border city of Quetta. While Pakistan claims credit for brokering the US-Taliban agreement, it is also responsible for giving the Taliban sanctuary, thus ensuring its continuing strength. Pakistan’s interests, therefore, lie in helping the Taliban gain as much influence in Kabul as it can, not least because Islamabad sees the administration of President Ashraf Ghani as close to India.
It is important, therefore, that steps are taken to prevent Afghanistan becoming a proxy arena for the insolubly long-running Indo-Pakistan antagonism. It is here that Islamabad’s track record of behaviour on the international stage needs to come under the spotlight.
Whether a dictatorship or democracy, whether suppressing religious freedom or sponsoring terrorism, Pakistan has a sorry story to tell. It is, after all, responsible both for harbouring Osama bin Laden and proliferating nuclear weapons on a massive scale.
Two governments that could read Pakistan the riot act are the US and China, but that would be thinking the unthinkable. Islamabad and Beijing have many shared Afghanistan interests that counter what Washington would like to achieve.
We therefore have two levels of outside rivalry, one regional, the other global.
The 2001 US invasion came with lack of clarity. Since then, American strategy has been bedeviled with questions about its effectiveness. There is now a stalemate, a vacuum, an increase in ethnic and religious violence and a superpower military withdrawal.
Should Afghanistan follow the course of other conflicts, stability may only come with a new authoritarianism, probably in the form of the Taliban.
If any Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and other non-Muslim religious groups are still there by then, they should prepare their yellow armbands.