The Tragedy of Afghanistan: Is there a Way Forward?

The desperate scenes at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul of thousands of Afghans trying to flee and the image of the US Air Force C17 Globemaster plane taxing down the runway with people scrambling to climb on, is an image that will be etched on our minds forever.

The tragedy of Afghanistan is that the same saga of desperation and suffering has been repeatedly endured by ordinary Afghans who have been at the receiving end of the war, and suffered unspeakable horrors, for well over four decades.

At a human level, the Afghans feel betrayed by the Western Alliance and the US. This is not the first time but the second. In the war to defeat the Russians, waged by Mujahideen and funded by the CIA, via ISI, the Afghans paid a heavy price.

An estimated two million deaths, two million disabled, approximately 800,000 widows and the annihilation of infrastructure.

Once the Russians left, the US turned its back on Afghanistan paying no heed to reconstruction and recovery. This was the first experience of betrayal and it was when Osama Bin Laden, an ally of the US became its enemy.

The second episode took place after 9/11. To capture Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan. Although Osama Bin Laden had already left Afghanistan, many bombs were dropped, and drone attacks followed.

Large numbers of civilians including women and children were killed as a result. Now in August 2021, with no proper system in place to ensure peace and stability, the US forces simply left. Even General David Petraeus, former Commander of the US Forces in Afghanistan, expressed his shock when interviewed on TV.

For the Afghans, in their hour of need, the sudden and inexplicable departure of their President, Ashraf Ghani, is an even greater disappointment.

It is inconceivable that President Ghani left to save his own skin. It is possible that this was part of a hasty deal worked out with the Taliban to avoid a bloodbath and destruction of the infrastructure of Kabul. In turn, it is possible that the Taliban agreed to the concessions they announced during their press conference in Kabul, on August 17.

The Taliban spokesman declared an amnesty to all opposing combatants, protection for all citizens, the assurance that Afghanistan would not become a base for terrorists to attack other countries, and a stoppage of the sale and production of opium.

The Taliban stated that women’s right to education and work would be allowed, within Sharia Law, the interpretation of which was not stated. The formation of an inclusive Government under their leadership was mentioned.

That the Taliban would be back, was evident right from the start. There is a popular Taliban saying “You have the watches, we have the time. We were born here and will die here. We are not going anywhere”.

Thus, the takeover of Kabul on August 16, 2021, was just the last lap of the race and was a parting gift offered on a platter by the US, when it hurriedly withdrew, with no apparent handover and no declared plan for governance.

The Western misadventure is but a repetition of history. No foreign invader has ever been able to hold Afghanistan. The 13th Century saw Genghis Khan’s army massacred. In the 19th century, the British sent a garrison to Kabul and every soldier except one, was slaughtered. In the 20th Century, the mighty USSR suffered a humiliating defeat.

There is a saying that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. The US did not learn from what happened to the Russians or from their own experience in Vietnam.

At a time when the TV footage is showing the desperation of the Afghans, the efforts made by the US Government to justify their hasty departure and declare to the world that their mission in Afghanistan was a success, rings hollow and indicates a cynical disregard for the plight of Afghans.

Subsequently the US announced that it would help Afghans who worked for them, to seek refuge in the US. This process is going on now.

Whatever brand of “inclusive” Government is worked out, the reality is that the Taliban is back in power and seems determined to recreate their “Emirate.”

I served with UNICEF in Afghanistan, in the years 1997 to 2001, both in Jalalabad and Kabul and am therefore very familiar with the draconian regulations of the Taliban.

The Taliban brand of Sharia Law imposed during their time in office, 1996 to 2001, was particularly geared towards the ruthless limitation of women’s freedom and rights. Women were debarred from working and girls’ education was banned. They were forced to wear a “burka” that covered them from head to foot.

At the time I was there, they passed the Maharam Edict, which dictated that women could not walk alone on the streets. A woman had to be accompanied by a “Maharam” meaning a close male relative. The Beard Law dictated that all men should grow beards.

Both men and women were beaten in public if they flouted these regulations. The Taliban brand of “justice” was meted out on the streets, by vice squads, who beat you first and asked questions later.

Music was banned. TV, films, entertainment and gatherings involving both sexes, prohibited.

Afghans were forced to pray five times a day. Transgression meant getting beaten, even on the road-side. The penalty for theft was the amputation of limbs and the punishment for adultery was stoning to death.

The football stadium in Kabul was an arena where these horrific acts were performed in front of an unsuspecting audience. There was no judicial system and no due process.

Card games which they deemed to be gambling was banned. Iconography, art, photographs and images were destroyed. Priceless artefacts in the Kabul Museum were smashed to smithereens and we are all too aware of what happened to the Bamiyan Buddha statues, which were priceless treasures and a wonder of the ancient world.

When I first went to Afghanistan in 1997, as the UNICEF Resident Project Officer in Jalalabad, the Taliban refused to look at me, as I happened to be a woman. At meetings, which were all male events, they would look away from me with an expression of total disgust and would keep their heads turned away from me, when speaking to me. After a couple of months of this icy reception, which I considered to be a farcical comedy, they gradually thawed and even shook my hand, spoke in English and became friendly. I said to my staff that I thought that perhaps the Taliban thought that I had turned into a man.

After the closure of girls’ schools when female teachers lost their jobs, Home Schools were started by them in their own compounds, which UNICEF supported. As the Home Schools progressed, I began to think that even the Taliban sent their daughters to those schools.

The educated Taliban valued education. However, their Madrassa educated foot soldiers only studied the Quran, Arabic and the art of guerrilla warfare.

In the office, I worked closely as a team with my all-male Afghan staff, who were highly educated and were perfect gentlemen. I regarded the Taliban as fellow citizens of the world and our UNICEF team followed the principle of “give respect to get respect”.

This formula was effective and we received the cooperation needed to implement our programmes for women and children.

When the Bamiyan Buddha statues were blown up, and I was devastated, one Taliban minister apologised to me, as he knew that I was a Buddhist. He said to me that many in the Taliban government opposed this action, implying that the Bamiyan Buddhas were a part of their own heritage.

The Afghans reported that the Buddha statues were not destroyed by the Taliban, but by the Al Qaeda, who were Arabs. They cried and told me, “the Taliban has destroyed our future and now they have destroyed our past, we have nothing left”.

In the present context, following the fall of Kabul, the only hope for the future is that the Taliban will form a truly inclusive Government and take a more enlightened approach to governance. This will be important for them, in gaining international recognition and much-needed aid.

In my opinion, it would be a mistake on the part of the international community to impose sanctions as that would only hurt the poor and the vulnerable. To regard the Taliban regime as a pariah state would also not be fruitful as that will only make them even more adamant in pursuing inhuman practices. It is only through engagement and genuine dialogue that the international community will be able to help Afghanistan and influence the Taliban to be more responsible and mature.

At present, all indications are that the Taliban wish to form an inclusive Government and that they have softened their stance on the rights of women. The spokesman repeated that everything will be done within Sharia Law. I hope that since they were last in power, they have changed their interpretation of Sharia Law.

It is imperative upon the international community to now step up on their humanitarian assistance and ensure that starvation, destitution and a colossal human tragedy is averted and that the displaced are assisted to return to their homes.

Already more than 50 percent of Afghans are in need of food aid, on account of the severe drought that has hit the country. Childhood malnutrition has increased and COVID is on the rise. UNCEF, WFP, WHO, UNHCR and the other UN humanitarian agencies are in place and are working round the clock.

The UN Secretary General has already made an appeal to donor countries to increase their assistance. The US and its allies who spent billions in weaponry and military hardware, need to now genuinely engage with the Taliban and support a workable plan for the development of Afghanistan, under the auspices of the UN, so that a sincere attempt is made at long last, to improve the lives of all Afghans.

This is the best safeguard against the country descending once again into civil war and becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.

On reflection, the famous saying that “In wars there are no winners, there are only losers” is indeed true. The Taliban has lost thousands of fighters: no statistics are available. There would be hundreds with severe wounds and injuries.

In fact, some of the Taliban leaders during the time I was there had serious war injuries and resulting disabilities. In the Western Alliance, large numbers of soldiers have died and some are left with lifelong injuries and disabilities.

American and British soldiers who served in Afghanistan experienced severe forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders [PTSD] that led to a staggering number of suicides, after their return home.

The BBC quoted in a Panorama programme that in 2012, more British soldiers took their own lives after their return from combat duty in Afghanistan, than the number killed on the battlefield. Taliban soldiers who are the poorest of the poor, too would have suffered similarly.

It is up to the world to now help Afghanistan, and not turn its back on it. The formation of the inclusive Government needs to be accelerated to avoid a civil war. The Afghans need maximum help and support to recover from this prolonged tragedy.

The Islamic countries in particular, that helped the Taliban to wage war, need to come to their aid, to build peace.

‘Islam’ in Arabic means peace. Therefore, the Islamic world needs to exert influence on the Taliban and support them to evolve from ruthless fighters into a group of leaders, who can govern with compassion and wisdom and bring about long-lasting peace and stability to that beautiful country – Afghanistan. (IPS)

(The writer is former UNICEF Resident Project Officer in Kabul (1999 –2001) and Resident Project Officer in Jalalabad (1997 – 1999).)

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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