Courtesy of Edward Girardet
Writer Edward Girardet in the mountains of northern Afghanistan in 1982, accompanying mujahideen who were fighting the Soviet army.

Taking responsibility in Afghanistan: A look back, and forward

Edward Girardet, who first reported from Afghanistan for The Christian Science Monitor just before the Soviet invasion in 1979, considers the country’s future.

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

For most war-fatigued Afghans, the Western intervention in 2001 had represented a new future. This is why so many feel betrayed not only by Washington’s sudden departure but also its failure to negotiate an inclusive government that would take power after Western troops left.

Equally disturbing was the manner with which both Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani had abused their positions of power, condoning the Western-funded corruption that eroded people’s trust. Both Western-backed administrations sought to intimidate their political opponents, which undermined efforts to hold free and fair elections. The lack of accountable leadership is one reason why Afghanistan’s 300,000 strong security forces crumbled. Why fight for a government with such little credibility?

In March 2004, I met with Masood Khalili, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, at his home in Kabul. I had known Ambassador Khalili, a distinguished poet, since the early days of the Soviet war when he served as key adviser to Ahmed Shah Massoud, later the Northern Alliance’s military head.

As we discussed his country’s gradual disintegration, Mr. Khalili was still in pain from the severe injuries he suffered when two Al Qaeda suicide bombers assassinated Mr. Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001. As Mr. Khalili pointed out, there was much to blame on the West; Afghanistan’s conflicts have always been fueled by outsiders.

“But Afghans, too, must assume their responsibilities,” he said.

In March 2004, I met with Masood Khalili, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, at his home in Kabul. I had known Ambassador Khalili, a distinguished poet, since the early days of the Soviet war when he served as key adviser to Ahmed Shah Massoud, later the Northern Alliance’s military head.

As we discussed his country’s gradual disintegration, Mr. Khalili was still in pain from the severe injuries he suffered when two Al Qaeda suicide bombers assassinated Mr. Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001. As Mr. Khalili pointed out, there was much to blame on the West; Afghanistan’s conflicts have always been fueled by outsiders.

“But Afghans, too, must assume their responsibilities,” he said, referring to the corruption and abuses that were emerging under the new NATO-backed regime in Kabul. “We Afghans love blaming others for what is happening in our country.”

For most war-fatigued Afghans, the Western intervention in 2001 had represented a new future. This is why so many feel betrayed not only by Washington’s sudden departure but also its failure to negotiate an inclusive government that would take power after Western troops left, involving groups ranging from the Taliban and the existing government to ordinary Afghans who feel caught in the middle.

Equally disturbing was the manner with which both Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani had abused their positions of power, condoning the Western-funded corruption that eroded people’s trust. Many Afghans, for example, even those who feared the Taliban, preferred the justice offered by sharia courts. The religious verdicts were considered quick and fair, whereas most government judges based their decisions on who paid the most.

Both Western-backed administrations sought to intimidate their political opponents, which undermined efforts to hold free and fair elections. This discouraged the initial enthusiasm so many Afghans had demonstrated, and the lack of accountable leadership is one reason why Afghanistan’s 300,000 strong security forces crumbled. Why fight for a government with such little credibility?

Uncertain future

Today’s war in Afghanistan is not over, but the National Resistance Front (NRF), a new anti-Taliban coalition headed by former government officials and Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the former resistance commander, has withdrawn from the main Panjshir valley into side valleys.

That is a tactic the mujahideen adopted successfully against the Soviets, and later against the Taliban. This time, however, they tell me by satellite phone, they are being bombed by Pakistani drones. And their supply lines are fragile.

That casts grave doubt on the prospects for the kind of political settlement the NRF is proposing – a decentralized Swiss-style confederation of semi-autonomous cantons that would reflect Afghanistan’s diverse patchwork of ethnic groups. It would also dilute the power of the Pashtun, the largest ethnic group, which provides the bulk of the Taliban rank and file.

So how will the majority of Afghans deal with the future?

It is a deeply uncertain future, given the country’s dire economic situation: Kabul and other cities are already suffering food shortages; tens of thousands of employees have lost their jobs or not been paid recently.

One bright spot: the re-establishment of Western Union money transfers, estimated at $800 million a month, from the large Afghan diaspora. But unless the international community steps up, ordinary Afghans can expect even more penury. Under the previous regime, it cost over $12 billion annually to run the civil service; 75% of that money came in the form of Western aid.

And it will take more than money to run the country. It will also take skilled workers, qualified technicians, and professionals who are just the sort of people now seeking to flee Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans are reaching out via social media, desperately appealing to whatever Western contacts they have.

But the NATO military evacuation of 130,000 people, mostly Afghans, represented a severe brain drain, and the Taliban are increasingly reluctant to let still more qualified people leave. Pakistan, meanwhile, is doing its best to keep potential refugees out.

Taliban intentions

For those stuck in Afghanistan who will have to learn to live with their new masters, much will now depend on whether the Taliban will re-embrace their earlier hard-line policies, such as banning women from political life or cracking down on the media.

On the ground, the reality is not encouraging. Though an independent TV station, Tolo, is still broadcasting, its days are likely numbered; female broadcasters at other stations have already been told not to come to work. And according to Hassina Syed, Afghanistan’s former businesswoman of the year, many female entrepreneurs are now being prevented from reestablishing their businesses.

The Taliban had indicated that the new government would prove sufficiently inclusive to enjoy broad appeal; the government it announced this week dashed any such hopes. And doubts persist about whether the top Taliban leadership can control its regional commanders, many of whom have unleashed reprisals against ‘collaborators.’ Summary executions, brutal beatings, rapes, and forced marriages are on the rise.

At the same time, both the West and ordinary Afghans may hold significant trump cards. Over 60 percent of Afghans are under 25. Many of them, including girls, are educated and know the power of social media. The Taliban, whom many city dwellers disdain as “bush boys,” as one urbanite put it, may find it hard to impose their will on such young people.

And unless the Chinese or Russians step up with financial aid, Western countries might gain some traction. Some suggest that donors should withhold diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government, and suspend aid, until it meets certain conditions such as free and fair elections, no curbs on women’s rights, and a halt to human rights abuses.

That smacks of wishful thinking. The Taliban have not fought for 20 years to establish a Western-style democracy embodying U.S. and European values. But now that the fighting has all but stopped, the international community should bring its negotiating power to bear. Not all is lost.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Taking responsibility in Afghanistan: A look back, and forward
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2021/0908/Taking-responsibility-in-Afghanistan-A-look-back-and-forward
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe