Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Taking the Stone Age out of Afghanistan

AFGHANISTAN was not supposed to be the shambles that it is today, three decades after Russian tanks rolled in on Dec 27, 1979.

Once upon a time, its takeover in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States had the support or acquiescence of most of the world.

The consensus was based not just on ridding the country of al-Qaeda and its Stone Age keepers, the Taliban, but on guilt at having deserted the brave mujahidin, which had fought and won the last great battle of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Observers like Robert Fisk, so astute about Muslim anguish elsewhere, spoke too soon when they predicted defeat for the invaders on grounds of the Afghans' historic resistance to imperialism.

Certainly, the British Raj had been held at the Durand Line in the late 19th century, and the Russians evicted after a 10-year occupation by what appear to be the same guerillas who had harassed every intending conqueror since Alexander the Great.

But Kabul had fallen easily with the help of the anti-Taliban fighters of the Northern Alliance, and Osama bin Laden and his cohorts were dispersed to the warrens of Tora Bora, most likely never to abuse Afghan hospitality again.
The then British prime minister Tony Blair promised "this time we will not walk away" as the Western powers did after the Russians were beaten and their communist empire collapsed 12 years before.

Hamid Karzai arrived for the Bonn Agreement in December 2001 as the Caped Crusader in the remaking of his country from seemingly endless conflict. In that year's post-apocalyptic Christmas cheer, donors loosened purse-strings as never before. Karzai was voted president of Afghanistan in the first election in decades in 2004.

The international community knew it was on to a good thing, and saw a chance to build on the precedents of past interventions, such as Cambodia and East Timor.

Then Iraq happened. The toppling of Saddam Hussein by force under false pretences wrecked whatever unity there was in the "war on terror", poisoned the atmosphere for multilateral action, and reduced Afghanistan to a sideshow.

Along with the billions of dollars in aid, Unama (United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, with 42 nations enlisted) brought in metrics -- with which, after eight years, it can now measure the extent of the international effort's debacle.

Afghanistan ranked last but one in the UN Human Development Index 2009 survey of 182 countries. Only half of its children are in school; its life expectancy is a 43.6 years; about three-quarters of adults are illiterate.

Transparency International rated Afghanistan the world's most corrupt country after Somalia, which has no government to speak of. It produces nine-tenths of the world's illicit opium under the noses of more than 100,000 foreign troops.

Capping off a year of trial and tribulation with farce, the United Nation's Numbers 1 and 2 in Afghanistan, Kai Eide and Peter Galbraith, got into a quarrel that ended in the latter's sacking in September. Galbraith accused Eide of hushing up Karzai's alleged rigging of the election in August. Eide accused Galbraith of plotting to overthrow Karzai for someone the Americans preferred.

The election itself cannot possibly qualify as free and fair. Karzai was declared winner after a run-off failed to take place -- but only 38.7 per cent of registered Afghans voted, of whose votes a quarter was subsequently adjudged to be fraudulent.

Entire districts were disenfranchised by Taliban threats on a day when more people were killed (at least 31) than any other in 2009.

Against the bleak backdrop, the Afghan people are left with a diminishing choice of lesser evils and a stoic refusal to give up hope.

"We should not look at democracy through the prism of elections," said Wahabuddin Ra'ees, head of the political science department at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur.

"If elections are to be the sole criterion for democratisation, then it will fail."

Wahabuddin, who is from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, saw the best omen in a political arrangement covering the country's tribal diversity among the Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks and majority Pashtuns, and its broad spectrum of allegiances, including the Taliban.

"The Americans should use the opportunity to get the Taliban involved. Given the cultural context of Afghan society, compromise can probably be reached," Wahabuddin said.

Increasingly, bringing the Taliban into the mainstream from its fastnesses in the south and east is being seen as a sine qua non of peace.

"Reconciliation" was a plank in the campaigns of all the contestants in the presidential election.

Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, has evinced a bargaining mood, although the Saudi royal family's attempt at mediation appears to have hit a wall.

Early this month, he offered "legal guarantees" to not "meddle in the internal affairs of other countries" (that is, shelter al-Qaeda) if "foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan".

Even the US is softening. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has hinted at the possibility of negotiations once the Taliban "momentum" was reversed.

So will Obama's "surge" of an additional 30,000 soldiers into the country work?

"If the Afghans are not brought into the process, given the geostrategic location of Afghanistan and the major power interests, it will not be as successful as they would think," Wahabuddin said.

On the foreign presence overall, however, he was adamant.

"They should not abandon Afghanistan. They should be there, but they shouldn't dictate. They left in the 1990s, they left in the 1950s, and what did we get?"

On the contrary, public opinion across the world is swinging sharply against staying on. Yet there has been no protest in anything like the proportions of the mass demonstrations opposing the Iraq War.

If, despite all the evidence, a besieged conscience behoves the international community to make a last go of Afghanistan, it will have to be much more than a heartfelt New Year's resolution for 2010. By Kamrul Idris for New Straits Times Malaysia

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