By Shahmahmood, Miakhel
If one look back to the last sixteen years of international engagement in Afghanistan and make a fair assessment of what went wrong and what could have been done correctly, a wide array of issues and problems can be listed. All stakeholders should sit back and learn from the past mistakes and should avoid repeating same mistakes during months and years ahead.
After the collapse of Taliban regime in 2001, euphoria and statements of exaggeration were abundant by policy makers and practitioners on national and international media to rebuild Afghanistan. Some suggested that Afghanistan should become a model country in the region for other Islamic countries. The United States (US) and its allies suggested having a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan to build a democratic society, promote human rights and rule of law, disarm local militia, build security institutions, have better education for girls and boys, and eventually Afghanistan should become a peaceful country to have a better place among the world community instead of being a threat to world security like pre 9/11 years. All of the above were right slogans and rhetoric at the right time and many believed inside the country too that Afghanistan would become a peaceful and progressive country.
Except few, most Afghans wholeheartedly supported the intervention of the international community and establishing a new Afghan government. Despite flaws in the Bonn Agreement, people of Afghanistan accepted it as a starting point to achieve above goals and objectives for a stable and prosperous Country. The people of Afghanistan accepted, supported and participated in all processes laid out by the Bonn Agreement such as Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ) in 2002 for the approval of Interim Government of President Hamid Karzai, Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ) in 2003, convened to approve new constitution for Afghanistan, and subsequently Afghans participated in all democratic processes including presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005 respectively.
The question is that why despite enormous political, economic and military support and attention of international community and general Afghan public Afghanistan is still a fragile state?
The main reasons are:
- At the beginning, the international community ignored investing in governance part of the Afghan government. Instead, most of the warlords and criminal-predatory mafia networks were empowered politically, economically and militarily.
- The International Community didn’t address double game of Pakistan that on the one hand was claiming to be partner of the international community on the war on terror but on the other hand clandestinely supported and harbored Taliban.
- Before securing Afghanistan properly, the US attention and resources diverted from Afghanistan to the Iraq war which resulted in the scarcity of the international community’s resources and military support to Afghanistan in achieving the goals set out in Bonn Conference in 2001. If, in the outset, the international community would have committed a fraction of its resources for security and stability, Afghanistan would have been a different story by now. The international community invested a lot of economic and military resources later on but it was too late to address the security challenges.
- When the international community paid more attention to Afghanistan, there was no clear political strategy about dealing with Pakistan, putting pressure on Afghan government to improve governance and means for promoting peace process.
- The Afghan governments did not do well and failed to properly fulfill their obligation to work for improving governance. Instead, indirectly promoted the culture of impunity and corruption.
- With all military and political support, the international community didn’t have best communication strategy to win the hearts and minds of Afghan people.
Despite wasting a lot of resources and making mistakes, one cannot forget and ignore the progress made in the last sixteen years. A comparative overview reveals that Afghanistan was destructed and dilapidated after the Soviet Occupation, Civil War of 1990s and the Taliban regime. Much has been done and a lot of development has taken place in the last 16 years in all sectors of Afghanistan. Millions of Afghan refugees have returned to their country, more than 8 million children went to schools, thousands of scholarships were awarded to new young generation inside the country and also abroad, a new educated elite class emerged, security institutions were built and life expectancy elevated from 44 years on average in 2001 to 61 years in 2015.
Although no one can deny the above progress, but when compared to the billions of dollars in aid provided by the international community, very little has been achieved to help Afghanistan become a self-reliant and self-sustained country. Economically and from the security point of view, Afghans are still heavily dependent on the international community and without their support the Afghan government cannot survive for a longer period of time. With spending/wasting hundreds of billions of dollars and the loss of thousands of human lives, unfortunately, Afghanistan remains in a hurting stalemate affecting all spectrums of the Afghan society.
Ordinary Afghans and also many in the capitals of all donor countries question their governments that why after so much financial support and military engagement, Afghanistan has not been stabilised and why the war continues there after 16 years of intervention? Why everyday tens of people lose their lives? Why people are uncertain about their future? Why Afghanistan once again has become a center for extremism? Why international community is not able to tackle the sources of insurgency and extremism? Who supports the insurgents and extremists in Afghanistan and for what purpose? And why the international community support a predatory-patronage government which has been infested by networks of corrupt warlords, bureaucrats and criminals?
These are all reasonable and valid questions especially for Afghans to ask their government and the international community. As skeptic from the very outset, I wrote an op-ed with my longtime friend Professor David Edwards in Washington Post on 16 September 2001 and wrote, we…. “must recognize that terrorism is born of political and economic despair. If we fail to take into account Afghanistan’s future, as well as it’s past and present, Afghanistan will remain a place where terrorists can find safe haven, and all the military might in the world won’t make us safe again”.
If we look back to our op-ed in 2001, the international community has step by step made the same mistakes as the Soviet Union made in 80s. As we all know, one of the important reasons of the failure and defeat of the former Soviet Union was its reliance on using only the military might for suppressing Mujahidin insurgency and not focusing on the governance and seeking public support.
If you look back to the forty years of war in Afghanistan, the main reason of continuous insurgencies are lack of good governance. The governance structure of Afghanistan has always been monopolised by few warlords, criminal mafia networks, incompetent bureaucrats and few families of predatory ethnic politicians. There has been less focus on building institutions to keep Afghanistan together and provide basic service delivery including security and addressing grievances of the people in rural as well as in urban areas.
After 2001, the US and the international community has continuously supported a government which was losing ground and popular trust due to corruption, bad governance and inability to provide physical security to the people of Afghanistan. The criminal-mafia networks infested the government particularly the security institutions which distanced people form the government and the people started doubting the will and intention of the Afghan government and the international community.
Even though, Afghanistan has lost many opportunities and the international community has made many mistakes in the last sixteen years, but Afghanistan has not lost the war yet. Internally, for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, it is possible to reverse the trend, improve security and provide basic governance disparately needed by the Afghan people. If the Afghan government and the international community focus on good governance and building institutions and stop policy of pleasing few and empowering predatory-patronage criminal networks of warlords, the path towards further worsening the situation could be backtracked. On the external front, if the US and the rest of the international community focus properly on wining in Afghanistan and use the “carrot and stick” approach in the right way using some successful elements of old strategies, and implementing the new strategy that was recently announced by President Trump, it is possible to succeed in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan and in the region.
Shahmahmood Miakhel (twitter:@S_MIAKHEL) is former Deputy Minister, Ministry of Interior of Afghanistan and is currently serving as Country Director of United States Institute for Peace in Afghanistan. He is author of a number of books and is an expert commentator on Afghan affairs with a number of articles for national and international media.