Lessons from Afghanistan

How can Pakistan keep itself safe from impending humanitarian crises after the takeover of the Taliban?


Dr Moonis Ahmar October 24, 2021
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August, a shift in leadership, and subsequent events leading to a severe humanitarian crisis reflect a dangerous situation prevailing in the ill-fated country. Five decades of violence, armed conflict and war in Afghanistan led to colossal human and material destruction and displacement of millions of people. There is no other country in modern world history like Afghanistan, which is facing sustained ordeals, turmoil and destruction without any let-up.

What lessons can be learned from the decades of chaos, instability, violence and armed conflict in Afghanistan? Why has Afghanistan not been able to settle down as a nation-state? Can the 40 million Afghans turn around the fate of the country? How can Pakistan keep itself safe from impending humanitarian crises after the takeover of the Taliban?

On 22nd October, Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, pledged five billion rupees in humanitarian assistance along with other trade and economic concessions to the Taliban regime.

Russia and India have taken an initiative to hold brainstorming sessions in Moscow and New Delhi on coping with the Afghan imbroglio. So far none of the UN members have granted recognition to the Taliban regime because of the Taliban’s failure to adhere to the commitments they made in the Doha accord in February 2020. Their failure to form an inclusive government and ensure human rights — particularly allowing girls to receive an education and women to work — is considered as a major impediment to international recognition for the regime.

To cope with the impending humanitarian crisis, the European Union on the G-20 summit held in Italy committed to providing one billion euros in assistance to the impoverished people of Afghanistan. The EU has not granted recognition to the Taliban regime; therefore, the amount will be disbursed through non-governmental organisations to alleviate the plight of Afghans before the winter season begins. Afghanistan has a history of being dependent on foreign assistance and its tendency to remain on dole cannot help its people in dealing with food, energy, water and medical crises. The elites of Afghanistan have let their people down through corruption, nepotism and stealing money that was provided to rebuild the economy, military, police and judiciary and to cater to educational needs. The Afghan elites, whether in the former Afghan governments or outside, did not make any contributions to the wellbeing, progress and development of the country.

One needs to learn three major lessons from Afghanistan and analyse why the country is a perpetual source of crisis and conflict.

First, Afghanistan — well, Pakistan too — needs to learn that nation-building requires a serious effort. Qualitative change to improve the country can only take place when corruption and nepotism are eradicated and there is human and social development. The corruption, nepotism and inability of the elites to take ownership of Afghanistan are the primary reasons for its failed governance, economy and political stability. The tribal and ultra-conservative characteristics of Afghan society contributed to the state’s position in making it a fragile, failing and failed state. Afghanistan’s perpetual dependence on foreign aid and assistance has more to do with a lack of ownership, illiteracy, ignorance and social backwardness of much of the population than foreign powers who have attacked and occupied the country. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US and its allies were trying to pursue a top-down approach instead of a bottom-up one on matters of rebuilding and reconstructing the Afghan society. They did not address the causes that contributed to social backwardness, corruption, nepotism and lack of accountability. The lesson that one can learn from Afghanistan is that governance and the democratic process are bound to fail unless there is political pluralism along with economic, social and educational development. Afghanistan will lose its international image and credibility if the Taliban regime fails to gain international recognition and Pakistan fails to support the Afghan population in the upcoming challenges.

Second, the Afghan people will need to develop a sense of ownership along with nationalism to positively transform Afghanistan. The Taliban may be honest in their approach and want to prevent the country from falling into adversities, but they lack professionalism, moderation, enlightenment and strategic thinking to improve the shattered image of the country. They need to establish goodwill amongst those who distrust them because of their retrogressive and imprudent approach to societal matters. If history is repeating itself in Afghanistan, then it is because of the irresponsible and corrupt behaviour of elites who accumulated enormous wealth and left the country in a lurch before and after 15th August 2021.

Third, the regions of central, south and west Asia will remain vulnerable to violence and conflict unless there is long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has borne the brunt of violence in Afghanistan for more than four decades. When learning lessons from Afghanistan, Pakistan must also be kept in mind. Islamabad’s strategic blunder of getting itself involved when the Soviet forces had intervened in Afghanistan and subsequent events following the Soviet military withdrawal in February 1989 destabilised Pakistan. It also led to an influx of millions of Afghan refugees, drugs and weapons and paved the way for sectarian violence and terrorism in Pakistan.

Taliban must also learn lessons from recent suicide attacks in Kabul, Kunduz and Kandahar that caused hundreds of fatalities. Earlier Taliban would proudly claim responsibility for deadly suicide attacks, which killed mostly non-combatants. Now it is the IS claiming responsibility for the recent attacks in Afghanistan.

The Afghan society has had several chances to modernise itself — one of which was during King Zahir Shah’s rule from the 1930s to 1970s. However, the Afghan people continued to adhere to conservative values and practices till date. The failure of the Afghan society teaches us that to achieve progress and development, it is important to overcome conservatism, backwardness, corruption and nepotism.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2021.

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