As he orated against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, President Reagan often quoted Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, with its vision of a United States great enough “to begin the world over again.” Indeed, one of his Republican successors, George W Bush, with the beginning of the new century, did change the world all over again. But in doing so, he turned it upside down.
The new world, America’s world of the new millennium, couldn’t be more chaotic and more violent. It remains burdened with the same old problems, perhaps in their acutest form. Historical grievances and outstanding disputes remain unaddressed. Armed conflict remains pervasive. Wars of aggression and attrition, invasions in the name of self-defence, military occupations, massacres and genocides, human tragedies and a culture of extremism and terrorism now define the New World Order.
The war on terror has not gone beyond retribution and retaliation. The economic adventurism of the 19th century is back. The global development agenda has been set aside, if not shelved. Internationally agreed development goals and commitments, including Millennium Development Goals, have been overtaken by new preoccupations driven by an overbearing global security agenda. The most alarming is the current US security doctrine based on ‘regime change’ wherever or whenever it so considers necessary for its own good.
The events of the last few years, representing a ‘critical threshold’ in the world’s new strategic matrix, have immeasurably shaken the international system which is no longer governed by the rule of law or universally acknowledged norms. The post 9/11 world has witnessed unprecedented erosion in the role, authority and credibility of the UN. Today, the UN is no longer the sole meaningful arbiter on issues of global relevance and importance. Washington, not New York, is the focus of world attention for actual decision-making on these issues.
It is against this ominous global backdrop that went through yet another anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. Being in New York on that fateful day 12 years ago, I remember witnessing the ghastly disappearance of the twin towers from Manhattan’s skyline that was to change not only the world history, but also the global geopolitical landscape. The belligerent mood in Washington was evident in its first call to the world. “You’re either with us or against us” was the message, loud and clear.
No wonder, the UN General Assembly and Security Council both overwhelmingly passed resolutions the very next day, i.e., on September 12, 2011, paving the ground for legitimisation of US military action against terrorists and their hideouts anywhere in the world. That was the beginning of the US-led war on terror, which rode on Nato’s military bandwagon, targeting a country that in reality had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Historically, however, it would be inaccurate to circumscribe the Afghan tragedy within the context of the 9/11 attacks. The genesis of the Afghan crisis is rooted in the chaos and conflict that engulfed this ill-fated country in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war. The truth of the matter is that Afghanistan has been in a state of crisis for more than three decades now. But it is a crisis that has changed the course of history at tremendous costs to the world — especially to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US itself.
History is witness to the fact that the 9/11 tragedy was only a logical epilogue to the unclosed chapter of the long Afghan tragedy carried forward from the previous century. If the world had remained engaged with the people of Afghanistan, the situation today might have been totally different. The unpalatable consequences could have been avoided if a country as chaotic and as primitive as Afghanistan had been assisted in its gradual transition to global standards of ‘conduct and behaviour.’
And indeed, the Afghans are not the only victims of the resultant crisis. The Afghan situation, both during and post-Soviet era has had a direct impact on Pakistan’s social, cultural, political, economic and strategic interests. With an ongoing full-scale war on its own soil, rightly or wrongly against its own people, Pakistan continues to suffer immeasurably in terms of human and material losses, including an uncontrolled security situation.
Peace in Afghanistan is now long overdue. The US may have its own political agenda but both Afghanistan and Pakistan have already suffered for too long and cannot afford another cataclysm. Unfortunately, throughout the ongoing Afghan war, a basic lesson of military history ignored was that you don’t start a war unless you know how to end it. At least till now, other than the scheduled 2014 military withdrawal, Washington doesn’t seem to have any dialogue strategy, much less a peace plan to end the Afghan war.
Twelve years later, it is only looking for a ‘strategic stalemate’ in which it can withdraw, but not entirely. It plans to keep a certain size of military presence as a training-cum-counterterrorism mission. Those familiar with Afghan history know what it means for any foreign presence on its soil, no matter under what arrangement or nomenclature. But if history is any lesson, things never remain static. They keep changing as the world and its dynamics do with the inevitable process of change always inherent in the rise and fall of power.
And historically, the rise and fall of power has mostly followed long wars. The 12-year-long war in Afghanistan is about to end. With the Afghan endgame, the process of change, it seems, has begun. But what kind of change do we expect at the end of this long war? Again, if history is any lesson, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and World War II, it was the victors who installed peace to preserve the gains they had made. Do we have any idea who at the end of the Afghan war is going to be the victor?
With an ominous uncertainty looming large on the horizon, it seems the region is fast approaching a period of change with potential upheaval. The Afghan war was never an end in itself. It was only part of a Central Asia-focused ‘Great Game’ that will go on with far-reaching implications for this region.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2013.