Our flawed narrative on Afghanistan

Published: January 14, 2015
The writer is a post-doctoral research fellow in physics at Harvard University and he tweets @AqilSajjad

The writer is a post-doctoral research fellow in physics at Harvard University and he tweets @AqilSajjad

About two decades after the Taliban’s initial emergence, our mainstream narrative on Afghanistan still revolves around viewing them as the force that brought peace to that country when it was mired in a bloody civil war, and as the group that is resisting a foreign occupation today. Unfortunately, this narrative is badly flawed on several counts, and has been an important contributing factor in the confusion about our policy on Afghanistan and the problem of terrorism in Pakistan itself. The purpose of this piece is to offer some context in this regard.

Afghanistan was held together somewhat loosely by a weak centre but still enjoyed relative stability during the middle of the 20th century. However, things took a turn for the worse in the 1970s as both religious forces and communists started pushing to extend their influence. Both wanted to create their utopia by imposing their ideals on the nation. Apart from their challenge to the Afghan state, extremists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar also started carrying out atrocities like acid attacks on women who did not dress conservatively as per their wishes. Communists, on the other hand, were growing in their influence inside the armed forces and eventually grabbed power in 1978. In addition to their hostility towards religion, their imposition of land reforms and efforts to introduce education for women further alienated the conservatives, and as they resorted to a brutal crackdown on their opponents, more and more people joined the rebellion.

This situation sucked in the USSR, which was initially very reluctant to intervene, but then decided to do so in order to save the communist regime from a possible collapse. The Soviet Union hoped to quickly crush the uprising and pull out, but instead found itself caught in a long war. Eventually, it moved out without a negotiated settlement on a post-withdrawal ruling set-up as the US and Pakistan continued to egg on the Mujahideen to keep fighting instead of pursuing a peace deal.

The Russian exit, as we all know, did not result in peace. The Soviet Union continued to back the Mohammad Najibullah government, which they had left behind whereas Pakistan and the US went on supporting the Mujahideen in their bid to capture power. However, contrary to the predictions of an imminent fall of the Najibullah regime, the government was able to survive for a few years after the Soviet withdrawal. It only collapsed when the USSR broke up and stopped providing the annual support worth about $3 billion it had been extending to Najibullah. At that point, the Afghan forces started running out of basic supplies like fuel and money for salaries, and fell apart, with many soldiers even deserting to the Mujahideen. And then started a period of total anarchy in which there was barely any central authority as various Mujahideen factions fought each other instead of trying to bring peace to the country. Law and order completely broke down, warlords played havoc wherever they could, and there was rampant loot and plunder.

It was in this situation that the Taliban emerged from their madrassas. With the state having collapsed, they were able to quickly gain control of most of the country, and this way, there was finally some form of central authority and law and order. So if a truck carrying goods had to pay money in several different places to different groups of armed men while travelling from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and still face the danger of being looted, it would now only have to pay toll tax at one or two spots in the same journey and travel with relative safety when the Taliban came into power.

However, beyond this, the Taliban government was a complete disaster. It had no idea about state craft, and on top of it, the Taliban consisted of fanatics of the highest order who imposed very harsh punishments even for simple entertainment like watching TV, playing cards or listening to music. They let loose brutal vice and virtue squads on the people, and prevented girls from going to schools and women from leaving their homes unless accompanied by close male relations and covered from head to toe. So while they established central authority, the ‘peace’ they brought was essentially like that of a harsh prison. Even some of their most ardent apologists would never want to live under them.

To make matters worse, the Taliban started sponsoring militant groups including al Qaeda, as well as sectarian outfits in Pakistan. Instead of focusing on the reconstruction of their homeland, they eventually brought another war upon their country as the US invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, thus ending even the phase of prison-like peace they had established.

A lot has changed since then, and the shoe is effectively on the other foot today. Afghanistan does now have a government with some semblance of central authority, albeit an imperfect one. There is also a democratic process, even though it has its serious shortcomings and share of controversies like the one in the recently held presidential election. Human development indicators have improved too, and over 8.3 million Afghan children are enrolled in schools today, of which about 40 per cent are girls. In contrast, only about 1.2 million boys were enrolled in schools under the Taliban in 2001. Unlike the 1990s, when the Taliban established some ‘order’ in the midst of anarchy where the state had completely collapsed, today, they are the ones fighting to undermine the state and whatever hope of peace and prosperity it offers. Moreover, any gains for them would not only be disastrous for Afghanistan itself, but also create serious complications for Pakistan in its own struggle against terrorism, since Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan would inevitably serve as natural safe havens for TTP militants at a scale much larger than their current sanctuaries in that country.

Given this backdrop, it is about time we dumped the apologist narrative that the Afghan Taliban are the ‘good guys who brought peace to Afghanistan’ in the dustbin of history and start wholeheartedly supporting the constitutional set-up in Afghanistan. The Afghan people should not have to suffer another round of anarchy and state failure or a return to the savage rule of the Taliban they had to endure back in the 1990s.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • TightPatloon
    Jan 14, 2015 - 12:35AM

    This is a great article as it clears a common misconception by our Rommel’s (esp the one who comes onbtalk shows every alternate day) that the soviet union collapsed due to Afghan jihadis.


  • MSS
    Jan 14, 2015 - 1:00AM

    Hopefully Pakistan will see light and adopt the right approach, dump the ‘goodTaliban’ phrase and rid themselves of the idea of strategic depth. Both countries should earnestly go after the terrorists of all hues and colours and choose the path of peace and prosperity.


  • 3rdRockFromTheSun
    Jan 14, 2015 - 1:10AM

    Hush my dear author!!

    Let’s not wakeup the Pakistanis from their deep slumber and their sweet dreams!!


  • 3rdRockFromTheSun
    Jan 14, 2015 - 1:24AM

    Hush dear author!

    Let’s not wake up Pakistanis from their deep slumber and sweet dreams!!


  • Cynic Waheed
    Jan 14, 2015 - 1:58AM

    Mate – I think the narrative has already changed significantly.. You are a tad behind!



  • Humza
    Jan 14, 2015 - 2:56AM

    I don’t know anyone in my social circle who believes that the Taleban are the good guys who brought peace to Afghanistan. This is your narrative alone. I am sure most Pakistanis would never wish to be under their type of oppressive rule either. Most of Afghanistan is much more conservative than Pakistan which is why the Taleban have a greater following there whether you acknowledge it or not.. Having said that, most Pakistanis do see Afghanistan as a fractured, multi ethnic state with different groups who do not get along well with each other and often take dictation from other countries. For example you haven’t mentioned that successive Afghan leaders for the last six decades have been willing puppets of India’s intelligence agencies. They allowed Afghanistan to be a vassal state to launch cross border misadventure in Pakistan than only backfired and destabilized Afghanistan. This was long before the US and the West created the Mujahadeen to fight the Soviets who eventually morphed into the Taleban.


  • Ijaz
    Jan 14, 2015 - 3:00AM

    Wow, Prince Kerry is in town and all the talk in media is about Afghanistan. !


  • reality
    Jan 14, 2015 - 3:11AM

    pakistan did not ‘create’ taliban per se. They are a mix of old mujahideen blood mixed with new.


  • Abdul
    Jan 14, 2015 - 10:49AM

    Afghan Taliban are good not because of they established peace in afghanistan, its because they are doing Jihad against US (occupying forces) so not mix Haqqanis and Afghan taliban with TTP.
    thats TTP who claim terrorist attachk in Pak not Haqqanis but unfortunatly current operation is against the afghan taliban to to secure US in Afghanistan.


  • Milind
    Jan 14, 2015 - 10:54AM

    This brings out 3 points… The Communists
    1. Introduced land reforms
    2. Introduced education for women
    3. Kept mullahs at bay.

    Had Pakistan let the Communist Govt (Russians) be as-is, without fighting a proxy war, both would have been in a better shape, without the blowback and the mess Pakistan is in today.
    However objectivity and clarity in thinking is not exactly the hallmark of the Pakistani establishment, as they’re high on the opium of the masses.


  • Rahim
    Jan 14, 2015 - 12:08PM

    We should not support any group in Afghanistan. This is a matter of Afghans to decide and choose which type of govt they want to live under.


  • Jan 14, 2015 - 12:59PM

    Are you a Braille reader? You look like you have lost your eyesight.


  • Vinsin
    Jan 14, 2015 - 1:52PM

    There was no intelligence agency in India six decades ago. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are equally conservative and wipe out their minorities. Both are Islamic state even though Islam didnt originated from both countries. Yes India was fighting with Taliban with northern alliances and spend millions of dollars on it and that didn’t destabilize Afghanistan. Tell some border adventurism according to you that happened before arrival of NATO in Afghanistan. Hamil gul says Pakistan destablized Afghanistan to create strategic depth.


  • Bungush
    Jan 14, 2015 - 5:42PM

    well i guess on one side, this is pretty rational to agree with the writer, but we would be disregarding the strategic ambit of this region when India is playing nukes with Pakistan by peddling insurgency in Baluchistan and sponsoring TTP Factions to create more of the instability so as to cripple Pakistan economically and many other folds at the national and internal canvas. As India is trying to pet the Devil for Pakistan , I don’t see this anything over arching that Pakistan have to re evaluate its ideological frontiers keeping things mild this time and acting more responsively.


  • Eddied
    Jan 14, 2015 - 8:37PM

    Very well written article that describes the history of Afganistan quite accurately…the Taliban have become the enemy of the countries they exist in…they must be eliminated to get peace..


  • Sexton Blake
    Jan 14, 2015 - 9:24PM

    The writer wrote a reasonable article, but was not altogether accurate He mentioned all the usual problems associated with the Taliban, some of which I agree with. For example their appalling treatment of females. I am not certain about the democratic process in Afghanistan. I suspect the candidates are carefully selected, and many people are excluded from the process. I am not sure about the current treatment of women, but let us hope that it has improved and they are not obliged to wear the Burka, and or suffer other indignities peculiar to some Islamic sects. Afghanistan people have gone through much suffering over the last 30 years and more so in recent times. Unfortunately, I feel there will be a resurgence. The Taliban are not going anywhere, and eventually may have to be incorporated into Afghanistan society. The socialists/communists are still about as are many odd sects, and experience tells us that the various disparate groups are not easily controlled What all this holds for Afghanistan is not reassuring, and I feel that Pakistan will be very concerned. Also pressure for India to become involved, and take up the burden currently being relinquished by Western forces, appears to be growing from influential overseas sources, and India/Pakistan could not be categorized as firm friends. Additionally, the TTP are keeping General Sharif very busy in Waziristan. I am not a military person, but it appears that Pakistan will be surrounded on all its borders, as well as within, and I am reasonably certain that the good General has already drawn up contingency plans as has his Indian counterpart. Pakistan could be in for a tough period ahead.


  • Rex Minor
    Jan 15, 2015 - 12:07AM

    The author has given the right titile to his article about Afghnistan, namely, ” Our flawed narrative on Afghanistan”!! I fully agree with you sir since you are unlikely to learn about the culture, the language and traditions of the multiple tribes who collectively have formed a country with their name of Afghanistan and its people call them Talibans if you will, have just about defeated the world armies after more than a decade combat on the battle ground. You sir are not going to learn in the Harvard rooms which you have not. living next to them and after having been ruled by the Afghans for centuries.

    Rex Minor


  • Zalmai
    Jan 15, 2015 - 4:14AM

    @ Humza

    Have you heard of the pot calling the kettle black idiom? Everything you wrote about Afghanistan actually applies to Pakistan. Pashtuns, Punjabis, Baloch, Sindhis and Mohajir all have their own ethnic based political parties and agendas and are not very fond of each other. Pakistan is a colonial construct created to serve the agenda of colonial masters, that is why Raheel Sharif is in London right now. You should really come out of your cocoon once in a while and read something not published by ISPR to get a better perspective.


  • Zalmai
    Jan 15, 2015 - 4:56AM

    Afghanistan is well on its way to becoming a progressive country where all ethnic and sectarian groups are represented. Afghans are openly debating the present, future and past history of Afghanistan on national television, which shows the maturity of civil society and a free and fair media. The Taliban are loathed by all Afghans and they are perceived as blood thirsty stooges that cannot be trusted and integrated into Afghan society until they sever their ties to their handlers.

    Afghans are determined to steer Afghanistan towards stability, progress, development, prosperity, truth and reconciliation and amnesty and accommodation for those that have been left in the peripheries of Afghan society. Afghans are not willing to compromise or undermine the progress achieved in the last 14 years to appease armed groups of terrorists who are not willing to accept the constitution and be a part of the democratic process.

    Mr. Aqil Sajjad should have emphasized the growth and maturity of Afghan polity, which in itself is a revelation and rejection of the flawed narrative Pakistan and Pakistanis propagate about Afghanistan.


  • Cool Henry
    Jan 15, 2015 - 4:57AM

    The author is somewhat correct, but, his loyalty for Pakistan shines across. I remember – at the National Jambooree of Scouts in held at Faridabad in 1974. There were teenage boys and girls representing the scouts from Afghanistan (and Iran as well). They were among the most modern people among the thousands that attended the camp. The Afghani girls looked simply gorgeous in their skirts and tops. They were all extremely social, boys and girls shook hands with every one and generally had good time. As for how things started degenerating – US and USSR were fighting proxy wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Middle East, etc. and Afghanistan was just another battlefield for these super-powers. US supported Shah encouraged modernity in Iran whereas USSR supported regime in Kabul did the same. Just so happens that Pakistan has had a bad habit of being other countries’ errand boy to do the dirty work as long as it’s military gets to take potshots at India. US was simply playing it’s dirty game after it cuts in losses in ‘Nam and Pakistan was a willing tool. And that’s when the problems started. So, at the end of the day, the rulers of Pakistan have been obsessed with scoring one up on India rather than focusing on building it’s own nation. And that’s the real narrative – Pakistan wants to belittle India and looks at Afghanistan as a pawn towards that end (or is it strategic depth) and is willing to be a pawn of China or US or any other power.


  • Jan 15, 2015 - 9:48AM

    @Sexton Blake:
    nothing is correct for YOU until you apply YOUR homemade,
    manufactured statistics and dogma.


  • Komal S
    Jan 15, 2015 - 10:10AM


    It is news that Pakistan do not see Afghan pakistan in a positive light. Last i checked you were the first country in the planet to recognize Afghan Taliban. You were among a few countries(you don’t even want to know the other countries in that group) who gave diplomatic support to Taliban. Until a few years back you were lobbying for Afghan Taliban to be part of power structure. Now your narrative is India supports Taliban and you are the poor victims. You think there are takers to this narrative.


  • Aqil Sajjad
    Jan 15, 2015 - 1:40PM

    Want to thank all the commentators for their feedback. Also apologies for not being able to respond to each one individually (time constraints)

    Regarding above comments about India’s role, the concern is a valid one. However, the problem is that the Taliban would be an even bigger headache. Any territorial gains for them would create natural safe havens for TTP and other Pakistani militant groups. Even from 1996-2001, they were providing support and training camps to sectarian groups like LJ. So nurturing or even tolerating them on our soil is a lose-lose option.

    In my opinion, our best bet would be to befriend the Afghan govt and build a collaborative relationship where both countries make sure their soil is not used against the other (whether it is by TTP, Afghan Taliban, India or anyone else). But for that, we would need to keep our side of the bargain too by ensuring that the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network are not able to operate from our soil. There have been some positive developments on this front (the Haqqani network has reportedly lost its bases in North Waziristan) and Ashraf Ghani has also made some positive gestures from the Afghan side. Let’s hope these moves are for real and this process moves forward.

    Without getting into a long discussion about the Pakistan-India angle, one hopes Pakistan and India also resume their peace process and come to an agreement to end all proxy wars. But unfortunately the current signs are not looking hopeful.


  • sterry
    Jan 15, 2015 - 11:04PM

    @Zalmai: I think Indians and Afghans need to own up to their own history before peace comes to the region. If anything modern India was created by the British after centuries of rule by Muslim civilizations and Afghanistan is the prototypical colonial construct. The Empires of Britain and Russia made the buffer state of Afghanistan and even named the country. Afghanistan foreign policy was controlled by by British officials in India until recently.
    It’s no surprise that they continue to take dictation from India which was given freedom by British too.


  • observer
    Jan 16, 2015 - 12:53AM

    In his analysis of Afghan Taliban history, it is interesting to note that the author doesn’t even offer a whisper about the fact that the Taliban was the creation of Pakistan as part of its geopolitical strategic depth games. Was this intentional?


  • Sexton Blake
    Jan 16, 2015 - 1:00AM

    You are somewhat right. The British designed India in such a way that they could easily ship their loot overseas. However, the British did not give freedom to India. It was wrested from them as a result of toil and determination over many years by a small group of people such as Mahatma Gandhi who led many thousands of protesters. The British leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill resisted change as long as they could. As usual when the British left a colony they either by accident, or intentionally, carved it up in order to create the most inconvenience. I do not know what the end game will be for Afghanistan, India and Pakistan as a result of the most recent 13 year, Western created debacle, but I hope the situation improves.


  • Rex Minor
    Jan 16, 2015 - 1:30AM

    Afghanistan is the prototypical colonial construct. The Empires of Britain and Russia made the buffer state of Afghanistan and even named the country. Afghanistan foreign policy was controlled by by British officials in India until recently.
    Are you really that dumb or you have the intention to provoke corrections from others more educated and versed with the history of your sub continent?

    Rex Minor


  • Grace
    Jan 17, 2015 - 1:27AM

    @Zalmai: I’ll believe Afghanistan is well on its way to being better when the millions of Afghan refugees who are in Pakistan finally go back home. Pakistan cannot and should not house these people forever. If they don’t wan’t to go to Afghanistan, the West should accept more Afghan refugees to live there among the Afghan refugee people there.


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