The Ails of Afghanistan: A Graveyard of Foreign Invaders

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'Remnants of an Army' by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842. This is a better copy of a file in Commons (this image is in the public domain due to its age). Elizabeth Thompson - Scanned copy of the painting in the Tate Gallery

At a Military Museum in the idyllic setting of Taunton, Somerset, in a lovely and quiet patch of the green English countryside hangs a painting. It depicts a scene totally different from that landscape of the serene West County in England. It is of the rugged and the rough, then as now, of the grey and dusty terrain of distant Afghanistan. The picture, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London, and painted by Lady Elizabeth Butler, is of a scene from the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1842. Called The Remnants of an Army, it portrays the tale of a British Army officer, William Brydon, said to be the sole survivor of an invading force of 4500. In it he is shown straggling to safety on horseback, near collapse from exhaustion, at the end of a long retreat from Kabul. It can be seen as the metaphor of the fate of all invaders of Afghanistan, all ending in a defeat for the spirit and the body of the outlander!

That would also serve as a reflection of how the final American withdrawal from Afghanistan can, and indeed, most likely to be viewed by all and sundry. As announced by President Joe Biden, the last US troops will have left by 11th September. That date is significant, as that is when the Twin towers in New York fell following a terrorist attack, slamming aircraft against the buildings. Incidentally, some in the US opposed the date as the Taliban could use it as a symbolic mark of victory. The Administration of President George Bush laid the responsibility for the tragedy of the Twin towers squarely on the Al Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden. The invasion of Taliban-governed Afghanistan look place later that year, said to be primarily in search of Bin Laden but had the important consequence of dislodging the Taliban from the Kabul government. Bush actually called it a ‘’civilization’s fight”, but never quite elaborated on the concept. Since then, a pro-West system was put in place in the capital, which soon was engulfed in a war situation with a regrouped Taliban that transformed into a pull devil, pull baker contest between the two. Western forces including from the NATO were deployed to support Kabul and the American numbers surged to 100, 000 by 2011.

The conflict became a “forever war” dragging on for twenty years and spanning across two generations of service-men and women. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans lost their lives and limbs in the struggle. There were 2400 American deaths, and 20700 sustained injuries. It cost the US an estimated US$2 trillion in monetary terms. But victory was much more beyond the rim of the saucer than was ever visualized by the American strategists. Indeed, the reverse seemed to be fated as the Americans and their allies in Kabul and in NATO appeared to be bested in an asymmetric warfare that swung between low and high- level conflicts. Diplomatic negotiations were initiated in Doha, Qatar, mainly between the US and the Taliban. As a general principle the Taliban refused to recognize the authorities in Kabul, with whom they eventually interacted with, but always with an eye on the ball of further territorial acquisitions.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump had had enough and announced a pull-back by May. The declaration was music to Taliban ears. They were happy to wait out the remaining months, cleaning their guns and sharpening their blades, readying to swoop upon the Kabul government at the appropriate time. Understandably, they were upset no end when the Biden Administration pushed back the schedule by four months, needed to think through what would follow for the unfortunate battle-battered country. The Taliban expressed their unhappiness by declaring they would attend no meetings about Afghanistan’s future till all foreign forces had left. To make the point they skipped a Summit in Istanbul scheduled for the end of April.  Assaults on the government by the Taliban resumed and intensified providing a simulacrum of what was to follow the departure of the Americans, and, as has also been announced, of the rest of western troops.

Few believe the government in Kabul can hold the Taliban at bay for much longer after that event. There are apprehensions that a Taliban led government is an eventual certainty. That could mean an end to the measure of progress achieved to-date in securing a modicum of modernity, however basic. For instance, in the spheres of women’s empowerment and the preservation democratic institutions, albeit minimal even by any standard. In addition, it is feared that there would be a retribution by the Taliban not only on those who provided any kind of support to the Americans, but on also those who had collaborated with the past governments in Kabul. Not to speak of a future link-up with either the Al Qaeda or its future morphed form. Can this inexorable slide to disrepair, as some see it, be prevented?

Three of us, a former Pakistan Finance Minister and economist, Shahid Javed Burki, a professor of Sociology, Riaz Hassan, and myself, then scholars at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, sought to propose such a paradigm in a book titled Afghanistan: The Next Phase published by the Melbourne University Press in 2014. The proposals remain as valid now, as then. Done in details in that volume, I shall seek to present them very briefly here.

Following the withdrawal of the coalition forces there would be a “Transitional Decade” during which an “Afghan Governing Council” (AGC) would be set up co-chaired by the President of Afghanistan and the Secretary General of the United Nations. The rest of the AGC would comprise dedicated representatives of the international community drawn from countries with the highest stakes on the issue. Afghanistan would remain sovereign and its Cabinet, which would include the Taliban, continue to function, but all major decisions would require to be endorsed by the AGC. Turkey would provide “green helmets” for security, to be supplemented, if necessary, from acceptable sources. The AGC would be funded by UN extra-budgetary resources. The legal basis of the entire decade-long process (the AGC will dissolve thereafter) would be the principle of “Responsible to Protect”, a norm adopted by world leaders in 2005, and would be routed through the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.

Afghanistan today is a desperately poor nation. It ranks 169 out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index published by the United Nations development Programme. The people have an average life expectancy of 64 years, one of the lowest today. Its gross national income per capita of a meagre US $ 2200, with all signs of structural underdevelopment. Yet its people share a sense of pride they feel in their culture that place such great store by the values of honour, hospitality, and revenge. The last may be especially reserved for outsiders who have done them badly by, such as foreign invaders, for whom this fascinating and yet friable land has, throughout history, proved a grim and godforsaken graveyard even for the mightiest empires.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • The Remnants of an Army
  • Military Museum
  • A Graveyard of Foreign Invaders
  • The Ails of Afghanistan

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