British painter Elizabeth Thompson’s “Remnants of an Army,” is an immortal 19th century artwork. It portrays assistant military surgeon William Brydon – the sole survivor of 1842 Anglo-Afghan war – mounted on an exhausted horse, struggling to reach Afghanistan’s cultural capital Jalalabad where foreign invaders got a taste of the “Great Game” intricacies for centuries. This illustration finds mention in a commentary penned by Bangladesh’s former Foreign Minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, wherein the learned diplomat elaborates peace plan for battle-battered Afghanistan, with fear of a Taliban-led dispensation rolling back the modicum of modernity secured over the past two decades looming large. Reverting to the canvas, a traumatized Brydon is a perfect metaphor for Afghan invincibility.
Indeed, Afghanistan has historically been the graveyard of the most powerful of Empires, and could not be tamed by the likes of Alexander the Great, the mighty British Empire or the communist superpower Soviet Union. More recently, the Americans were drawn into an endless conflict in the Hindu Kush, while chasing Al Qaeda mercenaries responsible for the 9/11 carnage in New York. Former Mujahideen leader and Afghanistan’s ex-Premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar pointed out to this journalist recently, subjugating the Afghan people by force is next to impossible because they never succumb to pressure.
Eventually, the U.S. lost its way in the Afghan labyrinth, bankrolling trillions of dollars into a never-ending war which consumed precious lives and resources and lasted longer than America’s own eight-years long struggle for independence against the mighty British Empire. Besides, Washington has chosen to refocus its strategic goal by shifting the pivot to Indo-Pacific theatre for unveiling a new Cold War that revolves around the extended region’s flourishing resources, mostly underwater. In the end, when American troops finally exit Afghanistan by September 11, ironically gifting the one time Al Qaeda ally Taliban an opportunity to brag about symbolic revenge, they are leaving behind a nation bitterly fragmented along ethnic lines and at war with itself. This alarming development leaves an eerie possibility of the revival of a controversial British plan to partition Afghanistan into smaller entities, centred around the economic hubs of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, Jalalabad, Khost and Bamyan.
Afghanistan runs the risk of plunging into deep chaos, post Western withdrawal, as neither the Taliban nor President Ashraf Ghani’s government have come up with any reasonable out-of-the box solution or a concrete plan of action to end the current impasse. Rather, both sides seem to be adamant on continuing with the territory grabbing competition, leaving other Afghan stakeholders stranded on the side-line. The fact is, Afghan government-supervised areas have shrunk drastically within urban limits, while the Taliban controls bulk of the country’s territory. Amid chaos, confusion and acrimony, a society just finding its feet to stand tall independently is likely to be pushed to the wall further.
Ambassador Chowdhury explained to this writer how he along with two eminent scholars, Pakistan’s ex-Finance Minister Javed Burki and Sociologist Riaz Hassan, has put forth some suggestions, anticipating an irreversible slide in godforsaken Afghanistan as it fades into twilight. They recommended a transitional decade following western coalition forces’ withdrawal, during which Afghanistan will be ruled jointly by the Afghan President and UN Secretary General through an Afghan governing council, with representatives from stakeholder nations gracing the council and Turkey providing security. While Afghanistan remains sovereign, and Taliban is included in the cabinet, all administrative decisions will be vetted by the council. However, a former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan is in agreement with this journalist’s view that Afghans of all hue will resist any move – like sharing power with foreigners even if temporarily – that compromises their unique tribal honour, dignity and independence. The ex-minister concedes that the concept of an UN administration clicked in Cambodia previously, but reminded that Afghanistan is no Cambodia.
In the context of an outright Taliban takeover of Kabul being an imminent possibility, what kind of Afghanistan will emerge hereafter? Will there be a reversal in progress, howsoever small, achieved in areas of free speech, women’s empowerment and preservation of democratic institutions under a Taliban regime?
After all, peace for ordinary Afghans is not restricted to just putting an end to the prolonged conflict. It goes further, to seeking a system that is truly egalitarian and ensures equal rights for all, as this journalist learnt from Habiba Sarabi, member of State delegation negotiating peace with Taliban.
Meanwhile, a Taliban spokesperson had categorically assured this writer earlier that Afghan women will have the right to work and education within an Islamic framework, under their regime. The Talibs might have refined themselves in tune with changing times, even allowing foreign NGO-aided socio-economic intervention to progress seamlessly in Afghanistan’s rural settings. But Hekmatyar is not convinced, as he questions their rejection of a permanent ceasefire, election or a transitional government.
The ex-Premier wants a non-coalition interim setup insulated from politico-ethnic rivalry and whose sole function will be to conduct free and fair polls. It is difficult to form a coalition government with groups involved in fratricidal conflict for four decades, says Hekmatyar. Not only Hekmatyar, the broad contour of the proposed power sharing arrangement, agreed upon by the Americans and Taliban leadership, has not gone down well with many Afghan stakeholders, including some Mujahedeen factions. Hekmatyar for instance favours a more reasonable transitory solution like the formation of a Supreme State Council-powered caretaker administration, staffed with apolitical personalities and having no link to any warring groups. Since, Washington’s mollycoddling of the Taliban had rubbed salt in too many wounded egos, whose spark can ignite violent resistance, only an uncluttered mind will keep doomsday away from Afghanistan.
Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta (India) based journalist and columnist with vast experience. In her 22 years long career she has written extensively on international relations, covering Middle-East and South Asian affairs. Twitter: @seemasengupta5
From The Maldives Journal