Possible Futures: Afghanistan

Joe Waters looks into the political climate, as well as potential forces for change, in Afghanistan – a country which has been in a state of tumultuous conflict for most of the last three decades. As large parts of the nation again find themselves under Taliban rule and the U.S. begin their departure, the power vacuum created is one that could be filled in any number of ways: a depressing number of which involve bloodshed. Will the country become a proxy for geopolitical conflict? Will it descend into factional chaos? Or will the Taliban bring an uneasy peace?

By July 15th of this year, there will only be 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and, if all goes to plan then, by the end of 2021, there will be none. It is fair to say that success of America’s forays into the region is moot. However, many from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum currently support ending “the forever war.” The question now is less to do with what has been achieved and more with simply getting out quickly. The sense that leaving a nation to fend for itself is preferable to any kind of intervention might have more ground if it were not for the other large nations attempting to advance their own interests in Afghanistan. In 2018, the Washington Post reported that “Russian officials believed the [Taliban] no longer posed a threat to Russian interests […and] like Russia, opposed a long-term U.S. military presence and hoped to extinguish the Islamic State.” Hence, Russia has made attempts to enter into a relationship with the Taliban, to leverage power in the region to their advantage. Similarly, Afghanistan is in the sights of China, who wish to incorporate it into their “Belt and Road Initiative,” in order to increase their dominance in international trade.

But what of America’s supposed aims in the region? The democracy they laid the foundations for is floundering. Only one million, out of the nine million eligible to vote (in a country of nearly 40 million) turned up to the polling booth at the last election. Many believe the low voter turnout is due to disillusionment with the corruption of successive governments. A 2012 UNODC report found that over 40% of adult Afghans were potentially involved in the payment of bribes. Many hoped that this would change after President Hamid Karzai left office, but a 2015 poll found that only 27.5.% were satisfied with current president Ashraf Ghani’s leadership. Public opinion was not bolstered by the 2019 allegations of government posts being granted in exchange for sexual favours. All in all, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current government. To many, they seem both ideologically uninspiring and weak. With more dying in terrorist attacks than of Covid-19 (even as Kabul’s lack of medical provision does lead to terrible loss of life), the current vision of stability and the rule of law is flimsy at best.

Meanwhile, some (depending on who you ask, up to 95% of the population) are coming around to the idea that Taliban rule might actually be more conducive to peace than the current system. Depressingly, this could be true even if just because attacks by the Taliban might stop (“might” rather than “will” because there is more than one faction of Taliban). However, those looking for a resolution push the view that the militants have become easier to deal with in recent years. It has even been claimed, by some close to the former royal family, that they are becoming more liberal with regard to women’s rights and would not prevent women’s education even if they barred women from holding the highest-ranking positions (those Taliban present in the Doha talks draw the line at allowing women to be judges or take the presidency). All of these claims are debatable but it’s still true to say that peace under the Taliban could prove preferable to the alternative. The peoples and factions of Afghanistan are not exactly united. The Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other minorities all have their own conflicting interests. A prevailing view is that, in the absence of a U.S. presence, civil war will break out much like in the early 90s. It is hard not to see the truth in this prediction.

What, then, is the way out for Afghanistan? Is returning to Taliban rule really the only way? It has been argued that perhaps civil war is not quite inevitable. There is one thing that could prevent it: desire for an end to conflict. While the many disparate peoples of Afghanistan may not identify with each other or their government, what they do identify with is a desire for peace. The tumultuous years of fighting that this nation has lived through would make anyone sane cry “enough!” The mood in discussions of the country’s fate is one of weariness and depression. Many of the parties involved feel crushed by the constant barrage of death and failure their nation has been presented with. Maybe, just maybe, these negative sentiments can be harnessed and used as fuel to take the most radical step possible in the next age of Afghanistan: to do nothing. No more militant, ideological deaths. A collective standing still, a lack of encroachment could just about inaugurate the first step to some kind of valuable peace process. It’s a long shot but it is at least envisionable. And envisioning is the first step in achieving any kind of reality.

Image – U.S. Department of State: “Secretary Pompeo Participates in a Signing Ceremony in Doha”

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