Some years ago, on a piece on the Afghan crisis I had written that Mullah Omar’s face bore no resemblance to that of the impossibly beautiful, albeit mythical, Helen of Troy. Yet it too had caused the launch of a thousand ships (airships to be more precise), just as Helen’s had done in Homer’s epic tale, the Iliad. Like Troy in that ancient narrative, Afghanistan of the present times was swarmed with invaders who could also be seen as the counterparts of those Greeks- the Americans and their NATO allies. This war lasted for double the time of the Trojan episode, twenty years instead of ten. At its end it led to a reverse situation, victory of the Trojans, in this case, of the Taliban. Though the Greeks destroyed Troy by the ruse of a gift of the Wooden Horse, eventually a Trojan warrior, Aeneid, sailed to southern Mediterranean and laid the foundation of the Rome and its empire. The Greek epoch ultimately yielded to the Roman age, and the annals of geopolitics of that time took a completely new turn. Will the impact of the Afghan war be the same? Shall we see a power transformation in a new paradigm from what we have at the present time? Will American predominance make way for a risen China, now or in the future?
There are no easy answers to the questions. It may be an unscientific notion that history repeats itself. However, it is a scientific and logical proposition that similar causes tend to produce similar results. The victory of the Taliban was owed to a number of factors .Among the principal ones were a fierce popular resistance to occupation, not necessarily unique to the Afghan ambience, the corruption and incompetence of an imposed government from outside, seen by many as akin to the Vichy or to the Manchukuo, the lack of any tangible development of the quality of life of the common man, and, yes, also woman, and the spirit, commitment and ideological dedication of the Taliban fighters. The huge sums of money expended by the US and others, trillions of dollars, kept the developed economies going with minimal impact of the raising of living standards among the Afghan masses. The everyday violence had become unbearable. There was a stated governmental support to women’s empowerment, but very little to show for it in much of rural Afghanistan. The Taliban win has ended the war, and now the Afghans are longing for relief.
The world owes it to them. Yet, though the international community seem reluctant to bring the pains of the Afghans to a closure. The media in many countries is replete with stories that there is a burgeoning pushback to the victors, as if that would alter the results of the war. There are predictions of horrifying threats of Taliban reprisals, against collaborators, none of which has come to pass yet. Indeed, the truth is that violence has largely ceased in the country for the first time in two decades. The cities and the villages have become far safer for the men, women, boys, and girls than many in that young nation have known in their lifetime. True, there are thousands scrambling to get out at the Kabul airport. But far more are lured by the dreams, though not necessary by the prospects, of a better life in America and the West than the genuine fear of losing it in Taliban hands. Far from massacring the departing Afghans, the Taliban are seeking to queue them up in separate lines for departure for the US and the UK, in an effort to restore a modicum of order in the chaos. Indeed, incredibly it may appear given feelings of mutual hostility, the Taliban are cooperating with the erstwhile occupation troops at the airport.
This fact could mark the beginning of a silver lining in an otherwise dark horizon. If there is a will, there will eventually be a way. Doubtless, the Taliban must change, as some of their leaders seem to opine in public. It seems that some of them are persuaded that there must be a Taliban.2.0, different from the previous version. It cannot be impossible to bring interpretations of Islamic laws in consonance with those in many other Muslim-majority nations. Treatment of women is something that the world will closely watch. Some within the Taliban may not care, but many others will, and the latter must be encouraged by the global community. BRAC, a non-governmental organization from Bangladesh which was doing commendable work on girls’ education (a great success story in the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh), should be allowed to resume its activities. Afghanistan had a major contribution to the efflorescence of Islamic intellectual culture in the past. That spirit is most certainly imbued in the Afghan ethos and can and should be regenerated.
Mr. Joe Biden is a decent, elder American politician of the old school who thought, with a good reason that America should end the occupation and quit. When put on the carpet, as he has been so often by his critics in recent days for his decision, his legitimate query has been “If not now, then when?” None of the critics seems to be providing him that answer. In all fairness, he cannot be held accountable for the failure of his generals. He is withdrawing because his generals have lost the war, and the winners now want him out. It is as simple as that. Historically, when foreign occupiers have left, those who had served them during the period of occupation have felt insecure. In Western Europe after the German surrender during World War 11, for instance. That thirst for revenge does not seem to prevail at this point in time in post-Taliban victory Afghanistan. Surprisingly in a society where that could have been expected, as Afghans traditionally tend to conform to the three tribal values of honour, hospitality and revenge.
It would be a grave error of judgment to confuse the Taliban fighter with Florence Nightingale. He is made of sterner stuff. He did not get to where he is today by mollycoddling his opponent. But at the same time there is a palpable yearning in him for acceptability. That should be taken advantage of. Should the US want to be a positive force for the post-Afghan war world, it can help by trying to mainstream the Taliban-led Afghanistan into the global system. It will not be easy, as many Afghans including Taliban are unhappy with them and angry. But political realism is a great shaper of civic behavior, and there is not much reason to believe than the Taliban are any different. Those who wield some influence on them- for example, Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey should aid the process. Stability in Afghanistan will help them all. Sanctions that some, including a few members of the G 7, are pressurizing Mr. Biden to impose on the Afghans or freeze Afghan accounts will not advance this process. In fact, it will bring on more hostile and extremist reactions because of which many of the advocates of sanctions will suffer. Exacerbation of the miseries of the Afghans will do the world no good.
Afghanistan is a country that has been impoverished. But it is not poor. Its resources are abundant. It possesses enormous mineral wealth: Lithium, cobalt, nickel, neodymium, rare earths, and the like. These are said to be worth more than a trillion dollars. Extraction of some of these will need greater investment and technological knowhow. This will create opportunities for American and Chinese companies to cooperate. That is the turn of event in historical evolution that will redound to everyone’s benefit.
The US will need to watch out for friends that can inflict more harm than foes. Lord Ricketts, a UK politician, has said that Mr. Biden’s retreat was a “wake-up call to allies who had hopes of a return of the US to internationalism”. But surely a return to “internationalism” does not mean a return to military occupation. The Suez was a good lesson to British Conservatives in that respect. The errors of the British government of Sir Anthony Eden at the time, which the US had then pointed out, had led to an unhappy rift for a while between London and Washington.
Currently the US Vice President, Ms. Kamala Harris is in Singapore, visiting Southeast Asia. She may have already perceived the sense of the region that Asian countries largely are wary of taking sides in big power conflicts. Most are reluctant to be “one or the other’s stalking horse to advance negative agendas”. If this message is not picked up adequately, Asians may view American advances towards them just as the Trojan priest Laocoon saw the Wooden Horse left behind at the gates of Troy in the narrative with which this essay began. He had famously warned: “I fear the Greeks, even though they come bearing gifts”!
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