October 2, 2023


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Foreign Policy: Will the world fail Afghanistan again?

6 min read
20 years ago when the Taliban came to power, it failed the Afghans and the world at large because of its Shariah-inspired regime. Twenty years later, it has again come back to power after driving out the US-led occupying forces. If the world refuses to engage with the Taliban now, it will be betraying the people of Afghanistan.

by Zafar Anjum

Twenty years ago, the Taliban had failed the Afghans and earned a stinking reputation in the world for their ultraconservative brand of Islam. Their Shariah-inspired misrule was brought to an end by the American assault in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York. How justified was that bombing out of Afghanistan is a different question but it did bring an end to the Taliban rule there.

Twenty years have passed since then. On August 30, when the last aircraft wheeled off the tarmac of Kabul airport, the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan. 

Today, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 when the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan celebrates its comeback, the world is debating if the Taliban should be recognised by the world at large as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. The world is questioning if the Taliban would remain true to their announcement of general amnesty to all collaborators of the erstwhile US-backed regime. The world doubts their sincerity when they say that they would respect the human rights of fellow Afghans, especially that of women and children, under the Shariah laws, and that their territory would not be used against other countries for harbouring and training terrorists.

These doubts and questions are quite valid and the incumbent Taliban, the victors of a 20-year long struggle against the US-led occupation of a benighted land, are well-aware of them. That’s why they have been giving assurances to the world that they are mindful of the international concerns on human rights and terrorism. Time and again, they have claimed that they want to remain peaceful, and that they want to rebuild Afghanistan.

Batting on behalf of the Taliban, Pakistan, often blamed by countries like India for supporting and masterminding the Taliban’s victory over the Americans, has suggested that the current Taliban is different from the earlier generation, and that they are a changed lot. The world does not want to believe this. Can a tiger change its stripes? This, only time will tell. So far, what the world has seen is not satisfactory, especially in the context of women’s rights. 

But the world has already witnessed two signs and in all fairness, the Taliban should be given credit for that. One, how they drove the war-worn NATO allies from its land and recaptured the country as a revolutionary force without much resistance and bloodshed. Some believe that the Afghan army surrendered without fighting the Taliban. This is perhaps one of the most bloodless transfers of power in world history. 

Two, the unprecedented move they made after taking over Kabul without firing a single bullet: granting general amnesty to all those who had resisted them, especially to the former collaborators of the US-backed regime. They did not stop those leaders who wanted to leave Afghanistan and even invited those who remained in the country such as Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah to support the rebuilding of Afghanistan. 

This was a masterstroke by the Taliban, and many in the Muslim world saw it akin to the move made by Islam’s founder Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when he announced general amnesty to all the conquered people of Mecca when he returned as a victor after remaining in exile in Medina for years. 

Compare this to the Iranian revolution next door: More than 47,000 people died during the Islamic revolution and after the revolution as a result of executions. 

Failing the Afghanis

The world’s razor sharp focus has been so much on the Taliban that they seem to have forgotten the Afghan people. 

In the great game of the three empires–The British, The Russian and the American—it is the people of Afghanistan who have been in the crosshairs of disaster, the biggest losers in the game. Since the US-led coalition started operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, more than 46,000 civilians have been killed by all sides and 2.2 million Afghans displaced, becoming fodder in the high-tech American war on terror. 

We should not forget that when the US-led NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, their aim was to take revenge for the 9/11 massacres and to destroy the bases of Al-Qaida, and root out the Taliban, who had by then fallen out of the control of US ally Saudi Arabia. The Western powers were not there to help the Afghan people but to serve their own interest– to burn down the snake pit of global terrorism. Having achieved their target, they installed a former oilman in charge, Hamid Karzai, as head of the interim government. Not surprisingly, after failing to bring their brand of democracy to many parts of the Muslim world, they failed here again. 

Over the years, Afghanistan became the ground for corruption in the great American military industrial complex. If the Americans were serious about helping the Afghan people, they would have invested a major part of their 2 trillion dollars in building schools, colleges, hospitals and infrastructure in Afghanistan, and not siphon it off to their own banks in the scam called the war on terror, wouldn’t they? According to a report, out of the about $144.98 billion spent by the US government for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since fiscal year 2002, including $88.61 billion for security (including $4.6 billion for counternarcotic initiatives); $36.29 billion for governance and development (including $4.37 billion for counternarcotic initiatives); $4.18 billion for humanitarian aid; and $15.91 billion for agency operations, between 80 and 90 percent of outlays actually returned to the U.S. economy through “a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, Washington banditry, and aid contractors”. 

Now that the Taliban wants engagement with the world, it is the common Afghans that the world should pay attention to, the same lot and their families that stood up for hours and days in the snaking queues to get aboard US aircrafts to escape the misery and hopelessness of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Today, 90% of Afghans live in poverty and 30% are food insecure.

Today if the world turns away from helping Afghanistan, on the pretext that the Taliban is in-charge, it will be betraying the people of Afghanistan again. In fact, by committing to helping the Taliban, the world can put a leash around them, and the help could be conditional. If the Taliban go back on their promise of peace and amnesty and of respecting human rights, at least on par with the human rights in other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, then the world can blame the Taliban for betraying their own people, the Afghans. It is encouraging to see that countries like China, Qatar and Pakistan are already providing humanitarian aid to the Afghans. More countries need to step in to save the Afghans from starvation and economic collapse. 

Twenty years ago, the Taliban failed the world. Today, if the world fails the Afghans, the misery and chaos that follows in Afghanistan will be on the conscience of the global community. 

Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based journalist, writer, filmmaker and publisher. He is the author of The Resurgence of Satyam (Penguin Random House), Startup Capitals: Discovering the Global Hotspots of Innovation (Penguin Random House), and Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Penguin Random House). These are his personal views.

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