History of Afghanistan, About Afghanistan,

Afghanistan: what way forward?

October 31st, 2008
Author: Professor Amin Saikal, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.

The US and several of its main NATO allies have now called for the lowering of any expectation of victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite Washington’s public opposition to negotiation with the Taliban as a terrorist group, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, which also have sizable troop deployments in Afghanistan, have openly supported a negotiated settlement with the militia and backed President Hamid Karzai’s efforts in this respect as the best way to end the Afghan conflict. The Taliban have so far rejected Karzai’s overtures and demanded the departure of foreign forces as a precondition for any peace talks. However, there can be no meaningful negotiation with the Taliban unless first the Karzai government and its international backers reduce their vulnerabilities to the militia, especially in three areas.

Urgent priority needs to be given to addressing the political sources of insecurity in Afghanistan. The Karzai government has grown to be corrupt and dysfunctional. Karzai has failed even to prevent some members of his family from engaging in extensive malpractices, let alone many of his senior ranking officials. A majority of the Afghan people have now turned against the Karzai government, subjecting it to mounting international criticism. This has generated a massive political and security vacuum for the Taliban and their supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to exploit. As such, irrespective of how much military and non-military assistance the international community pours into Afghanistan, a large part of it will simply disappear in a black hole. Afghanistan is desperately in need of structural political and administrative reforms, based on institutionalisation rather than personalisation of politics as the foundation for good (not necessarily democratic) governance in the country. This requires a new Loya Jirga (traditional Afghan assembly), constitutional changes and a strong parliamentary system of government, with stronger local and regional governments that would connect ordinary Afghans to the political system. Such a system stands a better chance of working in Afghanistan than the strong presidential system that Karzai and his backers have sought to put in place. This is particularly so given the country’s history of weak state structures in ever-changing relationships with fairly coherent tribal, ethnic and sectarian micro-societies.

Given its geopolitical complexities, Afghanistan’s status in world politics needs to be formally declared as a neutral state, with no strategic partnership with any foreign power. Its current alliance with the US and participation in the so-called war on terror strategy has not served Afghanistan well. They have brought outside actors into the country not on the basis of Afghan needs and capabilities but rather what is required to win the war on terror, which has become as elusive as its targets. A position of formal neutrality will give Afghanistan’s neighbours less reason to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. Pakistan and Iran and for that matter some of the Central Asian republics as well as Russia and India have remained very proactively watchful of the situation in Afghanistan partly because they are worried about how the Afghan conflict would affect the future of their conflicting regional interests. For example, Pakistan wants to be in a position not to allow India and for that matter Iran to gain a strategic foothold in Afghanistan; Iran is vehemently opposed to any Pakistani comeback in Afghanistan (as was the case under the rule of the Taliban 1996-200) and to any long-term US strategic presence in the country; and the Central Asian republics are deeply concerned about any danger that may arise for them from radical Islamism and Iranian-Pakistani rivalry as an outcome of the Afghan conflict. Concurrently, Moscow does not find any American entrenchment in Afghanistan conducive to its desire to be a major player in the region.

Beyond this, the non-ethnic Pashtun population of Afghanistan should be discouraged from going down the same lane of discontent as many of their Pashtun counterparts towards the Karzai government and its international backers. While the Pashtuns have historically formed the largest ethnic cluster in Afghanistan, the non-Pashtuns have constituted the majority of the population. The predominantly non-Pashtun areas in northern, central and western Afghanistan have been relatively peaceful, but many in these areas have not been rewarded for their cooperation and have become disillusioned with the government and the international forces. This must not be allowed to continue. More international reconstruction investment is needed in health, education, administration and infrastructural building to stem the tide of their disillusionment.

Without addressing these issues, the Karzai government and its outside backers will not be able to act from a position of strength to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table for a widely acceptable settlement. As the situation stands, the future of Afghanistan remains very bleak. The Afghan conflict has become increasingly vicious for the Afghans and unpopular for the US and its NATO and non-NATO allies. It has the potential to drag on for decades at growing costs for all sides.

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