What Afghans Want From the West

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Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps on patrol in Sangin, Helmand
Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps on patrol in Sangin, Helmand. Photo: Al Jazeera English/flickr.

The date of the withdrawal of most of Western forces from Afghanistan is approaching but the war and the state of the war in Afghanistan continue. The US consolidates its strategic military bases in Afghanistan while it is talking about pulling out. Despite this conflicting narrative, the Western disentanglement in Afghanistan gives rises to two crucial and conjointly defined questions. First, how will Western drawdown shape the future of Afghanistan? Second, how will the major post-withdrawal power vacuum in south and Central Asia makes the geopolitical map of south and Central Asia and by consequence, the global power structure?

Both the power vacuum and global power structure gravitate largely on the outcome of the war in Afghanistan and the future of ungoverned titanic mountain ranges between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a leftover of the nineteenth-century British colonialism.  History let Afghanistan in a unique geopolitical position. The turbulent developments in the last two centuries show that this country—was once described by the late Richard Nixon as the “turnstile of the fate of Asia,”—has been a transit area for the emerging powers in the region and its future has been determined by adventurous foreign interventions. This truth makes the Afghan theatre of war merely a sideshow in the larger regional and international contention that was termed by Kipling ‘the Great Game,’ in Central Asia.

The fading out of Western influence would put China in a pivotal role, at the epicentre of the regional geopolitics. The process of Chinese slow expansionism has already started in the region.  By hiring Pakistani military, China uses Pakistan as a frontline state and a military outpost for getting access to rich natural resources and geopolitical influence in south/central Asia and by extension to the Middle East and beyond. With Pakistan as its conduit, now it is full steam ahead for China to extend its ‘string of pearls’ strategy across the rim of the Indian Ocean. As reported by The New York Times on January 31, Pakistan handed management control of a strategic Gwardar Port in Baluchistan to China.  This deep-water port in the Indian Ocean that is just a stone’s throw away from the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz from where 90% of the Middle Eastern exports and 40% of global oil supply passes is, in fact, the baroque pearl in this strategic string. Some of th  e US congressional representatives have rightfully stated recently that while Western soldiers die and billions of taxpayer money is wasted in Afghanistan; China is reaping all the fruits without firing a single shot or spending a single penny. After Western withdrawal, in order to extract Afghanistan’s mineral and other natural resources, China would need internal political stability in Afghanistan. The crisis and even civil war in this country would compel China to intervene militarily in Afghanistan to safeguard its economic and regional interests.

Pakistan will provide a corridor for Chinese tanks and boots. 

Looking in a historical context, this so-called strategic depth is not a creation of Pakistani military; it is just a copy version of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. The pro-British strongman of Punjab believed that there were only two ways to save Punjab from the endless offensives of the Afghans: First, to lock the Afghan warriors up in high mountains by occupying its Pashtun tribal belt; second, to enslave weak Afghan kings and use them as puppets. Ranjit Singh imprisoned Shah Shuja and then carried him around in a cage and tortured his son in front of him. The Afghan king remained his prisoners until he escaped by digging an underground tunnel. For the same reason, Pakistani military keeps some Afghan leaders—as it did Osama bin Laden for future use—under their custody and by using them as trump card in order to shape the future Afghan political power structure that suits Pakistan’s internal and geopolitical security interests.

There is nothing new or surprising about Afghanistan being a battleground for foreign powers. The foreign powers function always as a driving force in shaping political events in Afghanistan this way. Afghanistan is an exemplary case history for the supposition that history repeats itself. Let me mention here a number of news items published during a span of one hundred and sixteen years about Afghanistan:

“British troops penetrated to the Hadda Mullah’s headquarters in the precipitous Jarobi glen, and punishment was dealt out to such of the tribesmen as refused to accept the terms offered by the British government…The 21st Goorkhas [Gurkha] were sent to clear the heights, from which a galling fire was kept up, and the battery in various directions shelled the heights. The Goorkhas crowned the ridge forming the Durand Line, and looked down into the Dakha plain. The work of destroying the forts and towers was completed, and the force was carefully withdrawn.” (The Statesman, UK, December 9, 1897) “The tribal activities in the neighbourhood of the Durand Line in northern Waziristan are being closely watched by the Indian and Afghan Government…It appears that a tribesman named Pak [“Bald-Headed One”], who has anti-Afghan tendencies has been harboured in the neighbourhood; he has been in this vicinity since 1933, when he figured in subversive activities against Afghanistan. The British authorities wield political control on the Indian side of the Durand Line, and the chief British problem in this territory is to prevent interference on the part of the tribesmen in Afghan affairs” (The Times of London, May 2, 1935).

“Pakistan forces abandoning their forward fortress: the date of departure had been kept a close secret. A day or two before, the area Commander, Major-General R. E. Fleming had arrived and announced his intention of leading the march with Brigade Commander, Brigadier R. S. Steed. It was to be their last duty in the service of Pakistan. They had agreed to stay specially to see the operation through…The withdrawal in Waziristan will certainly increase Afghan influence over the independent tribes, particularly the Mahsuds and Wazirs, and will, open the way to increased Afghan pressure on Pakistan aimed at taking over all the Pathan lands down to the Indus.” (The Scotsman, December 19, 1947) “One member of the Pakistani security was killed, and five were wounded Monday in a blast in Pakistan’s troubled tribal northern region, an official told CNN. The casualties occurred when a car laden with explosive entered a fort in Bara Tehsil in the Khyber district” (CNN, 25 February 2013).

A glance at these news items convinces us to say that in Afghanistan, there is always a single and never changing story. Its past is always the future for Afghanistan.  This makes this country a case history for Nietzschean notion of the eternal repetition. Western analysts suggest that history repeats itself in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the cited news reports bear evidence that political events and repeated occupations of Afghanistan could be defined just by the notion of the return of the same. In the same way, the Afghan tribes have always repulsed every foreign invasion. In the aftermath of the British, Russian and American interventions, the next boots that would step in the Afghan endless morass would be Chinese.

A government of foreign choice is a useless adventure.

The US-led intervention in Afghanistan has failed to establish a legitimate central authority under Hamid Karzai. Ever since installed by foreign troops, Karzai has been locked up in the Presidential Palace in Kabul. Clad in a colourful gown in public, like a Shakespearean clown, he is a plaything in the hands of the old Northern Alliance.  The demagogue warlords of the Northern Alliance turned Afghanistan into a pathetic failed State and the world’s largest heroin producer. Under the American security sunshade, the Northern Alliance dominates the Afghan political power structure. Economically, however, the powerful warlords plus Karzai’s family members dominate the fractured government in Kabul. Like Saudi princes, they follow a parasitic life with no commitment except their personal gains. They continue to prey on dollars coming from Western donors and national and wealth of the country.

During my six months stay in Kabul in 2008, I saw with my own eyes the tragedy of misusing and looting of the Western money. Everyone in the higher echelon of the Karzai regime was about to do everything just to get rich and get the hell out of Afghanistan when the right time arrives. The owner of an influential TV channel in Kabul told me that Afghanistan could build a dam by using the bags of American dollars.

A worse scenario for the future of Afghanistan is its Balkanisation. Despite Afghanistan’s strong ethnic mosaic, some extremist sectarian rulers of the Northern Alliance with the help of their foreign patrons might try a partition of Afghanistan. It is just a wild delusion, but it could bring about appalling destruction and bloodshed to this unfortunate nation. Some irresponsible politicians and analysts in the United States also foster this scenario. Talks of Afghanistan’s incapacity for self-government and prescription of an indefinite American military presence in Afghanistan to forestall a civil war is a neglect of the history of this country. Cries in Kabul for keeping foreign troops until Afghanistan stands on its own feet is a national humiliation for all Afghans.

Is there any chance at all for peace in Afghanistan?

Notwithstanding the dark and depressing images of Afghanistan that I am trying to portray—for which, I owe you an apology—there is one venue that the West could bring peace and stability to Afghanistan before leaving the country. This venue is the venue of a direct, unmediated, and meaningful peace negotiation with the Taliban.  Notwithstanding their deadly mistakes in the past and shortcoming at present, the Taliban is an indigenous religious movement and by killing all Taliban, we cannot conclude this war. Both Americans and the Taliban know perfectly well that Pakistan has always deceived them all along, and a genuine peace will come to Afghanistan only if Pakistan is excluded from any role in Afghanistan. Pakistan is on the brink of disintegration and up to its neck in a war with the separatist movements all over that country and is in no position to take any further advantage from war in Afghanistan. The only way to avert Pakistan from spoiling everything in Afghanistan is to allow the Taliban political space in order to make independent decisions. The Taliban’s isolation and cornering are counter-productive. I do not want to say that Pakistan will not try to send its puppets that might be in the ISI’s cages; however, one thing is very clear that only an agent can work for Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. Pakistani military and ISI in the eyes of the Afghans the world’s hate figures.

The current Western war termination strategy in Afghanistan will fail if it ignores on ground realities and compelling needs for a negotiated settlement. As Aristotle said, “We make wars that we may live in peace,” war continued for more than twelve years, and now it is time to allow everyone to live in peace. I believe Western intervention achieved its primary goals. The al-Qaida infrastructure has been smashed in Afghanistan and no one in this country supports an al-Qaida perversion that gave Islam a very bad name. I think the sacrifices of Westerners have not been not in vain. They helped Islam to be free from al-Qaida and its historical mass murderers. Now it is time for everyone to work for peace and save the Afghans from bullets. The Afghans and Australia enjoy a historical bond of friendship more than any other Western nation. Hundreds of Afghans came to Australia in the nineteenth century to contribute to the building of this great nation. They came with  all they had in their possession. Their camels were like ships and planes to them; they worked exceptionally hard for this country and now Afghans expect Australians to help bring peace to this country.

Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an adjunct fellow with the Writing and Society Research Centre, UWS.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

Justifying the Means: Afghan Perceptions of Electoral Processes

Perceptions of Politically Engaged, Influential Afghans on the Way Forward

2014: The Other Afghan Withdrawal

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