Twenty years on, a second significant September 11 is upon us, and Afghanistan is bleeding once again. Several massacres and human rights abuses were committed at the hands of the Taliban ahead of Kabul’s fall. Now, the Taliban has re-formed a hardline government and restored the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan exactly on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of America’s invasion of the country.
The same old guard is back in the driving seat, with no women in the Cabinet, and with a few token non-Pashtuns. This in a country that had over 27% women in Parliament just a month ago. The Chief Executive and the Interior Minister both have millions of dollars of bounty on their heads. The Ministry of Vice and Virtue is back, and the Ministry of Women stands abolished. It is back to square one, with the country literally handed back to the same savages it was freed from.
Even as Pakistan gleefully celebrates its “win against America”, western officials and media have taken a sharp turn away from whipping Pakistan alone within weeks of Kabul’s fall. Most western commentary now tries to completely ignore and bury the vile and duplicitous role Pakistan has played in bringing Afghanistan down in flames.
Pakistan Criticism Worked Against the US
One reason for this could be that blaming Pakistan alone was generating criticism and reminders that the US knowingly let it happen, which is a far worse indictment than having made well-intentioned mistakes. Knowingly partnering with an actual rogue state committed to its imperial designs on a neighbouring country via terrorism, to rebuild and rid that neighbour of that very terrorism, is, at best, lunacy, and, at worst, sinister.
The more pragmatic reason, however, appears to be that the US, via Britain, has contracted out Afghanistan to the Pakistan army or ISI to run via its proxy, the Taliban — whipping it at this time won’t do. Hence, all official commentariat and its foreign policy enabler, the mainstream western media, has now chosen to ignore the elephant in the room. Straight after the fall of Kabul, UK army chief and friend of General Qamar J Bajwa, General Nick Carter, went further and parroted the Pakistan narrative on Taliban, trying to project a real soft image of the Taliban.
Western media outlets have, by and large, shifted their language and editorial lines in lockstep with their respective governments’ narratives.
Most referred to the erstwhile Panjshir-based National Resistance Front, which included the constitutional former Vice-President and Acting President of the country, as “fighters” and “rebels” even before the Taliban announced a government. Confirmed, witnessed murders by the Taliban are being referred to as “Taliban is accused of…”.
The BBC appeared to be acting as a spokesperson of Pakistan when anchor Philippa Thomas literally shut Dr. C Christine Fair down within minutes as she began to explain the history of Pakistan’s support to the Taliban. Thomas said, “But Pakistan would surely deny that.” It was the most glaring example of the systematic trend in western media to swing with their respective governments’ foreign policy positions.
The Afghans Won’t Take It Lying Down
Play it down as the west might, the Afghan’s have had it and are loudly protesting Pakistan’s role, which they are now calling an invasion. It was limited to social media the past few weeks, but the public appearance of General Faiz Hameed, Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), at Serena Hotel in Kabul on Saturday triggered large on-ground protests against Pakistan in Kabul and a few other cities. The Afghans appear very clear that this is a Pakistan proxy government. For now, they are not taking it lying down.
By turning up in Kabul and deliberately allowing himself to be seen and filmed, General Faiz Hameed may have wanted to flaunt what he imagines himself to be now: Pakistan’s Viceroy in Afghanistan. But the timing, and the obvious purpose of the visit, i.e., to cobble together and finalise the Afghan cabinet, put an official seal on Pakistan’s role and exposed the General and Pakistan. This audacious act of Hameed’s backfired, putting outrage against Pakistan at the centre stage in the street protests. These women-led protests, with men joining in the last few days only, are a testimony not only to the incredible courage of Afghan women, but also to the fact that it is quite a changed polity that is willing to resist fascist rule.
It is not just this new Afghan generation that will present a challenge to the Taliban’s authority. The almost entirely non-inclusive nature of the interim government announced on Tuesday has ensured a civil war to ensue sooner rather than later.
A more inclusive set-up might have kicked the can down the road somewhat, but this ISI-handpicked, all-Taliban Cabinet has made a mockery of the “intra-Afghan” negotiations for inclusivity and practically guaranteed a quick unravelling of the setup.
The political opposition, women, and all ethnicities other than the Pashtun have been kept out (only one Uzbek and two Tajiks are in the announced interim cabinet).
Factional Rivalries Is the Biggest Hurdle to Peace
But as Praveen Swami pointed out in his recent piece, the most basal hurdle to peace post-government formation in Afghanistan is the factional rivalries between the Haqqani Network from the east of the country and the Taliban from the Kandahar region in the south. Existing rivalries between these two, as evidenced by the delay in government formation, will intensify because of the central government’s inability to raise revenue for effective governance.
In the face of the current freeze on Afghan reserves by the US, and suspension of all aid, there will be a rush to protect and poach territorial rights over narcotics smuggling, tolls on highways, and extortion, etc.
Throw in all the other groups who did not get a share in the government vying for control of such income, and you have an explosive cocktail in the making that will certainly be exacerbated by various foreign powers seeking to exploit the fissures against each other.
Interestingly, those who didn’t get a share in power also include some top influential Taliban military commanders who were snubbed, such as Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Ibrahim Sadr, and Daud Muzzamil, for their closeness to Iran as opposed to Pakistan. They can also be relied upon to become spoilers.
All this makes Afghanistan look very much like the country post-Soviet withdrawal, which makes it more than likely to once again become a hotbed for transnational terrorism and catch the eye, and earn the wrath, of the West at some future date. America and the West know well what they have done, and what to expect in the years to come. And they are most likely miscalculating the number of years before Afghanistan explodes in their faces, just like they miscalculated the length of time before Kabul fell.
No Lessons Learnt
However, what’s alarming is that there are strong indications that they have not learnt from any of the mistakes made in the past twenty years, including ignoring the elephant in the room: Pakistan. Senator (R) Lindsey Graham recently told BBC, “We’ll be going back into Afghanistan … We’ll have to.” So, while he correctly mentioned the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming the epicentre of international terrorism as a reason for going back in, there was no mention of who has wanted and managed the eventual return to power of the Taliban.
Till the West remains deliberately fixated on fighting the wrong enemy, we are destined to see cycles of tragedies visited on Afghanistan and the wider region.
To avoid another such cycle of the unspeakable horror of war, America and its allies need to change their strategy now. Acknowledge the root problem today and begin to tackle it as of yesterday: degrade Pakistan’s capacity to spawn, support, and spread terrorism. Without Pakistan, the Taliban is nothing.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)