Afghanistan. Backward Forward

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

Afghan refugees in Greece protest Taliban takeover. Pic – VNExplorer

People worldwide are appalled by the fall of Afghanistan in the hands of Taliban, conjuring up memories of their brutal rule between 1996 and 2001. Notwithstanding the ongoing blame game, Joe Biden had no choice than implement former president Trump’s decision to withdraw troops by the end of August. Panic and chaos came earlier than expected as much as the swift takeover. The US pumped one trillion dollars in maintaining the Afghan government and training its military, enabling it to run services with half a million employees. Allied forces had to fight against Taliban insurgencies which took to guerilla warfare, targeting installations, government convoys, public places and military bases with funds drawn from narcotics, smuggling and terror finances. Much like Trump before him, Biden is fully aware that keeping Afghanistan afloat could not last any longer. The US needs to pull up its economy, and might have to send its boys to the South China Sea where there will be other fish to fry in the coming months.

Secularism versus Conservative forces

For the past 100 years Afghanistan’s political woes have become deeply entrenched in its social set-up of various tribes and the resistance of the clergy to a centralized modern type of government. Afghan political leadership is a harrowing history of struggle to build up a secular political structure, albeit on Soviet Russia’s model, while putting up with conflicting tribal interests and radical religious groups.

From 1923 to 1989 Afghan leaders ruled as deeply committed patriots to usher reforms and propel the country into an era of political, economic and social progress. Soviet-inspired policies were adapted to local context, allowing space for different groups to express themselves. Tribes who dominated various regions viewed land reform as a threat to their interest. Gender equality and opportunities granted across religions hurt the clergy. The first princely ruler, Nader Shah, was assassinated in 1933.

His son Zahir Shah introduced a constitutional monarchy, set up two Houses of Parliament, and opportunities were given to political aspirations of different hues, including the Egypt-inspired Muslim Brotherhood group. Mahmud Shah, the PM, defied conservative religious leaders with free elections, free press and a liberal Parliament.

With the support of both leftist military officers and fundamentalists, Daud Khan toppled him in a bloodless coup in 1973. He continued Soviet-inspired policies in the economy and the military, and worked closely with Pakistani PM Z. Ali Bhutto. Another Constitution was drafted, and the country was made a republic. Women participated increasingly in the public domain, and dress codes became women’s choice on a voluntary basis. All the progressive measures bristled the clerics. In 1978 Daud Khan and his family were killed.

The Darkest Era

The fight for supremacy between two political and social ideologies marked Afghanistan’s political history from the 70s to the early 90s. In 1978 the leaderless government turned to Soviet Russia for help. Land and administration reforms went on, and equal rights for women were maintained. Revolts broke out. In 1979 Russian tanks rumbled into Afghanistan. Najibullah, a bright Afghan doctor, took the helm of affairs.

The US with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan concocted a plan to take on the Soviets in Afghanistan. The ‘Believers versus the Unbelievers’ narrative was propagated to recruit and motivate huge numbers of zealots from religious schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan to rise against the Soviet-backed government. Saudi Arabia provided the ideology and funds. Pakistan offered its territory for the training of militants. Its Intelligence Service ISI conducted a network to supply militants of the Mujahideen, Afghan freedom fighters. The US and Saudi Arabia sat back and watched. China joined in to supply weapons to the jihadis. Those years stand out as the darkest period in the history of Afghanistan.

Pakistani ISI coordinated Mujahideen groups, and brought conservatives and radicals together to destroy the Afghanistan secular government. ISI controlled and trained a network of young men from religion-inspired schools, and made it impossible for the Afghan government to recruit soldiers in its army. Several attacks were conducted against government forces in the 1980s. The Najibullah government collapsed. The US achieved its goal.

Withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 led to a civil war. Half a dozen coalition of Mujahideen forces with links to ISI formed an interim government. They soon started fighting among themselves. Chaos ensued. Najibullah’s family migrated to India. He was less fortunate when he tried to join them later. He was arrested on his way to the airport and faced a most brutal death.

An offshoot of the Mujahideen, Taliban stepped up on the stage as ‘saviours’ in 1996. However, they refused to bend down to the will of the US and promote its economic interest. Instead, they gave shelter to terrorist outfits hostile to the US. Taliban has continued to reap millions of dollars from a mafiosi network of drugs sales backed by Pakistan ISI. Formerly, Communist-inspired singled out the clerics and their illegal parallel economy as a major social ill, and physically eliminated huge numbers of clerics who thrived on the opium trade.

The taste of Freedom

Is it the end of secularism in Afghanistan? In 1923 the first Afghan ruler adopted a modern Constitution for Afghanistan, inspired by AtaTurk’s end of the Islamic Caliphate in Turkey. In 2021 Talibans claim the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. For the past 100 years the country has kept swinging in a forward-backward movement mostly because of the opposition of the clergy class to progressive policies, and tragically, because of the dark period of US, S. Arabia, Pakistan and China intervention.

The public is tired of suicide bombings and years of fighting between Allied forces and Taliban guerilla attacks. The US could not solve all issues linked to corruption in the government and the army. Taliban weakened resistance by terror tactics of cold-blooded killing of government soldiers. For the moment, attacks on civilians have ceased now that the perpetrators are in Parliament.

The generation of young men and women who have grown up in a relatively free society for 20 years are the hope for change to a progressive modern society. They have witnessed the reconstruction of their country by friendly countries. Girls and boys went to IT centres, experimented with Robotics, benefited from modern teaching methods thanks to the training afghan teachers received in France, for example. Formal education was accessible to boys and girls, women occupied public space freely. Singing and acting were no longer taboo. Theatres re-opened, India built schools, hospitals and the Parliament. All these are no small gains.

There is no fixed formula or a standard solution to issues impacting political, economic and social development in diverse complex societies. Thousands of people turning to the outside world, mostly democratic countries, for help is a clear sign of what their ‘values’ are.

The taste of freedom prompted Afghan youths to hoist up the Afghan flag again.

A deeper change in society will have to be brought about by Afghan themselves by first reforming the educational system to avoid mind control which nurtures radicalism, something which the outgoing government failed to undertake.

Afghans will need other countries’ support to achieve any substantial change in the future to take the country forward and make a definite exit from the retrograde rule ultra-conservative forces want to impose on them.

* Published in print edition on 24 August 2021

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