By Dr. Davood Moradian
On the 9th anniversary of terrorist attacks on the US soil in September 2001, Afghanistan has reemerged once again as one of the most critical foreign policy issues for the US government, think tanks and public at large. Sadly the bad news, particularly in recent weeks and months have contributed to growing voices in the US and elsewhere of the impossibility of the mission in Afghanistan. We are struggling in the battle of perceptions both in Afghanistan and outside. But as with many other walks of life, the reality is far more different than the perception. In the case of Afghanistan, in reality, we have made significant progress in many sectors and areas and certainly our armed forced have earned the right to be proud of their achievements and sacrifices in Afghanistan, particularly since Pres Obama's election. Unfortunately in and on Afghanistan, there are far more pessimistic voices than optimistic ones, who, in the words of Churchill, "a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty".
Afghanistan is becoming US' longest war and a very expensive undertaking as well as a very frustrating and tiring conflict for us in Afghanistan. Yet, we are not in a position to answer fundamental questions about the conflict in Afghanistan. Neither in Kabul, nor in Brussels nor in DC there is a reasonable consensus about the nature of the Afghan conflict or the definition of the end state. Unfortunately, now the growing focus is on "when" this undefined mission should end. In another words, rather than contemplating on "why" and "what", we are often thinking and working on "when" and on often politically-derived deadlines. The "why" and "what" questions should inform the questions on "how" and "when".
From Anti-Terror Campaign to Regional Transformation
In response to the question of why the US or for that matter the international community are in Afghanistan and what are the main drivers of the Afghan conflict, there are a spectrum of answers and views. This ranges from an extremely minimalist and reductionist view of anti-terror and anti-Al-Qaeda perspective to a little more significant view of the counter-insurgency(COIN) community to a more realistic advocates of nation-building to the strategic view of regional transformation and global governance. The author subscribes to the latter view, who sees Afghanistan as a critical component of the regions of the South and Central Asia and the transformation of the Islamic world. The anti-terror, the COIN and/or nation-building perspectives are parts of the bigger picture.
Prior to making the case for the strategic importance of Afghanistan for the region and the process of transformation of the Islamic world, one is obliged to remind our American friends and, for that matter, the beneficiaries of the cold war, of their moral responsibility towards the Afghan nation who facilitated the demise of their ideological rival, the communist block, by paying the heaviest price in blood, suffering and displacement. Painfully, we were left abandoned when the mission was accomplished in late 80s to the forces of extremism, criminality and the region's meddling. As Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski stated many times, the free world has a moral obligation towards the Afghan people.
Two End States: Turkey or Somalia
There can be only two end states for Afghanistan: A secure, prosperous, moderate and democratic Afghanistan or metaphorically the Turkey of the East or secondarily, the Somalia of Asia. The Somalization of Afghanistan remains a distinct possibility with following consequences: a bloody civil war and an ensuing proxy war of Afghanistan's neighbors, which would then accelerate the process of territorial disintegration of the country and its domino effects on Pakistan, Central Asia, China, Iran and India. It would give the international Jihadists another global victory who can proudly claim credit for the defeat of two "infidel" superpowers in less than three decades in one place.
Very few believe that the international community and the US can afford another Central Africa type conflict area in the heart of Asia. Unlike the African conflict area, our region has three nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, China and an aspiring one, Iran. Unlike the African conflicts which are mainly ethicized and local, our region is the home of global jihadist movements and a haven for the drug mafia. The consequences of the Somalization of Afghanistan, therefore, will not be confined to our border and even to our immediate neighbors, but it will certainly encapsulate faraway regions of the world. September 11 showed us that such a scenario is not an academic projection or a war game exercise.
Another end state is a secure, prosperous, moderate and democratic Afghanistan, or the Turkey of the East. If one looks at the map of the region, Afghanistan is located in the heart of four important geo-strategic regions: Central Asia, South Asia, China/Far-east and the Middle-East. These four strategic regions present unprecedented natural and human potentials as well as significant security challenges. A stable Afghanistan, therefore, can play an important role in both utilizing the opportunities as well as managing the challenges. For example, Pakistan is a collapsing state with hundred of nuclear weapons and a growing radicalized society and population. A stable Afghanistan will be a key asset for the international community to manage a collapsing and radicalized Pakistan. On the other hand, China and India's rising power and status can play a very important role in stabilization of Pakistan and the region's development. This can only happen by integration of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, China and the Middle-East via trade, commerce, transit, and energy networks, or the recreating a new version of the Silk Route. Regional cooperation in the fields of trade, transit, transportation and other economic activities needs a stable Afghanistan. A stable Afghanistan can also play an important role in protecting Central Asian states from an expansionist Russia, by linking these states with the South Asia and the Middle-East security and trade structures. In short, Afghanistan is as important and strategic as the Strait of Malacca in South East Asia.
Another important role of Afghanistan is its place in the ongoing transformation of the Islamic World. The Islamic nations have not been fully accommodated or integrated into the global system. Many in the Islamic world are struggling to make sense of their relations with modernity, globalization and the western world. Unfortunately, the US has few bridges with the Islamic world. A stable and moderate Afghanistan is the natural bridge between the two worlds, and a member of the alliance of moderation in the Islamic world alongside Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bosnia, and Tunis. Alongside Iran, the Afghan society is progressively transforming towards a secular and moderate society mainly as a backlash against the theocratic experiences of Mujahidin and the Taliban, unlike places such as Pakistan, Central Asia and Egypt where we see the gradual Islamization of societies in response to bitter authoritarian and failed secular regimes.
The view of Afghanistan as the Turkey of the east contradicts conventional and popular views of the country. Many of us characterize and know Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires, or in the words of UK Defense Secretary a "broken 13 century", xenophobic and tribal society. While for many Afghans, it can be glorifying to see their country as the graveyard of the empires, students of history understand this is a myth and fiction that has been shaped by uniformed reading of history. Apart from a handful of adventures, the territory that is known as Afghanistan has always been either a center or part of various empires. One good example is the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom that was established after Alexander the Great's adventure to Asia. It was the first ever model of the East-West co-existence and inter-action. Our vision for Afghanistan as a crossroads and a bridge is derived not only from our geography but also from our history and culture. So, we are not asking for a new status, or a Jeffersonian Democracy but a new and updated version of our historical and geo-strategic status and position. Furthermore, our demographic feature is another driver for a new Afghanistan. Nearly 2/3 of our population is below the age of 30 and mainly are disconnected and alienated from their parents' past experiences and expectations.
Main Drivers & Obstacles
Addressing our immediate challenges of insurgency, terrorism, corruption and the narcotic drugs can only be done in the context of a shared strategic vision for Afghanistan. Unfortunately, often it is the other way around. In many cases, both our thinking and actions are tactical and short-term, rather than strategic, which is one of the main reasons for our continuing struggle and growing confusion and impatience.
United States' Critical Role
The United States holds the key in either the Somalization of Afghanistan or the revival of the silk route, where Afghanistan will have a strategic place and role to play. Either a hasty disengagement or an honorable exist will accelerate the process of Somalization. On the other hand, US's long-term and comprehensive engagement with Afghanistan will ensure and push forward the revival of the silk route. Such an engagement need not be solely military or expensive. It needs to be a smart and a principled one. US' soft power and its rich non-governmental sectors and resources such as universities and foundations need to be further utilized, alongside mobilizing domestic and regional resources. Fortunately and despite growing frustration and impatience, the goodwill of the Afghan people and absolute commitment of the Afghan government for a strategic partnership with the US remains strong and solid.
As with all nations, the United States is known to possess certain characteristics as well as some hubris. The idealistic, can-do-spirit and the eternal optimism of the US natural and national characteristics have achieved impossible tasks and missions, such as World War II, South Korea, the defeat of communism, and the election of President Obama. If the US remains committed to these values, Afghanistan will join the list of US' achievements. But if it fails to resist its tendency for impatience, needless to say what will happen. We all should remind ourselves of Pres Reagan's characterization of this great nation, when he said, "America is too great for small dreams".
Pakistan: Friend or Foe?
Another fundamental issue is the role of Pakistani's military-intelligence establishment. Based on the most liberal definition of terrorism and all open source information, the Pakistani's military-intelligence agencies are involved in sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan and the region. Yet, it is treated as a respected partner by the international community. As Dr Spanta, Afghanistan's National Security Adviser characterized, Pakistani's army, "It is the main aggressor of the Afghan conflict", and thus responsible for the killing of hundreds of the US, Afghan and the coalition soldiers. At the very least, Pakistani generals must be viewed and treated as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Corps Quds Commanders. If not, there would not be any prospect for success in Afghanistan.
The issue of governance and corruption is another important priority to our join mission. We are very grateful to the Obama administration for recognizing corruption as a fundamental issue. For a number of years, this discourse was almost absent from the list of our priorities. However, a successful anti- corruption drive can only pay dividend when in it is contextualized, de-politicized and institutionalized in realities and institutions of Afghanistan. The New York Times Editorial board's crusade against the Afghan corruption is not the most effective way to this end.
This issue can also be seen from rather a controversial perspective. We are facing three insurgencies in Afghanistan, or three Shuras: the ISI-directed Quetta Shura, Kabul Shura and the Washington Shura. Unfortunately, there is no agreement about the role and the proportion of responsibility of each Shura. The Kabul Shura is the prevailing corruption and nepotism in our state institutions, which needs to be forcefully confronted by the Afghan government. Lack of strategic patience, short-termism, politicization of governance, public demonizing treatment of Afghan state institutions, failure to explain adequately the mission to the American people and appeasement of Pakistan's military-intelligence are the main sins and vices of the Washington Shura.
A New Mega-narrative
In light of growing uncertainty and pessimism, there is an urgent need for (re)articulating a new constructive mega-narrative for Afghanistan. Unfortunately existing destructive and pessimistic narratives such as July 2011 withdrawal, transition, corruption, civilian casualty and peace with the Taliban have generated significant amount of negative energy and pessimism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Only by articulating a positive mega narrative, we can prevail in the battle of perceptions and ensuing success on the ground.
The outcomes of the two end states for Afghanistan have well been articulated by the following observation by a student of the Kabul University:
"If the world exports us terrorists, we will send them back more committed and ruthless terrorists as well as with dozen kilograms of hashish and opium. But if the world helps us, we will export new generation of Zoroaster, Maulana Jalal Din Balkhi[Rumi], Avicenna, Jamal- din- Afghan, Padshah Khan and juicy Kandahari pomegranates and premium Herati saffron." The choice is yours.
Dr. Davood Moradian, Director General of Center for Strategic Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2022