Afghanistan at a Crossroads

By The Observatory on Contemporary Crises

In a recent enlightening online talk at SLU-Madrid, attended by an audience of keen political science professors and students, Obaidullah Baheer, a non-violent activist and lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, unraveled the complexities surrounding today’s Afghanistan. His approach, rich in depth and perspective, navigated through the refugee crisis with Pakistan, the arduous journey of state-building, and the pressing humanitarian concerns in the region.

Refugees and Pakistan’s Intricate Role

The talk opened with the poignant adage, “I am here because you were there; I am there because you were here,” eloquently framing the migration saga rooted in geopolitical maneuvers. The genesis of the Taliban and the conditions for their return to power were dissected, presenting a series of prevailing theories, one highlighting Pakistan’s contribution to the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. The speaker emphasized Pakistan’s pivotal role, not only in the Taliban’s emergence but also in the subsequent refugee crisis. 

As Pakistan recently refouled 1.7 million refugees to Afghanistan, issues of dignity and legal defiance surface. It was mentioned that some of these refugees are second-generation and have never been to Afghanistan. Pakistan applied their customs law to these refugees, meaning they could only take up to 173USD with them and a minimal number of belongings, while sending them to Afghanistan right before the intensely cold winter months. The Durand Line‘s historical context, indiscriminately slicing through Pashtun communities, was noted as a colonial legacy complicating the socio-political landscape. Pakistan’s military dominance, coupled with its geopolitical aspirations vis-à-vis Afghanistan, adds layers to an already intricate scenario. 

The State-Building Conundrum 

The focus then shifted to Afghanistan’s turbulent state-building journey. The speaker critiqued the U.S.’s approach, contrasting its military interventions with proclamations of nation-building akin to its strategies in Iraq. Kabul, with its ubiquitous T-walls, stands as a testament to the shortcomings in establishing a stable governance structure. Afghanistan’s political evolution, marred by shifts from monarchy to its current form, highlights a deep-seated crisis in representation and governance. 

Talking about the Taliban’s governance, O. Baheer presented a nuanced view. Progress in certain sectors is shadowed by stringent policies, especially against women’s rights. Yet, underground educational initiatives for women hint at a complex internal dynamic within the Taliban regime. The speaker advocated for constructive engagement and reforms, drawing parallels with societal shifts in nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Humanitarian Concerns and the Path Forward 

The concluding part of the talk delved into the humanitarian dimension, stressing the importance of grassroots movements in effecting change. The discussion around criminalizing engagement with the Taliban, due to their gender policies, was presented as a moral quandary. He stressed the potential counter-productiveness of a campaign like the one to criminalize the Taliban as gender apartheid, which leaves citizens without any aid while not creating incentives for the Taliban to change. Instead, local initiatives like the “all or none” campaign, which voices the concern of civil society against the ban on girls’ education in Afghanistan, underscores the potential of inclusive education. 

Finally, as far as minorities are concerned, the plight of the Shiite Hazaras, frequently targeted by the Islamic State in Khurasan (IS-K), was highlighted, with the Taliban’s efforts to curb such abuses noted as a sign of their complex role in the country’s fabric. The international community’s responsibility in nurturing confidence-building measures was underscored, balancing the need to engage with the Taliban and preventing the rise of new extremist factions. 

Conclusion – The Lessons from Afghanistan 

The talk given by Obaidullah Baheer offered an intricate tapestry of insights into Afghanistan’s current state. It underscored the significance of understanding the nuanced interplay of regional politics, the challenges in nation-building, and the imperative of humanitarian considerations in charting the future course for Afghanistan. 

Building on his description of Afghanistan’s current picture, it may also be important to add that Afghanistan’s history, marked by foreign interventions and rivalries, offers a sobering lesson in geopolitical complexities. The Cold War era, characterized by the intense U.S.-USSR rivalry, stands as a poignant example of how external powers have often hindered the emergence of a stable and robust Afghan state. This pattern of foreign entanglement, far from being a relic of the past, continues to shape Afghanistan’s destiny, reflecting a broader narrative of international actors shaping its course to their strategic ends. 

The 1990s witnessed the rise of the Taliban, significantly influenced by the Mujahideen, Islamic fighters backed by the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. This support, initially aimed at countering Soviet influence, inadvertently set the stage for far-reaching consequences. The emergence of Al-Qaeda, the tragic events of 9/11, the subsequent rise of ISIS, and numerous contemporary terrorism-related issues can be traced back to this era. This complex web of events underscores how actions taken in the geopolitical arena can have unintended and far-reaching consequences. 
The United States’ attempts at state-building in Afghanistan (2001 onwards), paralleled by a similar strategy in Iraq (2003 onwards), represent a significant policy failure. The ambitious goal of establishing stable, democratic governance structures in these regions has not only fallen short, but has also had adverse effects. In Afghanistan, this failure has had a particularly poignant outcome, culminating in the Taliban’s return to power. This turn of events signifies a reset to a pre-intervention state, with the Afghan population bearing the brunt of these policy misadventures. 
The situation in Afghanistan stands as a stark reminder of the limits of external intervention in nation-building. It challenges the notion that military might and strategic interests can effectively dictate the course of a nation’s destiny. This scenario calls for a reevaluation of foreign policy approaches, emphasizing the need for modesty and humility in international affairs. Afghanistan’s turbulent journey teaches us that understanding and respecting the complex tapestry of local politics, culture, and history is crucial in shaping foreign policy that is not only effective, but also responsible and considerate of the people it impacts. 

In conclusion, Afghanistan’s story is a compelling narrative that necessitates a thoughtful reflection on past actions and a mindful approach to future engagements. It calls for a paradigm shift in how nations interact on the global stage, advocating for policies rooted in a deep understanding of the nuanced dynamics of each region. Afghanistan should not just be viewed as a cautionary tale, but as a critical educator in the intricate art of international relations and statecraft. 

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