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What next for Afghans after disastrous exit of US forces?

By XN Iraki | August 23rd 2021
U.S. Marines stand guard at an Evacuee Control Checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken on August 20, 2021. [Courtesy: Reuters]

To most people, it’s a paradox why the United States of America and its allies got into Afghanistan and stayed on for 20 years. But I was in the US when the September 11 terrorist attack took place.

I saw and felt the anger among the Americans. Their fortress breached, they acted, uprooting the Taliban who had taken power in Afghanistan in 1996.

For historians, the US had not been attacked since World War II, and when that happened, it was in Hawaii, an island almost 4000 kilometres from the US mainland.

On June 4, 2021, we wrote and asked in this newspaper, what is next for Afghanistan after US President Joe Biden gave September 11, 2021, as the deadline for withdrawal from the land of the pomegranate fruit.

Our prediction was that the vacuum created by this departure with suck in the Talibans, and it did.

I am surprised that anyone is surprised over the pace at which the events unfolded.

The scenes of men and women chasing a plane on the runway and 640 men, women and children cramped inside another plane as they escaped from Kabul will forever remain etched in our minds.

The US was quick to delink these images from the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), the South Vietnamese capital on April 30, 1975.

Both cases are tied to fear of retribution by victors. What does the fall of Kabul mean to the US and the rest of the world?

It is curious that as Kabul was falling, the US was reported to have agreed to provide soldiers to fight rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Coincidence?

Beyond awakening, the ghosts of Vietnam, the fall of Kabul is a dent in the American image. Propagandists will quickly point out that the US cut and ran from Afghanistan.

Curiously, militants in Somalia, another country where the US had withdrawn from were celebrating.

The image of the US as a guarantor of global peace is being shattered. Is Pax Americana over, many will ask. Some argue by suggesting that the Taliban will trump down on women and their rights, the losers in 20 years war are finding a convenient distraction.

One observer asked a very fascinating question. The US withdrew from Afghanistan because it was becoming a “forever war.”

Why is the stationing of US troops in South Korea or Europe, not a “forever war”?

It might have been expensive to stay in Afghanistan, but withdrawal might be more costly to world peace. Beyond emboldening American enemies, the withdrawal makes those that relied on America’s protection feel unsafe.

My bigger concern is who will take over the role of the global policeman with American reluctance. Is the next global policeman time tested? Some think it will be China in alliance with Russia.

Another concern is that Afghanistan neighbours the Middle East, already volatile with the war in Syria, Yemen, Palestine-Israel conflict, unstable Iraq and ambitious Iran. Will the fall of Kabul have a ripple effect across this region?

Remember the embers of The Islamic State (ISIS) are still smouldering. Afghanistan has been sucking in superpowers because of its strategic location in Central Asia since the days of the silk trade.

Britain and Russia (Soviet Union) were there before the US.

If you add the religious angle, the long shadow of instability hangs over this region. Bible scholars, I am sure, have something to say about the unfolding scenario.

Reports filtering in indicate Afghanistan has one of the largest reserves of lithium, a critical ingredient in making batteries.

Do you drive a hybrid car? Other rare Earth metals are plenty in Afghanistan too. Will that suck in new players? We should ask why American strategy went so wrong.

One is politics, American voters were getting tired of foreign engagement. Remember Trump’s America first? The same voters might turn against their leaders after the images of men and women running after a plane in Kabul. Two, the US might not have understood the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

Is that why they got president Ashraf Ghani, an anthropologist to try and crack the Afghan mind?

He was an American citizen who had to drop his American citizenship to become the president. To try and understand the Afghan mind, I contacted Tony Lamba, a Kenya who has lived in Afghanistan since 2016.

He says this of Afghans. “They are resilient — they survive under very difficult conditions; hospitable — they will offer their last kettle of water to a stranger if he stops by.

But tribal ethnicity is alive, everyone identifies with their tribe or where they come from. By comparison, Kenyan tribalism is mild” He adds, “Minorities are harassed or looked down upon, even by authorities.”

He ends “there are power-supremacy struggles among ethnicities, while the Mujahideen (who fought Russians) feel they should enjoy privilege for liberating the country.” We can’t rule out the interference of the neighbours just as they did in Vietnam 46 years ago.

The long and mountainous borders are porous and hard to police, they range from Pakistan to Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even China.

America is far away and seen as an intruder. We can’t rule out American failure to learn from history; Vietnam, Syria and Somalia. In the fullness of time, we shall find that just as the US did not act alone while invading Afghanistan, Mujahedeen did not act alone in taking Kabul.

What is next for this beautiful country? May be Vietnamese model would work in Afghanistan. After Americans left, buoyed by self-confidence the Vietnamese built their country and is now a major trading partner with the US.

Could the Talibans reform and rebuild the country, modernise it in the same way?

They need international support; who will be the first to overlook their history and start engaging them or recognising them diplomatically?

Could Afghanistan take the Iran route, become a theocracy? That seems a more plausible route. But the new Afghan rulers could surprise us.

Could women rights work as a trump card for Americans and their allies to ‘tame’ the new rulers?

Could the Taliban guarantee women rights for recognition?

What we can’t deny is that Afghanistan’s neighbours and the world at large are better off with a peaceful Afghanistan, we can worry about the type of the government later.

Listening to Americans, it is clear the nation-building is for the Afghans. But they need our support. The children of this country have shed enough tears. 

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