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How did Afghanistan get to this crisis point?

Posted By on June 28, 2021 @ 12:30

Afghanistan has been through many painful and destructive transitions in its modern history since its consolidation as a recognisable country from the mid-18th century, but the one it’s currently experiencing is enormously tragic. If not managed effectively, it could result in the country moving from being a seriously disrupted state to a failed state, threatening its very survival. Afghanistan is galloping towards a wider and deeper conflict with neighbouring and regional actors in the saddle to exploit its tragic situation for their contrasting interests. Whatever transpires, both the Afghan leaders and the United States, along with its NATO and non-NATO allies, bear much responsibility for it.

Afghanistan represents the case of a traditionally landlocked weak state with strong micro-societies, whose vulnerabilities have also been marked by its geographical location as a geopolitical crossroads entity. This factor has played a key role in thwarting it from building a strong, viable and defendable state, with appropriate governing and resource-based foundations to enable it to stand on its own two feet, and in preventing successive invaders from trying to tame the country according to their ideological and geopolitical preferences. For most of its existence, it has largely survived as a rentier state. And, not surprisingly, most of the country’s leaders have held power with the backing of an outside power—whether that’s been imperial Britain or Soviet Russia, or lately the United States, not to mention Pakistan’s support of the Taliban when they have been in and out of power.

Afghanistan’s internal weaknesses and foreign interventionism have mutually reinforced each other to keep the country in the political, developmental and security doldrums. The only period in which Afghanistan enjoyed relative stability and peace was from 1930 to the mid-1970s. That was largely due to the limits set initially by a reduction in the traditional Anglo-Russian rivalry and then by contingencies of the US–Soviet Cold War competition. Afghanistan’s ruling elite were able to establish a loose but workable triangular framework between the monarchy, religious establishment and local powerholders, within which the micro-societies were carefully placed. However, this framework was weakened by the republican coup of 1973 and then smashed by the communist coup of 1978 and the developments that followed. The country was plunged into a crisis that led to the Soviet invasion, chaotic mujahideen rule and Pakistan’s creeping invasion via a Taliban–al-Qaeda alliance.

The US-led intervention, commencing in late 2001 to punish al-Qaeda and the Taliban in response to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, originally generated much hope for building a new and more viable Afghan state. A rare opportunity emerged to transition the country from practices of the past that had left it internally weak and externally vulnerable, to a brighter future. Yet, these hopes were dashed by the failure of Afghan leaders to rise above their personal, ethnic, tribal and sectarian interests and by the inappropriate strategies pursued by the United States and its allies.

Under the US aegis, Afghanistan was not endowed with the right political system from the start. The constitutional adoption of a strong presidential system of governance, whereby an elected president would have disproportionate power in relation to elected legislative and appointed judicial branches, proved unworkable in a highly socially divided country.

The arrangement failed for three important reasons. First, it empowered the president with the ability to manipulate and undermine the other two branches and circumvent the notion of separation of powers and the rule of law whenever desirable, which is exactly what has happened in Afghanistan.

Second, it ignored the fact that Afghanistan has traditionally been a land of local powerholders or ‘strongmen’, many of whom possess their own localised popular and militia bases of support and powers of dispensation and extraction, and who are therefore capable of challenging and circumventing the position of the president when their interests are threatened or violated.

Third, it overlooked the fact that under Afghanistan’s circumstances, presidential elections would be prone to producing serious disputes, as occurred in the 2014 and 2019 elections. This compelled Washington to intervene to resolve the disputes with the creation of what proved to be a divided and ineffective national unity government and a new post outside the government structures for one of the challengers. Although Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner of the 2019 election, he received fewer than 1 million votes in a country with an estimated population of 37 million and therefore had no workable base of popular legitimacy.

The system ultimately produced a mode of governance that was a mixture of secular and religious, partly polyarchic and largely kleptocratic, which was underscored by corruption, nepotism, administrative dysfunction and the ethnicisation of politics. It grew to serve mainly the interests of resilient political, ethnic and economic entrepreneurs rather than lay the foundations for institutionalised processes to promote enduring national unity, and to deliver social and economic equity and prosperity as well as justice to a majority of citizens. By the same token, it failed to diminish the dichotomy between the state and micro-societies and to limit the operational space for the Taliban and their affiliates, al-Qaeda and other criminal gangs, and neighbouring and regional actors.

Meanwhile, the US pursued a changing strategy that could not help the situation. It initially adopted a light-foot and counterterrorism approach to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and stabilisation, with little or no consideration for the fact that the country had already been devasted as a result of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the subsequent chaotic rule of the mujahideen and the theocratic reign of the Taliban. When in late 2009 President Barack Obama changed the strategy from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency, it simply came too late: the emphasis on protecting population centres left the countryside wide open to the Taliban. Pressure on Pakistan to halt its support for the militia was ignored by Islamabad, and the withdrawal of most of the US allied troops by the end of 2014 emboldened the Taliban and their supporters.

As the situation got increasingly unmanageable, it became clear to Washington that it was involved in a very costly and unwinnable war. Not surprisingly, in the last year of his presidency, Donald Trump, a strong critic of America’s Afghanistan venture, signed a peace deal with the Taliban to enable the US to make a military exit, along with a call for a political settlement. His successor, Joe Biden, also highly sceptical of America’s longest war, followed through. Like the British and Soviets before it, the US tried to mould Afghanistan into a stable ally, but in the end it could neither get a reliable and effective partner on the ground nor endure the human and material costs of an endless war.

Where does this leave Afghanistan? I’ll explore that question in my next post.



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