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Afghanistan: Time to get to work!

After the attack on Kabul airport, the American-led international military intervention in Afghanistan has surely reached its Waterloo. Now that the other international military presence, operating as IS, Islamic State-Khorasan, Daesh or whatever name, is continuing the battle with deadly energy, the time is more urgent than ever to save what can be saved. But we must not only think of evacuating people, however dire their situation, but of preventing greater evil in the near future.

The horror scenario is easy to sketch. IS, bent on international disruption since 2014, was lured into Afghanistan in 2015 by the chaos there – 14 years, no less, after the West’s invasion that was supposed to bring peace “at the point of a gun”. IS’s strategy was to disrupt the slow march towards peace talks that were also underway at the time with Taliban factions, and they could easily do so by luring young men who had nothing to lose with better weapons and nicer mopeds. The Taliban understood earlier than the West that the common enemy was international Jihad – not least because the unwelcome guest Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda were bringing the greatest misery to Afghanistan. That was an important reason for the surrender at the beginning of 2002 – now almost 20 years ago (sic). The Americans wanted nothing to do with it, and ‘the rest is history’.

If IS succeeds in enticing the Western powers to send more troops to Afghanistan, the various factions of the Taliban will feel obliged to respond. The chain reaction this will cause will take us back to a situation similar to the late 1980s. And that’s what IS is after: the possibility of attacking the rest of the world from Afghanistan again. That, even according to Joe Biden’s new historiography (we were only there to stop the threat), would be a complete loss of the longest US war ever.

So what now?

To make an alternative in the form of a new ‘civilian mission’ possible, a few misunderstandings must be cleared up and a few bold decisions taken. I will mention a few point by point, without daring to claim completeness.

The individuals: Make a distinction between those who are left behind. For example, there are Afghans who have a Belgian, Dutch or other European passport, there are Afghans who have cooperated with foreign military interventions, and there are Afghans who worked for international aid organisations. In all these groups, one can find people who are very concerned, but also people who think differently.

As far as Western passport holders are concerned, it would be good to at least acknowledge that nobody knows for sure if the Afghan Taliban government is not prepared to let people with such a passport leave on a normal scheduled flight. In any case, it does not seem that even in a horror scenario the Taliban have anything to gain from taking foreigners hostage. It would make them look far too much like the common enemy, IS.

The defence and foreign affairs staff: there, the responsibility lies with the relevant authorities – and they are negotiating.

The employees of aid organisations have been asked by the Taliban to stay and continue their work. That is where negotiations are obvious: this work can only be continued with international financing. That makes a negotiating position in any case a real possibility, and that is also how the EU puts it.

The knowledge: These employees of aid organisations embody what has been achieved in Afghanistan, despite, and certainly not thanks to, the military presence. There is now a ‘civil society’, in which the soft power of the West lies. The people who have been trained, including of course the women, have international contacts and experience in working with a very problematic government. The programmes in which they work are of vital importance: from health care, education and agriculture, to the much-needed construction of institutions such as a reliable police force, a legal system, water management, a land register… you name it.

The military presence has hampered all these efforts because they were unable to bring security. Continuation of those programmes is vital for the Taliban as well. Without functioning health care, without education (yes, even for girls) and without food, no country can be governed – let alone controlled. After three years of drought and conflict, Afghanistan is also facing the threat of a massive famine: Director David Beasley of the United Nations Food Programme says that 14 million people in Afghanistan – a third of the population – already have too little to eat.

The politics: We can think of a group of countries, a new ‘coalition of the willing’, that takes on a truly civilian mission – without the backing of the US, if need be. Whether this would be more dangerous than with this support remains to be seen, if we look at recent history. The alternative path is not new, and was clearly indicated by Paul Collier, an undisputed authority on interventions in fragile states. In his report “Escaping the Fragility Trap” (2018), he points out how the ‘case Afghanistan’ was a perfect example of the old-fashioned approach not working: “foreign troops keep the peace (or occupy the country); elections ‘solve the legitimacy problem’; and in exchange for aid, the new government agrees to a list of reforms desired by the donors.” Exactly, that has been tried, and has not worked.

A different and better approach, according to Collier, recognises the importance of national sovereignty. From the recognition of the central role of the national government, foreign countries stop using intimidation or bribery to negotiate an undesirable reform process. The local reality in the world’s poorest countries is leading, and not the imposed international ambitions that place the burden from ‘climate change’ to ‘gender equity’ on the weakest shoulder.

The practice: So if we seriously decide to ‘save what can be saved’, what might that look like? For example, start with a fully staffed (and stress-resistant) embassy in Kabul. They know that the Taliban is not interested in international influence or exporting their interpretation of Sharia. Returning to the situation before the Western invasion is not possible: apart from the possibilities of internet and social media, there is a new generation that has smelled the freedom and even the Taliban will probably not get that spirit back in the bottle. And also to survive as a very conservative Islamic country, the Taliban government has an interest in preventing isolation, because precisely isolation makes it easier for IS to further disrupt the already shaky relations between the different Taliban factions.

The contacts that are then established with the Afghan ministries and provinces offer the possibility to continue working on the basis of the results so far. The man- and womanpower needed for this are essential – and hence their position needs to be continued. If there is no cooperation at the central level, funding may be possible through the Hawala system, which also functions very efficiently outside banks. In Afghanistan, but also in Somalia for example, money is transferred in cash via reliable ‘hawala’. This is a system that works on trust – exactly what needs to be built up in Afghanistan, and has worked in this system for decades.

Trust is further built because in this way we show that we are not ‘leaving Afghanistan’ at all. We are not abandoning people, but trying to offer help that is asked for and that we will provide unarmed.

The demands that the Taliban will make – which we do not yet know – then provide the basis for a negotiation, and the longer that negotiation lasts, the greater the trust can become. In 1998-2001, we succeeded in training girls to become midwives, in making human and women’s rights negotiable in Shuras, by talking at length and not labelling each other’s positions as unobjectionable beforehand.

A new approach, a new attempt to win international trust: The example of the Hawala already indicates that we should not be shy of straying from the beaten track. Abandoning our own prejudices is not the same as abandoning ideals. Most women’s rights programmes, and not only in Afghanistan, get stuck in repeating slogans that we find politically correct, but are completely irrelevant to the people there. Human rights can be shouted from the rooftops in Afghanistan, and you can also introduce them from the bottom up – based on respect for other ideas, and certainly also making use of the different ideas about Afghan culture between Afghans (e.g. men and women). Structural changes are always possible, in any culture, but they can only come about if you take each other seriously.

Great results have been achieved by working together on the basis of respect for local realities. The reality of women is taken as seriously as that of men; that of leaders as seriously as that of farmers living in poverty. Instead of the accumulated buzzwords and ambitions of development cooperation, it will be a relief to work practically, on the basis of businesslike, targeted and contracted agreements. Without making crooked agreements about how to ensure ‘sustainability’ and gender equality in an inclusive way in a demand-driven programme that combines ‘local ownership’ with ‘capacity building’…

If we don’t want to leave the Afghan people, if we want to make up for what we and the international community have done in Afghanistan, then there are opportunities here. Let’s get to work!

Willem van de Put

Culture4change, Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp, former director HealthNet TPO

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