Last week, the UK House of Commons defense select committee published a report which concluded that civil war in Afghanistan is likely when international forces leave next year. If the predictions of Securing the Future of Afghanistan are correct, the UK Foreign Office and the UK Ministry of Defence share much of the blame.
When I returned to Kabul in January and asked a US journalist I had known in 2001 his view of the situation, he said: “When you look at the facts on the ground, it is hard to believe that civil war is not inevitable.”
The facts on the ground include the militias the West has set up in the countryside in a desperate attempt to shore up the barely legitimate regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Sadly, these militias, plus the many Afghan private security companies, have contributed to a proliferation of armed groups that will be roaming the country after next year. Ironically, in the report, the Foreign Office acknowledges the need to disarm the Taliban, yet omits to mention the problems of re-arming these groups, presumably because they are “the good guys.”
What is so tragic is that back in 2001, the West did have the opportunity to assist Afghanistan on its path to peace. However, myopia, jealousy and score-settling took precedence over dealing with the political problems that had led to the arrival of the Taliban. Using the maxim “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” the US military took sides in a continuing civil war and co-opted the strongmen of the Northern Alliance. In theory, this was to reduce the need for American “boots on the ground.”
These regional chiefs, or warlords, were mostly brought back from exile. They were unpopular, having committed war crimes during the civil war. However, instead of sidelining them, the US and UK re-empowered them with cash and weapons and made them the allies’ sole reference points.
They still are, to the bemusement of ordinary Afghans, many of whom, particularly in rural areas, would have preferred a more genuine engagement with the more legitimate local leadership. Unfortunately, the use of strongmen to fight al-Qaeda and Taliban has led to chaos in rural areas and a further fragmentation of the tribal system that we should have worked with instead.
As an election monitor in 2002 when a transitional administration was convened to start the state-building process, I witnessed how the warlords were given political legitimacy. The then-US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sidelined the popular former king and made a Faustian bargain with the warlords to allow them into the meeting. This paved the way for them to hijack the state-building process.
The democratically elected Afghans were ignored. The press did not report this, perhaps because it did not fit the narrative of democracy and images of Afghan women putting ballots into boxes. However, it marked the end of any pretense that the international community had come here to deliver a “liberal peace” (encompassing democracy and human rights). So the strongmen returned to their fiefdoms empowered, while ordinary Afghans were cowed.
The result — extreme corruption, insecurity, inequality, poverty and violence — is what you see today: a crisis of impunity in Afghanistan.
Sadly, our complicity in this is all too often ignored and, instead, analysis centers around historical prejudices: “These Afghans have always fought one another.”
Increasingly, these criminal elements — often integrated into international organized networks — took ministerial or local government positions. They became the state. Which is why so much money has been poured in, but has been lost to corruption. It is why, however many courthouses the British build, or training we give the Afghan judiciary, there cannot be a properly functioning justice system because there is no impartiality. Because the power-brokers at the top, having evaded the law themselves, have no interest in strong institutions and a decent justice system.
There can never be true reconciliation in Afghan society until the past is dealt with and those who have committed crimes are made accountable.
By the start of 2001, a famous commander of the 1980s anti-Soviet war, the Pashtun Abdul Haq, had spent two years devising a peace plan aimed at toppling the Taliban. The former king was to be the glue to unify different groups, and Haq engaged Ahmed Shah Massoud — the Northern Alliance leader assassinated in 2001 — tribal leaders and Taliban within the regime’s military who were willing to defect. They had held meetings in Bonn and Istanbul. People were willing to work with him because of his history as a guerrilla leader and his record of bridging the ethnic divide. However, in London and Washington, his plan was dismissed.
Today, politicians are hoping that the “bad guy” Taliban will somehow reconcile with the western-backed regime of Karzai.
However, the reality is that the Taliban hardliners are controlled by Pakistan, while in Afghanistan many people continue supporting the Taliban because they know they will soon be back.
They have already filled a vacuum in providing justice and security in rural Afghanistan, where the government has been corrupt, incompetent or hampered by the US military strategy, which has bred insecurity and chaos.
In reality, the West is using the talks to give itself a chance both to get out of Afghanistan and to claim that the state is stable. For both reasons, Pakistan’s cooperation is needed, and Islamabad is driving a hard bargain with the US, even suggesting that Afghan military officers must be trained in Islamabad. In Kabul this year, several Afghans asked me: “Why is the UK appeasing Pakistan?”
Unfortunately, it looks like the need for a quick exit will mean the West caves in to Pakistan’s demands. At that stage, we will have gone full circle in Afghanistan since 2001, with Pakistan once again back in the driving seat and civil war the only realistic outlook.
Lucy Morgan Edwards is the author of The Afghan Solution: The inside story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and how Western hubris lost Afghanistan.