Afghanistan and the lessons of history

Afghanistan’s being unmanageable is creating problems not only for the region, but also the whole world. Pakistan is the first victim. War and destruction have been creeping slowly from Afghanistan into Pakistan and have been undermining Pakistan’s economy and civic life

In the context of Afghanistan, the point is made that invaders are always defeated by the locals. However, there is hardly anyone who calculates the cost of the victory in human terms. In recent history, the decade of the Soviet-Afghan conflict (1979 to 1989) consumed the lives of about one million Afghans. One million is no small figure. Owing to the conflict, about six million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran to save their lives. Most of them (who were women, children and elders) spent miserable lives in refugee camps outside the cities. The ensuing civil war (1992 to 1996) took its own human toll. Thousands of Afghans have migrated to Europe, the US and Australia. The cost of victory in economic terms is incalculable. The country has been left with no significant industry and no substantial agriculture for sustenance.
In the past, an invader might have faced problems in conquering Afghanistan. However, for a modern day invader, Afghanistan is conquerable — even if not manageable owing to the economic cost. Whether being unmanageable (or ungovernable) is a strength of Afghanistan or its weakness is another matter. After the conquest, if an invader decides not to consolidate its hold on the whole of Afghanistan and instead decides to abandon Afghanistan, where does the point of victory lie for the locals? Being unmanageable is in fact the bane of Afghanistan’s existence. Another question is this: why should a foreign power spend its money to manage the affairs of Afghanistan? If the Afghans themselves do not respect management and order, why should an invader do the job for them? Afghanistan’s being unmanageable is creating problems not only for the region, but also the whole world. Pakistan is the first victim. War and destruction have been creeping slowly from Afghanistan into Pakistan and have been undermining Pakistan’s economy and civic life. The illiterate, gun-loving segment now thinks that by raising slogans in the name of Islam, there is a legitimate way to take control of Pakistan: first make Pakistan unmanageable and then offer a solution other than the constitution.
The point here is that Pakistan left the areas bordering Afghanistan unmanageable — that is, out of the influence of the constitution, which introduces rules and order. Many people, if not all, inhabiting those areas may think that their strength lies in being unmanageable (or ungovernable) or that they should be managed in a manner of their choosing but not in the way the rest of the country is being managed. The insistence on freedom to live in their own way, contrary to or different from that of the mainstream, is now challenging the constitution of the state. Interestingly, the state is being advised to mend its ways or be ready for chastisement. In return, the state is persuading them to respect the constitution. If the state had made the presence of the constitution felt in those areas before, no one would have shown any disrespect to the constitution now. If the people of an area have not heard of the word ‘constitution’ and have not yielded any benefit from it for decades, how can they be made to understand the significance of this document now through dialogue? It is too late to reverse the tide of indifference and apathy towards the constitution. Perhaps there was wisdom in devising a common policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (called the Af-Pak policy), which considered the border area of Pakistan a part of Afghanistan for the purposes of the implementation of that policy.
In recent history, one finds a clue to Afghanistan in the fact that, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the government of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah survived for three years (1989 to 1992) owing to the financial help provided by Moscow. There was no residual force left behind by the Soviet Union to protect the Kabul government. The arrangement for the protection of Kabul was local and stakeholders were involved to keep the Kabul government alive. However, the moment the financial lifeline died, the government in Kabul fell to the next contender, the Taliban, in 1996. This means that the collapse of the government in Kabul originated from outside Afghanistan and not from inside. It also means that a Kabul government can survive for more than three years if a financial lifeline sustains its supply. Nevertheless, the stability of Afghanistan would be reinforced if a residual force is left behind to protect it.
We should also ask: is there no difference between an archaic trespasser and a modern day military invader? Over the years, military technology has undergone a drastic change. US stinger missiles helped Afghans shoot down Soviet gunship helicopters. That was a turning point in the war. Similarly, while time may have been in favour of Afghan warriors once, in this age things are different. Afghanistan still has no defence industry to produce weapons to fight a modern war. The next question is simple: is guerrilla warfare a substitute for modern weaponry? The answer is in the negative. The missile-laden drone is a new answer in this regard. The forthcoming withdrawal of US-NATO forces is being seen in the context of ‘defeat’, that is, US-NATO forces were unsuccessful in meeting their objectives. However, why is it mandatory for an invader to consolidate its conquest according to the ideals of the locals?
In this age, one thing is obvious: Afghanistan cannot stop the entry of an invader. In other words, Afghanistan remains a land vulnerable to attack by one invader or another. Secondly, it is the cost of war that is the prime reason for an invader not to consolidate its hold on Afghanistan. The question is this: are the people of Afghanistan keen to invite one invader after another, and bear the consequences in human and material terms? The people of Afghanistan should think about this.

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Aaj Kal