Cost of War

Twenty-five years af­ter the end of the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, Afghanistan has be­come ‘a strong na­tion but a weak state’.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Aj­mal Shams

The Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion left Afghanistan vul­ner­a­ble to re­gional and in­ter­na­tional ri­val­ries that con­tinue even to this day.

It has been al­most 25 years since the last soviet sol­dier left Afghanistan – the coun­try that is known as the grave­yard of em­pires. The oc­cu­pa­tion lasted for about nine years, leav­ing Afghanistan dev­as­tated and vul­ner­a­ble to re­gional and in­ter­na­tional ri­val­ries that con­tinue even to this day. The coun­try never fully re­cov­ered from that shock even de­spite a ro­bust in­ter­ven­tion of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that has pumped bil­lions of dol­lars into the coun­try’s econ­omy. But one should bear in mind that re­build­ing a coun­try that has suf­fered a civil war for decades is not all about phys­i­cal re-con­struc­tion. It is the state in­sti­tu­tions that must be built anew to en­hance the lo­cal ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb and uti­lize in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance.

The im­pact of Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion on Afghan so­ci­ety has been quite sig­nif­i­cant. Mil­lions of Afghans mi­grated to neigh­bor­ing Pak­istan and Iran while some mi­grated to western coun­tries. Ac­cord­ing to World Bank es­ti­mates, Afghanistan lost US$240 bil­lion in ru­ined in­fra­struc­ture and van­ished op­por­tu­ni­ties be­tween 1979 and 2001. One and a half mil­lion Afghans lost their lives, with hun­dreds of thou­sands be­com­ing phys­i­cally and men­tally dis­abled. The so­cial fab­ric of Afghan so­ci­ety was se­verely shat­tered. Con­tin­ued war and civil strife also caused deep di­vi­sions among Afghans along eth­nic and lin­guis­tic lines.

The 1979 oc­cu­pa­tion of Afghanistan by the for­mer Soviet Union was a long-cher­ished dream of the lat­ter as a part of its hege­monic

and strate­gic ob­jec­tives. How­ever, the war in Afghanistan proved un­fea­si­ble and costly for the Red Army due to the un­yield­ing re­sis­tance by free­domlov­ing Afghans. Their re­sis­tance was sup­ported – Mil­i­tar­ily, fi­nan­cially and po­lit­i­cally – by the en­tire western world, led by the U.S., as well as the Is­lamic and Arab world. The po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic isolation of the Soviet Union cou­pled with its de­te­ri­o­rat­ing econ­omy forced its lead­er­ship to view the Afghan war as a li­a­bil­ity rather than a na­tional strate­gic ef­fort.

Re­al­iz­ing that the war was both un­nec­es­sary and un­winnable, the Sovi­ets agreed to pull out as per the Geneva Ac­cords. The Afghan war con­trib­uted in a large part to the down­fall of the Soviet em­pire. Even af­ter the Soviet with­drawal, a civil war started in Afghanistan with the Com­mu­nist regime cling­ing to power. It even­tu­ally col­lapsed in the early 1990s but the ide­o­log­i­cally di­vided Afghan re­sis­tance had lit­tle or no vi­sion for the po­lit­i­cal fu­ture of the coun­try. A lack of po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus to­gether with an ex­ces­sive greed for power ham­pered all ef­forts by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to bring the di­vided op­po­si­tion on one ta­ble.

The rule of the Mu­jahideen was marred by an­ar­chy, mis­man­age­ment and op­pres­sion. The de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the state started and con­tin­ued well into the Tal­iban’s rule. It was also a pe­riod when eth­nic di­vi­sions be­came even deeper. The Pash­tuns, who rep­re­sented the largest eth­nic and lin­guis­tic group, were par­tic­u­larly marginal­ized. The Tal­iban’s as­cent to power was a di­rect re­sult of the an­ar­chic and cruel rule of the Mu­ja­hedeen whose un­stop­pable fight­ing cost thou­sands of in­no­cent lives.

The Tal­iban’s harsh rule was also not sus­tain­able by any means. The move­ment grad­u­ally lost what­ever pop­u­lar­ity it had gained in the be­gin­ning due to its ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive en­force­ment of Sharia and the in­abil­ity to achieve in­ter­na­tional cred­i­bil­ity. The Tal­iban’s re­fusal to hand over Osama bin Laden to the U.S. fur­ther in­ten­si­fied their in­ter­na­tional isolation. The tragic events of Septem­ber 11, 2001 proved to be the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin and led to their ul­ti­mate col­lapse.

Af­ter the over­throw of the Tal­iban govern­ment in late 2001, Hamid Karzai was cho­sen to lead Afghanistan through a broad in­ter­na­tional and na­tional con­sen­sus in Bonn. The cur­rent rul­ing coali­tion, which has been in power since early 2002, mainly com­prises Afghan ex­pa­tri­ates hav­ing strong po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions and those in­flu­en­tial in Mu­jahideen par­ties. Keep­ing the coun­try united and bridg­ing the deep di­vi­sions caused by decades of civil war and for­eign in­ter­fer­ence has been among the top pri­or­i­ties for Pres­i­dent Karzai.

In the pur­suit of his pol­icy of uni­fy­ing all eth­nic groups as one Afghan na­tion, Mr. Karzai seems to have, how­ever, gone a bit too far and has only marginal­ized the Pash­tun ma­jor­ity. While the on­go­ing in­sur­gency may not be a di­rect con­se­quence of an­tag­o­nis­tic Pash­tuns and is in­stead rooted in re­gional and in­ter­na­tional strate­gic po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ings, the per­cep­tion of the Pash­tuns be­ing un­fairly treated has cer­tainly con­trib­uted to fuel­ing the in­sur­gency.

One must be fair while mak­ing an as­sess­ment of where Afghanistan stands to­day since the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion ended al­most 25 years ago. The coun­try has un­der­gone tremen­dous changes ever since. The state ma­chin­ery was vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent when Karzai came to power. The in­sti­tu­tion of the Afghan Na­tional Se­cu­rity Forces (ANSF) had van­ished af­ter the col­lapse of Dr. Na­jibul­lah’s govern­ment in the early 1990s. Reestab­lish­ing the ANSF, par­tic­u­larly the Afghan Na­tional Army, has been a ma­jor achieve­ment of the Afghan govern­ment.

Yet, sus­tain­abil­ity of the ANSF with­out fi­nan­cial, mil­i­tary, tech­ni­cal and train­ing sup­port of NATO is a crit­i­cal chal­lenge for Kabul. So­cial and eco­nomic life has thrived, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the past decade. Afghanistan’s GDP steadily grew from $2 bil­lion in 2001 to around $20 bil­lion in 2012. In­ter­na­tional trade also in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly. The World Bank-sup­ported Na­tional Sol­i­dar­ity Pro­gram, en­vi­sioned by pres­i­den­tial fron­trun­ner Dr. Ashraf Ghani, has in­vested in ru­ral de­vel­op­ment, em­pow­er­ment of com­mu­ni­ties, in­crease in aware­ness and in­tro­duc­tion of a cul­ture of democ­racy in lo­cal gov­er­nance.

Some 50 tele­vi­sion and nearly 100 FM ra­dio chan­nels now broad­cast pro­grams in en­ter­tain­ment, news and other di­verse as­pects of Afghan so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural life across the coun­try. Thou­sands of clin­ics, hos­pi­tals and schools have been built serv­ing mil­lions of Afghans all across the coun­try though the qual­ity of health­care is be­low par and a large num­ber of Afghans travel to neigh­bor­ing Pak­istan and In­dia for treat­ment.

The qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion is equally dis­mal. Al­though thou­sands of Afghan stu­dents have been of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to study in Pak­istan, In­dia, the U.S., Ja­pan and other coun­tries in the re­gion and be­yond, the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion at the na­tional level has limited value in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket and may not meet the lo­cal mar­ket de­mands ei­ther. The pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion in­dus­try has grown tremen­dously af­ter the govern­ment eased reg­u­la­tions. How­ever, due to the prob­lem of sys­temic cor­rup­tion and lack of well-de­fined in­sti­tu­tional frame­work, the cost of pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion is no match to its lack of qual­ity.

Due to the com­plex­ity of po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics, in­volve­ment of de­vi­at­ing in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ests and the lack of in­tel­lec­tual cap­i­tal at the na­tional level, Afghanistan has been un­able to come up with an in­te­grated for­eign pol­icy frame­work to guide its ac­tions vis-à-vis. coun­tries within the re­gion or out­side. The fluid na­ture of this dy­namism has caused the sta­tus quo to sus­tain.

Af­ter 25 years, the coun­try stands at a cross­roads. It has come a long way, over­com­ing one cri­sis af­ter an­other. In the words of for­mer In­te­rior Min­is­ter Ali Ah­mad Jalali, Afghanistan has been a strong na­tion but a weak state. The Afghans are pre­par­ing to elect their new ruler in about three months. De­spite all the po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty and chal­lenges ahead, a wise and vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship can turn Afghanistan into a coun­try that is steadily pro­gress­ing to­wards peace, sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic growth, given its vast nat­u­ral re­sources and an emerg­ing hu­man cap­i­tal will­ing more than ever to rebuild the na­tion.

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