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