Opinion – Afghanistan’s Bleak Options

Courtesy: TheMarkNews, Aug 17, 2009

by: Saeed Rahnema

Saeed Rahnema is a Professor of political science at York University and media commentator on the Middle East.

Travelling through Afghanistan in the mid-1970s – in every way a previous century – I was able to witness signs of development and the germination of some symbols of social change in a glaringly undeveloped society. This was when Davoud Khan had led a palace coup against his royal cousin, Zahir Shah in 1974, launching some gradual, though modest reforms. The radical communists soon toppled Davoud with the plan of bringing socialism to a backward feudal/tribal land. This was followed by superpower rivalries, the Soviet invasion, civil war, Mujahideen rule, anarchy, the birth of the Taliban, the U.S. invasion, and finally the installation of the present regime of Karzai-NATO. After nearly 40 years of unbelievable suffering and enduring misery, a female candidate for president, Shahla Atta, has pledged a return to the modernizing policies of Davoud Khan.

Ironically, the same female candidate is amongst those calling for negotiations with the Taliban to bring them back and help form a new government. Ms. Atta, who wants 20 per cent of her cabinet to be women, has gone so far as to call the Taliban her “sons.” She knows quite well that the Taliban and women do not mix in the public sphere. Hers is a desperate plea, in the hopes of ending the bloodshed and violence, even though it would mean living with the tragic consequences of the return to power of this most obscurantist reactionary force.

What better evidence of the failure of the policies of the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan than that this call for the return of the Taliban (at least the good Taliban!) is shared to different degrees by most of the forty or so candidates in the 2009 Afghanistan Presidential Elections. Even the NATO forces which invaded the country over seven years ago to free it from Taliban rule are all now pleading with them and other religious insurgent groups to enter negotiations and be part of the new government. Sensing the weakness of their opponents, the Taliban have set conditions, among them, the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces. They have called for the boycott of the elections (though so far unsuccessfully, as over 50 per cent of the population has registered to vote), and are threatening to shoot at voters.

None of the top candidates – the incumbent ethnic Pashtun President, Hamid Karzai; Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik medical doctor and former Minister of Foreign Affairs and a former Mujahideen/Northern Alliance fighter; and Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun academic and former Minister of Finance, and a World Bank officer – expect to win the majority in the first round, and are trying everything they can to form coalitions.

Karzai, despite being extremely unpopular for his ineffectiveness and rampant corruption, is the frontrunner and has tried to convince Ghani to join forces with him against Abdullah, offering him a new top executive position. Abdullah, for his part, running on a platform for change and a promise to end corruption, while having the backing of many ethnic groups, still needs the support of Ghani. (The two have been in negotiations.) Karzai has now invited both his opponents to join his new government.

Sadly, regardless of who allies with whom, and who wins in the first or second round of the Presidential elections, the complex puzzle of Afghanistan will not be solved for a long time to come. Democracy faces many major obstacles in a society like Afghanistan. Afghan intellectuals and social activists are fighting an uphill battle in a war-torn country under occupation, an impoverished tribal society torn by ethnic and religious rivalries, and ruled and influenced by warlords and drug lords allied with zealot clerics. It is the behind-the-scenes agreements and alliances formed by politicians and the tribal chieftains and religious leaders (none of whom can have any claim or respect for democracy) which will decide how tribal members and religious followers will cast their votes. This is how, for example, Karzai got the support of ethnic Hazaras by securing the support of their leaders, as Jon Boone writes in this week’s The Guardian Weekly, or how he gained the support of Ismaili Shias when their leader endorsed and welcomed him in an all-Ismaili rally. In the meantime, there are millions of unemployed and drug-addicted youth, many of whom are easy targets for recruitment by al-Qaeda and the foreign insurgency, and whose votes can also easily be bought.

The U.S.-NATO allies may misguidedly not be too worried about the nature of the post-insurgency regime in Afghanistan, so far as it does not instigate problems for them. But many Afghans, in particular the progressive forces and female activists, are understandably very worried. As a result of misguided policies, not only were the Taliban not defeated, but taking advantage of the failures of the Afghan government and NATO forces, they have successfully rebounded.

The dilemma is that without the Taliban joining the government, war and conflict will continue, while with the Taliban joining the government, all hopes for democracy and basic freedoms will have to be thrown out the window. Moreover, the problem is not limited to the Taliban, but also includes other regressive Islamist groups such as Hezb-e Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most vicious Mujahideen commanders, and a more recent ally of Bin-Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Inviting all these criminals, warlords, and drug lords who now dominate the lower House (Wolesi Jirga), to re-enter the political scene will inevitably shatter any hopes for “change” in Afghanistan.

Many sense that in Afghanistan change is in the air, but unfortunately it is change for the worse. The slogan of “Change,” which received global currency after Barack Obama’s victory, implies progress and improvement of social and political conditions. However, for many Afghans – particularly the educated middle class, youth, and women – “change” will mean regression. It is not for no reason that Forouzan Fana, the other woman Candidate in the 2009 Presidential elections, has come with the slogan of “Positive Change” (Tagyir-e mosbat).

Canada unfortunately involved itself in combat operations in a costly war that had nothing to do with the country in the first place. However, if the Canadian government is serious about “positive change” in Afghanistan, it should help the development of Afghan civil society, and focus on humanitarian and educational services for Afghans. Initiatives along the lines of those being championed by Flora MacDonald are far more worthy than the policies of the Harper government in Afghanistan.

Source – http://www.themarknews.com/articles/439-afghanistans-bleak-options

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