One wonders which is worse for a developing country with no economic or military muscle: to be consigned to the margins of global affairs, or to serve as a recurrent battleground of rival world powers.
Throughout its long and fabled history, Afghanistan had known that because of its strategic location in Central and South Asia, it would never be left alone to carve its own fate. Just next door are two powerful neighbors — the then Soviet Union and China.
Afghanistan’s problem is the same as that of the rest of the postcolonial world: how to ensure the development of its people while remaining the master of its own destiny.
In the 1960s, Afghanistan’s reformist rulers chose to make the country a beacon of Western modernity. Its capital Kabul became a center of higher education and modern culture. But its rural countryside remained impoverished and in the grip of traditional warlords, opium growers, and religious fundamentalists.
This period of relative serenity ended abruptly in April 1978, when a coup d’état installed a pro-communist government in Kabul. A year later, Soviet troops entered the country to repel what it saw as the growing threat from battle-hardened guerilla fighters known as the mujahideen.
The Soviet invasion sparked an insurgency that became a magnet for Islamic freedom fighters from other parts of the Islamic world. One of them was Osama bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy Arab family, who would later form the terrorist network known as al-Qaida. Sensing an opportunity to intervene, America entered the picture by covertly sending modern weapons and money to the mujahideen through Pakistan.
The Soviet occupation lasted 10 years. A million Afghan civilians lost their lives in this war. Many more fled to Pakistan and neighboring countries. Among these refugees were the mujahideen’s orphaned children who, under the care of Islamic preachers, grew up to become today’s Taliban. These “student-warriors” are the offspring of the US-Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan.
An uneasy period of calm followed the negotiated withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. The Afghan government they left behind kept order in Kabul and key cities for another three years, even as the mujahideen took full control of the provinces. In 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. As if on cue, two rival factions of the mujahideen turned against each other for control of Kabul, triggering a three-year civil war that killed 50,000 Afghans and reduced the modern capital of Kabul to rubble.
The civil war ended when younger Taliban fighters wrested control of the country from their warring elders. They ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, enforcing an extreme and brutal version of Islamic law that sought to erase all remaining traces of Western influence from the nation’s cultural landscape. In this, they found common cause with Bin Laden’s murderous long-term agenda against the United States and the West.
The Taliban partnership with al-Qaida, forged during the war against the Soviets, became the target of the American war machine soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America. The Taliban regime fell in less than three months, but the hunt for Bin Laden and the remaining Taliban became protracted. It drew America into an indefinite and costly military engagement from which, almost from day one, it had wanted to extricate itself.
There’s an oft-quoted Taliban saying that sums up the Afghan attitude toward the US occupation: “The Americans have the Rolex watches, but we have all the time.” As America poured billions of dollars into the effort to create an Afghan national army that could defend the country against the Taliban, the latter’s fighters played basically a waiting game.
That’s how America found itself sucked into a complex nation-building program that had no clear parameters. American taxpayers paid the salaries of what was supposed to be a 300,000-strong Afghan army that, in reality, counted many “ghost soldiers” in its ranks. They subsidized a puppet government, many of whose officials also served as private contractors of foreign-funded projects.
Despite these costly missteps, the American presence and the world’s attention bred a generation of young Afghan activists, mostly women, who became the antithesis of Taliban culture. It was to this generation that the Western-educated technocrat Ashraf Ghani appealed when he decided to run for president in 2014.
Ghani had served as finance minister in the interim government of Hamid Karzai but later quit to become the chancellor of Kabul University. An economic anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, he had been an academic and a development consultant for much of his professional life. He returned to Afghanistan in 2001 to help rebuild his country.
He formulated a clear plan that ripened into a book he published in 2008, ominously titled “Fixing Failed States.” In it, he wrote: “Citizen mobilization is essential to challenging corruption and bad governance.” He believed in participatory development and was as critical of arrogant international donor agencies as he was of corrupt Afghan political elites.
But, by the time Ghani became president, the US had already begun the withdrawal of its forces, and NATO had ended its 13-year combat mission. Inside the presidential palace, he cut a lonely figure, with no support from Afghan politicians or from the US. He was never known to be corrupt, but on Aug. 15 this year, as he fled from Kabul to escape the Taliban, an order was sent to arrest him for “raiding the treasury.”
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