Afghanistan is widely recognized as a ‘failed state’ and a ‘graveyard of empires’. However what isn’t as well recognized is that it’s also a graveyard for its own people and record numbers have fled the mayhem there, both to neighboring countries as well as further afield. Therefore Alex Marshall and Tim Bird have done a creditable job in describing in 262 pages in their book ‘Afghanistan-How the West Lost its Way’, the tragedy that is Afghanistan today in all its nuances.
Whether we agree with the reasons that led to the ‘war on terror’ heralded by the onslaught on Afghanistan in 2001, we cannot but agree that the West has failed to achieve its objectives there. The reasons for this are what this book focuses on unlike for example Peter Marsden’s book on Afghanistan which traces the travails of the country from the perspective of the developmental effort through n.g.o.s there.
The most tangible reason for this failure to attain objectives in my opinion is that there has been a failure to militarily eliminate the Taliban which quite shrewdly has played a cat and mouse game with the forces sent out to eliminate it. Apart from that the partners in the so-called ‘war of terror’ have had their compulsions and are not geared for all types of combat endeavor. The support of immediate neighboring countries such as Pakistan has been dubious at best. Despite the avowed claims to be interested in peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been pursuing an undeclared fourteen years war in that country as one Afghan official put it recently. A convenient handle for this has been the ‘Pakthunistan issue’ which involves the historic claims of the Pathans to a unified homeland on both sides of the border, arguably resembling the Kurdish aspirations in the Middle East. Internally Western involvement in Afghanistan under American leadership has only served their local stooges from settling scores and fostered a culture of victimization and unending vendettas thereby. It has also created as this book states a whole category of ‘American warlords.’ This has thereby only perpetuated an ambience that began with the Soviet invasion of 1979 which fostered an inherent rebelliousness against established authority. True the PDPA may have been brutal in its methods as Peter Marsden has observed but it’s a moot point whether Afghanistan has been ruled in any other manner ever. Other than that there’s held to be a pervasive culture of corruption which has caused it to be described as a ‘rentier state’, dependent wholly on external goodwill.
I believe that there is no viable state structure there which can survive a single day without foreign sponsorship whether it is the present dispensation under Western tutelage or the Taliban under Pakistani sponsorship; they are all men who dance to the tune of others or that at least is how they are perceived and as we know in politics, three-fourths of the story is about perception.Thus the much touted ‘independence’ of the Afghans is a myth from a contemporary perspective as the ‘state’ to the extent that it exists is entirely dependent on foreign sponsorship for its functioning. Even the provision of basic services such as electricity depends on external help. For example as of 2008/09, Afghanistan was getting electricity through the electricity networks of its neighbors, Herat and western parts of the country from Iran and the eastern areas adjoining Pakistan were getting on a lesser scale electricity from that country. The rest of the developmental effort there was also being carried out by non governmental organizations in the same time period. The situation cannot have materially altered much since considering the parlous security scenario in the country and if anything has deteriorated to the extent that the country is believed to be awash now with terrorists, so much for the Western read American involvement acting as a stabilizing role in Afghanistan.
What is relevant about military interventions in Afghanistan is that foreign powers have failed to have a coherent exit policy and have consequently paid a high price. To do that in this country can only lead to disaster, akin to driving in the dark without headlights. All in all the scenario in Afghanistan today reminds me of the lyrics of the song ‘Hotel California’ which runs to the effect that you can check-out but never leave…