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Home > 2021 > Who Will Heal the Wounds of Afghanistan? | Bharat Dogra

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 36, New Delhi, August 21, 2021

Who Will Heal the Wounds of Afghanistan? | Bharat Dogra

Friday 20 August 2021, by Bharat Dogra

The Taliban have quickly received support from Pakistan and China , to some extent even from Iran and Russia, and apppear set to take control of Afghanistan with the recognition by at least about five or six countries to start with. In their first meeting with the press they have sought to partly reduce the widespread fears regarding their support for terrorist activities aimed at other countries and regarding their oppressive attitude towards women, particulrly professional women.
Only time will tell how reliable their assurances are.Even if they take a policy decision to be more moderate , the question remains about the behavior of the various terrorist groups to whom they have been allied in the past and who, having helped them in the march towards victory, will surely be expecting some sort of return of favors. Besides, what the Taliban claim to be moderate may not appear so to women and minorities. All in all, serious areas of concern certainly remain.

There are many perspectives for examining the situation of Afghanistan, but if you look from the perspective of ordinary men, women and children of Afghanistan, then the situation remains a deeply worrying one. Although the media attention is focused just now on Kabul and perhaps on a few other urban areas as well, of course on the whole many more people still live in villages away from media gaze and most of them are feeling very unsafe. This is particularly true of religious minorities and women. The internally displaced people , most of whom have migrated from villages to cities, particularly Kabul, are also now feeling very insecure. For those marked by of the Taliban as their opponents, of course the future is most risky and scary.

Strategists tend to think more of who will prevail, diplomats of the implications for various countries and power-blocks. But from the point of view of people their safety and the safety of the most loved ones is most important. The risks and difficulties are all the more high in times of a pandemic, and in times of adverse weather conditions. Let us also not forget that most of these people have been suffering almost endlessly from various terrible cycles of violence for over four decades know, with only very brief and uncertain respites for short durations.

Keeping in view so many reports of violence, there is often a tendency to think of the people here as being excessively prone to violence. So it is important to remember that one of the world’s most inspiring movements for peace involved the Pashtun community, which also happens to be the majority community of Afghanistan. It was led by Badshah Khan, and earned the highest praise from Mahatma Gandhi who visited the villages and towns of the movement almost as a pilgrimage site.

Let us also remember that from from 1933 to 1973, when Zahir Shah was the king for 40 long years, Afghanistan had a long period of peace and stability, enjoying friendship of almost all leading countries without getting attached to any particular group.

It is only when the country was dragged into big power rivalries ( entirely due to international circumstances over which the ordinary Afghan people had no control, and in fact much against their wishes) that the endless cycle of violence and sufferings began. If the big power rivalries had not touched this country, it would probably be recognized today more as the land of the world’s best pomegranates and grapes, of wonderful hospitality and the most fabulous landscapes.

Why and how coups and counter-coups started after 1973 and what were the larger forces at work is a complex question, what is beyond doubt is that in 1979 the Soviet Union army unnecessarily and foolishly complicated the situation further by sending in its army, a destructive as well as suicidal course of action that could have been definitely avoided.

This intervention was supposed to last for one year but lasted for nine, and it was during this period that the USA’s CIA and Pakistan’s ISI collaborated, with massive money from Saudi Arabia and some support from China, to collect sectarian, fanatic militants from many parts of the world for fighting against the Soviet army and the local regime supported by it.

During this period in a country of about 32 million people, one to two million died and 6 million were displaced, countless others were injured and disabled, pushed into poverty or sucked into addictions. In additions from a small time producer of opium Afghanistan was turned to the biggest supplier of heroin in the world drug market, as Pakistan and the western countries turned a blind eye to the fanatic militants depending more and more on narcotics to finance their militancy and personal wealth . The enormous money in this illegal trade has since become the most prevalent form of financing militants and warlords.

After the Soviet army left, instability and violence of warlords continued. Then came the Taliban, mostly young men trained since childhood in fanaticism, sectarianism, war and weapons, not exposed to anything else. As children they had suffered much deprivation and violence themselves, and so were trapped more easily in such a narrow outlook. As they were trained under the watchful eyes of Pakistani authorities for their selfish pursuits, western countries had simply looked on.

They went around capturing parts of Afghanistan, then forming their own regime, unleashing the most cruel violence and repression, implementing fanatic agenda, coming down most harshly on educated and professional women as well as on minorities. The civil strife and repression following the Soviet withdrawal caused perhaps around half a million more deaths.

The horrible September 11 attack in the USA brought the army of the USA and its allies to the Afghanistan, leading to the ousting of the Taliban regime, in conditions overall of goodwill and support of people for the USA and the international community, with rare unanimous support of the UN Security Council as well.

This was a great chance to rebuild the country on lines of peace and harmony, which would be the best guarantee for keeping away the forces of terrorism and hatred as well. But the USA squandered the chance and in fact never had the focus needed for this, getting badly distracted by its entirely avoidable, unethical and disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Pakistan again played a very negative role in sheltering the Taliban till conditions again became conducive for its return. As lack of focus and proper priorities led to the re-emergence of the Taliban and other sectarian militants, fuelled as before by opium money and covert Pakistani assistance, violent clashes went on escalating. As the Taliban’s capacity to strike increased, the USA lost the will to stay on.

They first made a pretence of a more principled withdrawal, with pledges of various steps for ensuring security after they leave, but gradually kept yielding ground in their non- transparent negotiations with the Taliban. Ultimately, what did these negotiations achieve in terms of a more secure future for the people of Afghanistan. Absolutely nothing, as became evident even before the departure had been completed.

It appeared from several highly unfortunate violent incidents in the course of the Taliban advance that the cruelty of the violence inflicted by the most fanatic forces (whether the Taliban or the other militant groups allied to them) had by no means reduced. As before these fanatic militant forces have been very aggressive towards anyone they perceive to be their opponents or in disagreement more openly with their very narrow views, towards some minorities and towards educated professional women, even girl students.

Analysts may blame terrorists and Pakistan, the Soviets and the USA, for this unending violence, but at the end of it the biggest factor is the fact that various actors have merely pursued their narrow selfish interests, as understood by them, and often even this narrow understanding has been very misinformed. None of them can even pretend to be guided by any deep and sustained commitment to peace, or to the welfare of Afghan people. The western countries sometimes say that they are keen at least to protect the rights of women. But who committed the worst atrocities on professional women and violated their rights in Afghanistan? The various fanatic groups, of course. And who assembled the fanatics from all over the world to this land? The USA and its allies with the help of Pakistan. Who created the Taliban? Pakistan, with the West turning a blind eye and hence extending at least indirect support.

Preparing to Meet Humanitarian Crisis

Today there are also very serious humanitarian concerns. The situation we see today is one of widespread distress emerging from attacks of various militant organizations for several years as well as indiscriminate US bombings which often harmed, perhaps unintentionally, civilian targets as well. In the earlier Taliban regime not only were working women attacked and humiliated, even hospitals for women and maternity services had suffered. Subsequently, the large-scale USA bombings caused a lot of civilian damage from time to time. In one of the worst such incidents, for which Presient Obama later apologized, in 2013 a hospital run by the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (DWB) was bombed by the US Air Force in Kurdoz , leading to 42 persons killed and 30 injured. The hospital was treating soldiers from both sides ( including the Taliban) as well as civilians, in keeping with the principle of refusing medical care to no one. The compensatory payment announced later by the USA to the dead and the injured was also not considered generally to be adequate.
More recently, on May 12 2020 another hospital and maternity centre of DBW in Dasht-e-Birchi, Kabul, was attacked, this time by fanatics, killing 24, injuring 20. Speaking of the 4-hour morning attack, a DWB report said this amounted to killing mothers in cold blood. A senior DBW official who later visited the site spoke about “ systematic shooting of mothers…They went through the rooms in the maternity, shooting women in their beds.” Women with unborn children were among those killed. Can anything be more tragic? Perhaps an even more recent attack on a school.

Even more recently, in a happy mood of children leaving for home at a girls school in Kabul, with teenage students crowding near the exit points, terrorists exploded their bombs. Over 70 persons, most of them girl students, died a very painful death, while nearly double this number were injured. This attack on schoolgirls on May 8 2021 also took place in Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul. This was preceded by several violent attacks on soft targets in the same area, including places relating to sports, cultural activities and education.

A comparison of the violence in the first 3 months of 2021 revealed a significant rise in civilian victims compared to the same period of the previous year. Moreover the specific targeting of areas like Dasht-e-Barchi is of significance as this area is inhabited predominantly by Shia Hazaras. Both in terms of ethnicity and religion they are minorities in a country where an overwhelming majority of the population consists of Sunni Muslims. The Hazaras who number about 9 per cent of the population have faced a lot of violence at the hands of terrorists and fanatic/sectarian militant organizations in the past.

Another important aspect of the recent school bomb attack is that specifically girl students were targeted. There have been other cases of forward-looking, educated, professional women being specifically targeted by sectarian militant organizations. The killing of some women TV professionals in recent times has been widely condemned.
Earlier women in Afghanistan had enjoyed a fair degree of freedom, several of them served also as distinguished university professors, in leading roles in international organizations, as doctors and officials, but the years of Taliban rule witnessed a big setback for women . Future prospects remain highly worrying.

There is therefore a very clear need for protecting human rights of the most vulnerable groups in Afghanistan, identified on the basis of gender, religion, ethnicity etc. but the road ahead is full of many uncertainties. This much is clear that preparation at world level for such protection should start without further delay. A strong peace movement at world level is really needed, committed to meeting the special needs of conflict zones such as those in Afghanistan.

There is also the complicated question of how the high dependence on opium related (cultivation, carrying, processing) earnings can be reduced , while at the same time more proper livelihoods can be steadied and improved. This is important also for breaking the cycle of violence, crime and addictions. Arms control and reductions of all weapons in a society which has suffered much from weapons are very important tasks, although not easy at all.

What no one can ignore is the provision of basic needs like food and water. Over the years these basic needs have been becoming more difficult to access in several parts of country, and both floods and droughts have been more intense at times. As disasters worsen in times of climate change, environment protection needs more urgent attention.

Although these issues are easily pushed aside by conflict stories in media coverage, these remain integral to the welfare of people. Small-scale irrigation and water conservation schemes are very important for remote villages, but such obvious priorities have actually suffered from increasing neglect. Even if foreign aid is stepped up to make adequate allocations for such development priorities, without basic safety in place such development work is unlikely to be implemented. In fact the commitment of many donors has been actually decreasing and is likely to decrease even more now.

So the challenge ahead is not just of keeping in check forces of violent fanaticism but also of ensuring supplies of basic needs and reviving sustainable livelihoods, as well as protecting basic rights of women , minorities and all those who do not agree with narrow, fanatic versions of faith. The various powers who hold big conferences on the future of Afghan need to bring these issues of greatest concern of ordinary people to the centre-stage. International humanitarian and justice organizations, particularly those committed to gender and minority concerns, peace and human rights, obviously have an important role, as do all peace movements and organizations. People of Afghanistan need the help, sympathy and continuing engagements of all those who are committed to peace, justice and a safer future for our troubled world.

(The writer, a journalist and author, is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth For Children and Planet in Peril.)

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