Qaiser on “Afghanistan: A Graveyard of Empires or an Afghan Cemetery?”

As Jonathan Powell, the architect of Northern Ireland peace accord had notably observed: “At the end we realized that peace was not an event but a process;” the reality has yet to dawn upon the Afghans. While proudly proclaiming their land as a “graveyard of empires,” little do Afghans realize that for centuries they have also been killing – and burying – their own kith-and-kin, owing to their internal discords, competing interests and a culture of revenge. Ethnic conflicts and tribal rivalries have not only kept Afghans dependent upon foreign powers, but their mutual acrimony and distrust keeps the peace prospects distant too. Afghanistan will never see a true peace unless Afghans reconcile among themselves and stop supplicating other countries.

Considering the inverse-proportionality of international parleys on Afghanistan to actual peace on ground, it seems everyone wants a negotiated settlement except the Afghans themselves. First of all, successive Afghan governments have remained an anomaly. From President Karzai’s ill-repute as ‘Mayor of Kabul’ to the ‘constitutionally-aberrant’ power-sharing deal between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, Kabul has remained a dismal spectacle of infighting, corruption and ineptitude, soliciting international aid for survival. Notwithstanding a (purposeless) High Peace Council – and an odd agreement with (vanquished) Gulbadin Hekmatyar, the notorious ‘Butcher of Kabul,’ who refuses to apologize for his war-crimes – it is amply clear that Afghan governments have been less-than-honest in holding meaningful dialogue with the Taliban to end bloodshed.

The Qatar talks were not only denounced, but stymied, by President Karzai in 2013. Likewise, the Murree process was shot-down by the Ghani government’s disingenuous disclosure of Mullah Omar’s death in 2015. Meanwhile, Daesh has established a foothold in the country and intensified the carnage. Unsurprisingly, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 3,498 civilians killed and 7,920 wounded in 2016. While the UN launched a humanitarian appeal for US$550 million, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has admitted that despite spending billions of dollars on security, the Afghan government “has lost territory to the insurgency.”

Documenting US mistakes the authors in Afghanistan: How the West Lost its Way record: “he US empowered a network of thugs and minor warlords to pursue a counterterrorist approach that itself fell victim to confused strategy, competing agendas and inflexible decision-making.” Commenting on the hopeless state of Afghan government, Foreign Policy’s senior fellow, Vanda Felbab-Brown, has recently noted Afghanistan’s “extensive predatory criminality, corruption, and power abuse … have facilitated the Taliban’s entrenchment.”

Afghanistan’s instability comes from three factors: First is Mr. Ghani’s obduracy, which hinders rapprochement with the Taliban, resulting in the incessant spillage of Afghan blood. Neither has he made any serious effort in reviving the Qatar talks or the Quadrilateral framework (involving the US, China and Pakistan); nor used his peace-agreement with Mr. Hekmatyar as a ‘template’ to incentivise the Taliban for reconciliation. Furthermore, Afghan government’s mala-fide lurks behind its lukewarm response on Russia’s offer to facilitate talks at the Moscow conclave on 14 April 2017.

Second is regional interference: neighbouring countries keep pursuing their interests in Afghanistan through their proxies among the Afghan leaders. The national unity government – with hardly any unanimity – provides a telling example. Pakistan backed (until recently) a Pashtun, Ghani, who tries to run the show in coalition with the India-supported (Tajik) Abdullah; Turkey and Uzbekistan support Abdul-Rashid Dostum (an Uzbek, who is currently on asylum in Turkey after allegedly torturing a political opponent); and Ismail Khan, another Tajik, supported by Iran. Even Mr. Karzai – who keeps interfering in the affairs of Ghani-government – calls India his second home. No wonder President Ghani sees the violence not as a civil-war, but an unannounced war among states. Ghani is right; all Afghanistan’s ethnic groups – including the Taliban – remain proxies of foreign powers. In his book Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity, Riaz Muhammad Khan records: “Afghan leaders all too often betray a disposition to exploit the competing interests of outside powers. In pursuing this game they lose sight of larger national interests. A pronounced trait of personal stubbornness also makes them disdain recourse to accommodation and reasonableness.”

Lastly, the political tussle and divergent outlook of Afghan leaders doesn’t allow peace to visit the country. In my last article (Afghanistan: Reinforcing Failure in a Lost Cause), I had forecast that Mr. Hekmatyar’s return after his peace agreement would further exacerbate the political fault-lines. He has already provoked President Ghani and Mr. Abdullah by questioning the legitimacy of the unity government and the Afghan constitution as well as by calling the Taliban “brothers.”

Afghanistan will remain an ‘obituary’ unless the country’s political fundamentals and its inherent discrepancies are fully recognized and/or addressed: 1) Intrinsic ethno-linguistic discords, mutual distrust and a culture of retribution; 2) A rentier mindset (leasing-out national sovereignty to foreign powers); 3) Tribal warlordism and weak central control over periphery areas; 4) War and crime-based economy particularly narcotics trade, and; 5) A largely rural-based, Islamic-moored, Sharia-adhered, orthodox society.

A Pashtun poet, Rehmat Shah Sayel (quoted by Abubaker Siddique in his book The Pashtuns) aptly portrays Afghan misfortune:


An imposed war in my homeland kills me over and over

Strangers reap its benefits, imposed by outsiders, it kills me over and over


My attire torn, my being shattered, I am being killed again and again

What a deadly skill, kills me with my own, I am being massacred over and over


Whether Peshawari or Kabuli, the Pashtun is a single spirit

One is my sweetheart, the other my beloved, I am being assassinated over and over


Our streets are coloured by my beloved blood, every day I watch them burn

The war is alien, the guns are foreign, I am being killed over and over


Oh peace loving people of the world, stop these warmongers

This is my doomsday, end of my world, I am being killed over and over


(How the Heart Fares on the Flames of Blood)


Afghanistan’s reality is thus: The Afghans have always slept with their enemy – and the enemy is them!


CDA Institute Security & Defence Blogger Adnan Qaiser with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy investigates continued Afghan instability in view of forthcoming renewed United States policy on Afghanistan.  He may be reached at:

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